The Presentation Secrets of Bill Gates
The presentation ‘secrets’ and techniques of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have been compared for years. The comparison is clear – former business partners and the respective heads of competing companies, Gates and Jobs are pitted against each other often. One of the first to make this comparison about their presentation techniques specifically was Garr Reynolds in 2005: Gates, Jobs & the Zen aesthetic, but many others have followed his lead since.
More often that not, the loser always seems to be Bill Gates – critics claimed his slides were too cluttered, his manner too stilted, and his presentations were forgotten next to Jobs’, which were conducted with a more ‘zen’ approach. This of course led to Carmine Gallo’s widely acclaimed book, The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. Yet Bill Gates and PowerPoint deserve their fair share of praise too, and audiences are beginning to recognise this.
Gates’ talk at TED this year has been greatly acclaimed – watch the video on the TED website. Here we look at the things he does right – particularly the things that highlight Bill Gates’ own personal style.
As has been noted by many, Gates’ visual aids are greatly improved this year. Rather than the complicated slides we have seen previously, Gates has taken a step towards simpler photographs and diagrams. He now uses images to illustrate his points, rather than text and bullet points. This eliminates the risk of the audience disengaging by reading from the slides as he speaks. While m62 wouldn’t normally recommend using photographs of the human face (they can be very distracting), in this case it works, evoking a sense of urgency in the audience to work for this charity.
We also see Gates using clear, simple graphs to illustrate his points. The slides are designed so that they don’t distract by having over-complicated graphs with too many numbers, or too much going on. They demonstrate the data effectively, and allow the audience to quickly gain an understanding of the figures.
Going over and above static images, Gates uses animation in his slides for explanation and emphasis. For example, he uses animation to show how the Traveling Wave Reactor works. The diagram and the graph progress together as he explains, demonstrating what is happening scientifically. His slides also use colour changes to emphasise important points, and to demonstrate to the audience where they are in the presentation. These animations help to make things clearer for the audience.
And, it wouldn’t be a Bill Gates presentation without the use of some ‘interesting’ props. In this case, he released fireflies into the audience to demonstrate energy, and to remind the audience of his stunt with the mosquitoes last year. This tactic keeps audiences engaged and interested – ensuring that they will remember. Bill Gates is a spokesperson for the fact that visual aids don’t have to be just slides.
Manner and Language
Gates’ manner is confident and relaxed. He uses natural gestures and a comfortable tone of voice, demonstrating that he knows his subject area whilst putting the audience at ease. Acting too stagey would look forced, and betray a presenter not fully prepared. Gates look easy, and the audience responds to this.
Gates makes a couple of light-hearted jokes, but does not aim to be a stand-up comedian. It can be difficult to make jokes in a presentation, as audiences vary, and a failed joke can result in an unpleasant atmosphere. Being comfortable enough to do this without taking the joking too far is a difficult balance to strike, but Gates does it easily.
He also manages to interact smoothly with his slides, speaking comfortably as they change behind him. He works with his slides, rather than taking his cues from them. This smooth demeanour shows that he has really practiced his presentation, and knows it well enough to know what changes will be made to his visual aids, and when.
Gates uses positive, affirmative vocabulary, such as “we need” and “we must”. This strikes a sense of urgency in the audience, and is much more convincing and persuasive than using weaker language.
He also manages to keep his presentation simple. With complicated scientific subject matter, it can be difficult to ensure that the audience stay on track. Gates uses clear, uncomplicated vocabulary, and explains complex and unfamiliar topics in a way that is easy to understand.
Content and Structure
The crux of his audience – the need to get carbon emissions to zero – is positioned at 3 and a half minutes. This is around the optimum time to deliver the most important argument, or value proposition, as audience attention levels are at the highest between 3 and 5 minutes.
Gates has clearly done his research and explains his evidence, justifying each point he makes. He is careful not to just make claims, and reveals where he has found each piece of information. This is important, as the audience will not believe anything that cannot be proved. Yet he still manages to keep the data interesting, by using emotion to keep the audience engaged.
Gates finishes by returning to his main argument – the need to reduce emissions to zero. This is a great idea as it will ensure that the main point lingers in the mind of the audience, and it also repeats the value proposition, thus further ensuring that it is completely embedded in the audience’s minds.
Bill Gates has enough background knowledge of his topic that he is able to answer the questions asked clearly and accurately. It is important to prepare for any type of question, and to have the details if necessary.
He also avoids the defensive stance many presenters take in question and answer sessions, but neither does he relax too much. Gates stays in presenter mode when answering questions – maintaining eye contact with the questioner, but still gesturing and projecting his voice and answer to the audience.
Gates doesn’t steamroll ahead on his theory, but admits when there may be a problem. In this case, he acknowledges that there is a chance his theory might not work. Particularly brilliant is his answer to the sceptics – that if nothing else, this theory will present cheaper options to the industry!
And above all, Gates uses his answers to drive home the benefits. Even in the questions about sceptics, he manages to point out the benefits for them. Every presenter should use question and answer sessions to link back to the value proposition, and Gates takes full advantage of this technique here.
How could he improve?
While Gates’ visual aids are much improved, he could still move away from using static images entirely, to more engaging diagrams. Images do not always demonstrate the point at hand, and can actually make it difficult for the presenter to keep the audience’s focus on himself.
More animation could be used to draw the audience’s attention to the right things at the right time. Often, his slides are put up fully formed: he could have them build as he talks about each point, ensuring that the audience are not overwhelmed with too much information. Slides that build really help to keep the audience engaged, particularly when the presenter is explaining something complicated. Using this technique more often would improve Gates’ presentations further.
Gates could reduce the text on his slides further, as he still uses full sentences here and there. When there is a lot of text on screen, there is a danger that the audience will read this instead of listening to him speak, and thus disengage. In order to maintain maximum audience attention, Gates should keep text to a minimum on his slides.
Gates’ presentation secret is that a presenter does not have to be born with the ability to make a presentation perfect. Yes, some people may have a natural skill in the area that others do not, but that is not the only – or even the most important – requirement. It is completely possible to go from being a mediocre presenter to being a good one, with better slides and hard work.
Bill Gates’ presentation skills have always been good, but the improvement in his visuals this year has really highlighted these. While using diagrams and animation more could really make his slides stand out even further, Gates’ enthusiasm and his relaxed but informative manner make for a great presentation.
Bill Gates vs. Steve Jobs? We’re team Bill.
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Lori Halsinger, Principal at Mercer
“Okay – just finished my review of all of the slides and all I can say is WOW! REALLY IMPRESSIVE! I can’t get over how wonderful these slides are. I have delivered a lot of performance management training over the years and I can say that this is certain to draw the audience in – in a totally new way. I can see why we are using m62 for our December training as well! Thank you again. You have made this a great and easy experience.”