Bill Gates: The Great Communicator?

Microsoft MSFT co-founder Bill Gates, who is considered a brilliant technologist and a leading philanthropist, has not been known for his public speaking skills. His Microsoft presentations were largely filled with mind-numbing statistics, highly technical jargon, and busy PowerPoint slides. Well, something has changed.

In early February,'s Innovation Channel editor, Helen Walters, blogged from TED, a prestigious annual conference where luminaries from all walks of life discuss ideas in the area of technology, entertainment, and design.

Walters noted that during his presentation, Gates released mosquitoes into the audience. But Gates' presentation on world health and educational problems was arresting for other reasons as well. It was passionate, concise (20 minutes), interesting, humorous, and engaging—everything that is desired in a speaker. Here's what you can learn from Gates about giving a memorable presentation.

Provide your agenda verbally. There's no need to include a long agenda slide, as your listeners can only hold two or three chunks of information at once in their short-term memories. Gates said that although there were a number of big problems around the world, he would focus only on two: "How do you stop a deadly disease that's spread by mosquitoes?" and "How do you make a great teacher?"

Keep your slides simple and visual. When Gates introduced the first question, his slide simply showed the numeral 1. Most speakers cram far too much information on each slide, but Gates' slides were remarkably simple. In fact, photographs made up the majority of his slides. When he spoke about his work with Warren Buffett, the audience saw a photo of Gates and Buffett. When he talked about malaria, the audience saw a photo of poor people in villages. In one close-up, a man's arm was covered with mosquitoes. Visuals reinforce your message far more effectively than words on a slide.

Surprise your audience. A mediocre presenter would have shown slide after slide of statistics and left it at that. Gates shocked his audience by actually opening a jar of mosquitoes. "Malaria, of course, is transmitted by mosquitoes," he said. "I brought some here so you can experience this. I'll let these roam around the auditorium. There's no reason why only poor people should have the experience!" Gates then made it clear that the mosquitoes were not infected, but the stunt grabbed the attention of his listeners. The audience was relatively quiet at first, then some laughs, followed by applause. Gates had drawn the audience into the conversation and they knew it.

Put statistics into context. Gates did not bombard the audience with numbers. He chose several statistics and put the numbers into context. For example, he said he was "stunned" to learn that 30% of kids in the U.S. do not finish high school. For minorities, the numbers are even more troubling—more than 50%. "If you're low-income in the United States, you have a higher chance of going to jail than getting a four year degree," Gates said. Statistics without context are often hard to remember. In this case, context made the numbers more startling.

Use humor. Gates carefully injected humor into a discussion of malaria and death. "Because the disease is only in the poor countries, it doesn't get much investment," Gates said. "For example, there is more money put into baldness drugs than are put in to malaria. Now, baldness is a terrible thing and rich men are afflicted, which is why the priority has been set." This line elicited a laugh from the audience, but it also served to reinforce Gates' message—more funding, resources, and expertise must be focused on addressing this problem if we hope to reduce childhood deaths.

Inspire people with what's possible. Gates began his presentation by announcing, "I am an optimist…. Any tough problem can be solved." As an example, he talked about the decline in childhood deaths. In 1960, he said, 110 million babies were born, and 20 million died before age 5. As of five years ago, the death rate had been cut in half even though far more children had been born. "Each life matters a lot," said Gates.

According to Gates, the next breakthrough is to cut the death rate in half again, something that he believes is "doable well within the next 20 years." By using history as a guide, Gates demonstrated that change was possible and painted an optimistic picture of how, with enough money and smart people working on the problems, the world could be a better place.

I believe Gates' presentation style has evolved as he reaches for a broader audience. He said that only by getting people to care would he be able to draw in the governments, scientists, communicators, and experts necessary to strive for solutions to the very challenging problems he is addressing. Gates realizes that selling ideas requires more than facts and figures: A presentation must be engaging and memorable in order to get people to take action.

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