The Richest Man Speaks — Humor and Public Speaking

Bill Gates spoke in Las Vegas on January 7. I wrote a post immediately after the speech. Here’s an update of my thoughts a month later.

Before his speech started, I expected that his talk would open with humor. As I watched him speak it was obvious that, although brilliant, he is not a comedian. In fact his use of humor from the platform was minimal, but he made it obvious to me that he does have a good sense of humor. Remember that a sense of humor is more than just telling jokes. And even in a speech that is far from an-award-winning example of humor from the platform, there are some good lessons to be learned.

If you’re not a funny person, opening a speech with humor, or more specifically jokes, can be risky. Additionally, this CES keynote speech posed three more risks.

First, the audience was 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, which was pretty much lacking at this event.

Also, 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.

Add to those challenges, the size of the audience and the hall were far from ideal for presenting humor.

So using humor to open the speech was a quadruple challenge for Bill Gates. 1. Not a funny speaker. 2. Non-cohesive audience. 3. The opening speech of the event. 4. Huge room and audience.

Here’s how he handled it. He had a 3-4 minute video slide-show which introduced him. An excellent choice. The video was the vehicle for carrying his opening humor. It had clips from previous keynotes, repetitive phrases, 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 perfect. Although the slide show was not knee-slapping humor, it was the funniest part of the talk and helped convey that he was a real person. From watching it, we knew that he is more like us than he is different from us (if we don’t compare bank accounts). And it was much more effective than a traditional written introduction.

During his 70 minutes on the platform, he had maybe 6-7 light laugh lines. Comedy coach Jim Richardson would refer to them as “titters” to distinguish them from solid laughs. He poked fun at himself and other Microsoft founders adding just a bit of a light touch to an otherwise mostly-techno talk. A humor and presentations coach would definitely recommend more humor in a talk of that length.

The keynote speech was posted online, but the humor-value of the speech is almost totally missing from the video link. First, the introductory slide show segment was not posted. It appears that they posted a music-video commercial which I don’t remember seeing at the live event (or if I saw it, it wasn’t memorable). The actual introduction video slide show is not provided on the internet link. Secondly, since the audience had no microphone, and also because the laughs were small, most of the audience response to the humor was not picked up on the recording, making it appear that the laugh lines were falling totally flat, when in fact that was not the case.  He opened with a joke about his keynote two years in the future being about infectious diseases, referring to his philanthropic work.  It got a laugh but the response was almost totally missing from the video recording.

Bill Gates is definitely not a powerful, dynamic or funny speaker. But in my opinion he IS a connected speaker.  The opening slide-show to introduce him was a great choice. And it was obvious that throughout the talk the audience was quiet and listened. In a huge room, maybe 4000 people, there was no significant distracted chatter. He didn’t take himself too seriously. The audience respected him and liked him. And I knew that he had a sense of humor…in spite of not being particularly funny.

Lessons learned:

1. If you’re not especially funny and you’re preparing a speech, get help. I’m certain Bill Gates had help with the opening video.

2. If you’re the opening speaker, tune in to your surroundings, the audience experience before the speech, opening comments before you’re introduced. Look for a chance to use observational humor.

3. Don’t try to be too funny if you are not. Be yourself and the audience will like you.

4. Poke fun at yourself. It makes you human.

5. If you’re recording the talk on video, remember to have a microphone on the audience.

6. Remember that being good at using humor doesn’t happen over night. There is no magic pill. You can’t buy the skill even if you had a billion dollars. But at the same time, remember that a sense of humor is NOT telling jokes. It’s a way of looking at life.  If you have a good sense of humor it will normally shine through even if you’re not a humor professional.