Little Moments, or How to Give a Great Speech

May 2017 I was supposed to give a presentation at the GuruFocus conference in Omaha, a day before Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. I was more nervous than usual. I agreed to give this presentation because I wanted to push myself to explore a brand new topic. I wanted to zero in on the investment process.…

May 2017

I was supposed to give a presentation at the GuruFocus conference in Omaha, a day before Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. I was more nervous than usual. I agreed to give this presentation because I wanted to push myself to explore a brand new topic. I wanted to zero in on the investment process. GuruFocus seemed to have the right audience for this topic.

I need a looming deadline to build the pressure to unleash creativity. Two days before I was to leave for Omaha, I wrote a nine-page speech titled “How to Stay Rational in Irrational World.” A day later I created a 40-slide PowerPoint, which I was still tweaking an hour before my talk.

The GuruFocus conference was at the DoubleTree hotel in downtown Omaha. There were maybe two hundred attendees in a typical hotel ballroom. A few minutes into my presentation, the lights went out. Though the lights came back a second later, my microphone and projector were dead.

The speech that followed ended up being the best presentation I have probably ever given, and I have given plenty of them over the last ten years. Charlie Tian, who runs GuruFocus, emailed me and said, “Went through the surveys we collected from the attendees and found that you were rated one of the best speakers.”

I am sharing this with you not to brag, not at all. I find that little, often random moments shape the journey of our lives. Before I go further, let me tell you this little story. When I started writing for in 2004, my writing was dry and incredibly boring. It would make a corporate press release look like a stand-up routine. It was efficient but didn’t have a soul. Then, a few months into my writing “career,” I penned a short, funny article describing my little adventure configuring TiVo.

These were the very early days of artificial intelligence. The layer of TiVo phone technical support consisted of an AI that demanded, “Please speak in complete sentences.” You may or may not know this, but I have a Russian accent. The system could not understand me. After half a dozen tries I came up with an elegant solution. I gave the phone to my then three-year-old son, Jonah. I told him what to say, and he’d repeat in his adorable Disney accent. The TiVo system did not have a problem understanding him.

That was the gist of my article. It was a very short piece. It was funny, and it was by far the most “human” article I had written. And yes, it exposed my frailty, which is obvious to anyone who has ever heard me speak – I have an accent.

I received a few dozen emails from readers who loved the article. I can say that this little article, this little moment, had a huge impact on my life. I realized it’s okay to be myself – funny, sarcastic, and even frail. In other words, I learned that when I write I should be me.

If I hadn’t written that TiVo article, I might have arrived at that conclusion later. Or I could have given up writing all together before I ever arrived at it.

The lights going out at GuruFocus was my “TiVo moment” for public speaking. It was a gift that made me completely rethink how I give speeches.

When the lights came back on and I realized that the projector and mic were out, to my amazement, my blood pressure dropped. I felt calmer than I had ten seconds before. A weight dropped off my shoulders. Suddenly I was not burdened with switching slides. I didn’t have to follow bullet points. I could just talk. Tell a story. My 40 slide presentation had been a huge distraction. Until the lights went out, the attendees weren’t looking at me, they were trying to read my bullet-point-packed slides. Their eye contact was with the screen, not with me.

If I were to redo this presentation, it would have five slides: a “Hello” slide, three slides in between with pictures, and a “Goodbye” slide. That’s it.

I also learned, however that writing out a speech out is important. I was not going to read the speech; I couldn’t have memorized it if I had tried. But writing it created a logical structure for my thoughts, and even more importantly, unearthed the appropriate vocabulary. Speaking is communication in real time, where writing allows you to stop and control the clock. It affords you the luxury of carefully picking each word and gives you the freedom to rewrite ad infinitum and show it to the world when you are ready (or when the deadline arrives, whichever comes first).

I find when I speak on a brand new topic a lot of my energy goes into looking for precise words, the ones that will let me communicate my thoughts clearly. Here is a thought: I (and probably most of us) are horrible at multitasking. My brain is horrible at running multiple processing threads at once. If I can minimize the need for multitasking (no slide flipping, no vocabulary searching) then I can focus the limited processing power of my brain on public story telling – after all, that is what a speech is.

I have read that your state of mind when you get on a stage is completely programmable. James Altucher watches Jerry Seinfeld standup right before he goes on stage – it programs his mood. I found that Bach’s Concerto No. 1 in D Minor does the trick for me. I listened to it for about twenty minutes before I stepped onto the GuroFocus stage – so my blood pressure was probably already a little lower than usual to begin with.

We should pay attention to little moments – they can change our lives. Thank you TiVo and thank you … whatever caused the electricity to go out at the DoubleTree in Omaha.

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