Is The Richest Man in the World Funny? A Lesson In Public Speaking

Bill Gates was speaking in Las Vegas tonight, January 7, and I had a ticket.  Arriving almost four hours early guaranteed me a seat about 100 yards from the speaking platform.  Thank goodness for big-screen projection.  The crowd and the lines were something like a Rolling Stones concert.  Except there were more geeks.  About an hour from the start of the program I doubted they’d be able to get everyone into their seats…but magically they did.  And the speech started pretty much on time.

As the time for the keynote presentation of the 40th Anniversary Consumer Electronic Show approached, I wondered how much humor, if any, Bill Gates would use.  I expected that he would use humor in some way to open his talk.  As I watched him speak it was obvious that, although brilliant, he is not a comedian.  But he does have a very good sense of humor.  Remember that a sense of humor is more than just telling jokes.  The strength of his delivery is in his casual and connected style.  He steps out from the lectern.  No barriers between him and the huge audience.  He was casually dressed.  No coat.  No tie.  Open-collar dress shirt.

If you’re not a comic, opening a speech with humor, or more specifically jokes, can be risky.  Also, there is additional risk when the audience is more diverse than cohesive, coming from a variety of backgrounds and not really knowing other members of the audience.  Humor often depends on a certain degree of common experience.  In addition, as the opening keynoter, there was little chance to use a situational or observational piece of humor.  About the only common experience of the group was waiting together in one line, then moving to another line, then another…before entering the hall.  Because of those considerations, using humor to open the talk was a challenge.

Here’s how he handled it.  He had a 3-4 minute video which was used to introduce him.  A perfect choice.  The video was the vehicle for carrying his opening humor.  It had clips from previous keynotes, talk show interviews, bloopers, dancing, goofing around…all designed to gently poke fun at him while also humanizing him.  He didn’t need a big credibility-building introduction, as he is already a legend.  The humorous, fun-style introduction video was ideal.  It helped the audience to relax and to realize that he is more like us than he is different from us (if we don’t compare bank accounts).

As he took the stage following the video, he opened with two light jokes which got some laughs.  He kept the flow and energy of the talk moving with video clips and alternating other speakers from the Microsoft staff.  Within the body of his talk there was additional humor designed to poke fun at himself and the Microsoft founders.  In all about 6 or 7 laughs during the talk.  Enough to add a light-hearted touch to an otherwise somewhat-techno talk.

It was a successful keynote, his 10th for CES, sharing exciting innovations we’ll see in 2007.  He held the attention of the audience throughout.  He didn’t take himself too seriously.  He connected.  We liked him.  It was obvious to me that Bill Gates IS a man with a good sense of humor.  Well done.