By Amy Duncan, Goldfish Consulting

Whether you are a presenter, fundraising, selling, a boss, an employee, or even a parent, John’s talk provided valuable insights for more effective communications.

We are likely a community of “hard skills” here in the San Diego life sciences. But that doesn’t mean we can’t master the “soft skills” of pitching and presenting with finesse. We were lucky to have John Bates, CEO of Executive Speaking Success and Business Coaching, here to give us strategies and advice to help us learn to speak like a TED-worthy leader. Hosted by JLABS San Diego on December 4, 2018, John spoke for 2 hours and coached three audience members with their pitches. I’ve summarized the key points here.


John opened his talk relating three things that makes TED talks special. They are:

  1. They make you feel like an insider – as we will learn, likely by making an emotional connection with the audience.
  2. They offer new insights – so you leave with knowledge or skills you didn’t have before.
  3. The presenters are authentic – they share struggles and failures that led up to their accomplishment.

John’s talk tied back to these points, helping us learn how to integrate them into our communications.

Make an Emotional Connection

All of John’s findings are based in human evolutionary biology and human neurophysiology, and he has found that, “Communicating with human beings is not logical, it’s biological.” What he means is that you need to make an emotional connection with your audience. It’s that opening casual conversation you have before you actually present, pitch, or get down to business. John doesn’t call it “small talk,” he calls it “big talk.” Don’t skip it. Spend enough time on it. As John put it, “Look for what you have in common.” For example, if they scuba dive, and you scuba dive, and you don’t say something about it, you’re missing a real opportunity to connect.

You can also connect with the audience before your presentation by asking questions and getting answers in the form “a show of hands.” As you’re speaking, make eye contact with individuals in the audience, deliver a little bit of the talk, and move on to another person. Don’t look over them at the wall.   

Your Body Language Sets the Tone

Based on the discovery of “mirror neurons,” neurons that prompt us to mirror what we see happening with the people around us, an audience will “mirror” the presenter’s demeanor. When you espouse a confident, positive, caring tone, it can transfer to your audience. Your audience picks up on your behaviors and body language. This all makes for a good presentation experience—a confident presenter who wants to teach, and a receptive audience that wants to learn. The opposite is true. If you are nervous, shy, and fidgety, your audience will respond accordingly.

Create Yourself and Create Your Audience

How do you control your behavior and presence, so you can come off confident, positive, and caring—or whatever positive attributes are called for? John calls this exercise, “Creating yourself and creating your audience.” Here’s how it goes:

Silence Your Monkey Mind

First, John says, you have to silence your “monkey mind,” because it will get in the way, hold you back, and contribute to a negative tone and behavior. Your “monkey mind” is that little voice you sometimes hear telling you “you’re not good enough” or “they’re not going to listen to you.” To silence your “monkey mind,” John advises to figuratively “take it out of the driver’s seat, put it in the backseat, and put its seatbelt on.”

Create Your Audience – Who are they?

First of all, you have to put your “monkey mind” on loud speaker and listen to what it is telling you about how the audience is reacting to you. That’s right, let it have it’s say – even speak it out loud. You may hear things like, “What a goof ball!” You can’t get rid of the monkey mind, but let it speak then figuratively put it in the back seat, and belt it in so it is no longer in control. Now switch and create a different vision. Describe and characterize the audience. What do they care about? What problems are they having trouble with and how can you help them find a solution? Maybe they want to make a difference by improving human health. Connect with your mission of how you want to help them, imagine them saying “Wow – what a great communicator!”

Create Yourself – Who are you?

Now repeat the process with yourself. The monkey mind might say, “You have no talent and nothing to share.” Once the monkey mind has spoken, is in the back seat, and no longer in control, then switch and connect to your mission and what you have to offer the audience. Think about who you need to be for this audience. If your “monkey mind” starts creeping in trying to take you down, John reminds us that is why you put the seat belt on it. He says to figuratively “pat it on the head and say, ‘thank you very much, but I’m driving.’”

Hang in There

Put it all together. For John, during a speaking engagement, he is the “drill instructor for your greatness, speaking to great communicators, who are interested, and courageous.” Above all else, he emphasizes that you “hang in there.” You may not be getting looks of approval from your audience, but you really have no choice but to adhere to your strategy. You may be surprised at the applause or the line for questions in the end. If it helps get you back on track, think “Don’t be nervous, be at their service.” That’s what Snoop Dog says.  

Take Responsibility for What They Hear

It’s not enough to act like the DMV, as John points out, and have the attitude of “I’m just responsible for what I say; I’m not responsible for what you hear.” If the person you are talking to doesn’t get what you are saying, then your message will fall on deaf ears, and you’ve wasted your breath. If you want to be impactful, then you need to check for understanding. To do this John recommends you “listen with exquisite intentionality to see what was landing over there, versus blurting it out, and letting them run with it.”

Practice – Stop Winging It

Taking responsibility for what the audience hears means you have to practice. People giving TED talks don’t just get up and wing it. That’s because winging it can produce uneven results. Professional speakers practice their talks for six months to a year. Steve Jobs committed to practicing an hour for every minute he was going to be on stage. Once you practice, traverse the “valley of awkwardness,” and practice more, “all of the sudden you pop out the other side, and you practiced so much, it seems like you didn’t practice,” said John. “That’s the goal.” John recommends you schedule time during your work day to practice and not leave it for the weekend.

Stories are How Information Has Been Passed Down for Millennia

John reminds us that during the vast majority of our time as a species, we communicated everything of importance through stories. Not through Google, email, printing press, lists, or bullets. This is because people remember stories. Telling a story when making a point will make it more impactful and memorable. You can introduce proof and data to back up your point, but the story will make it more relatable. John says, “If you have good data and you are not using story to convey that, you are missing out on the number one tool for communicating with human beings.” And scrap the details. Don’t get hung up if you can’t remember small details they care nothing about, like the date or who was there. Boil it down to the message of the story.

How to Connect With, and Inspire, Any Audience at Anytime

John closed the talk by sharing with us his three secrets to connecting with, and inspiring, an audience.

1. “People don’t connect with your successes, they connect with your messes.”

This phrase from Les Brown isn’t about complaining, it is having the courage to share when you failed but learned something very important. Audiences connect with someone like that.

2. “Don’t make yourself special – make the process special.”

This phrase from Craig Valentine doesn’t mean to tell everyone why you’re so great, instead tell them the repeatable process that got you there. Something they can emulate.

3. “Don’t be the hero of your own talk, make the audience the hero.”

This concept by Nancy Duarte means that instead of presenting yourself as a hero or guru, think of yourself as a mentor where you can transfer knowledge or skills to the audience, so they can leave with tools that can help them succeed.

John concluded with a quote from Maya Angelou, “People will forget what you said, forget what you did, but will never forget how you made them feel.” His request to us, was to understand the enormous difference we can make. I believe if we put his strategies and advice into practice, we can achieve just that, through effective communications.