Public Speaking is No Longer a ‘Soft Skill.’ It’s Your Key to Success in Any Field

Carmine Gallo speaks to banking executives about the role of persuasion in leadership.

After interviewing billionaires and CEOs, entrepreneurs and scientists for my new book, Five Stars, I’ve concluded that it’s time to stop referring to public speaking as a ‘soft skill.’ A wealthy investor at Y-Combinator, the iconic investment firm behind startups such as Reddit and Airbnb, convinced me to stop using the term. During our conversation, he called out my mistake.

“Let’s talk about a soft skill like storytelling,” I said.

“Soft?” he shot back. “If an entrepreneur can’t tell a convincing story, I’m not investing. You call it soft. I call it fundamental.”

Warren Buffett would agree. He says investing in yourself is the best investment a person can make—and public speaking is the best investment of all. Buffett has put precise cash value on communication. “The one easy way to become worth 50 percent more than you are now — at least — is to hone your communication skills,” Buffet says.

The Growing Value of Changing Minds

In a world built on ideas, the persuaders— the ones who can win hearts and change minds—have a competitive edge. While researching my book, I spoke to economists and historians like Deirdre McCloskey at the University of Illinois. She conducted an impressive research project to prove that old-fashioned rhetoric—persuasion—is responsible for a growing share of America’s national income.

McCloskey analyzed 250 occupations covering 140 million people in the U.S. In some cases, persuasion played a more limited role than others (think firefighters versus public relations specialists). McCloskey reached the following conclusion: Persuasion is responsible for generating one­ quarter of America’s total national income. She expects it to rise to 40% over the next twenty years. McCloskey’s research was taken up by another economist in Australia who reached a similar conclusion.

To understand why persuasion is no longer a soft skill, we need a short history lesson. In 1840, nearly 70 percent of the U.S. labor force worked on farms; today less than 2 percent of Americans work in agriculture. Manufacturing’s share of the labor force has dropped from 40 percent in 1950 to under 20 percent today. Income from manufacturing continues to fall as robots replace workers and artificial intelligence takes over repetitive tasks once handled by humans. The main task of the jobs that are left—and the new ones created—is to change minds. As McCloskey explains, “Nothing happens voluntarily in an economy, or a society, unless someone changes her mind. Behavior can be changed by compulsion, but minds cannot.”

By calling public speaking a ‘soft skill,’ it diminishes the skill’s value in a world that cherishes the ‘hard sciences.’ Public-speaking isn’t soft. It’s the equivalent of cold, hard cash.

Why the Best Ideas Fit on the Back of a Napkin, According to Richard Branson

After twenty years of studying persuasion, I’m convinced the best pitch should fit on the back of a napkin. Here’s why.

Americans lost a true maverick and innovator when Southwest Airlines founder, Herb Kelleher, passed away at the age of 87. While the business news was, understandably, focused on the brand’s financial success, I’ve always been intrigued by one extraordinary event at a St. Antonio bar in 1967—the day the idea for Southwest was first planted.

I devote an entire chapter to Kelleher in my book, The Storyteller’s Secret. The story goes like this. At the St. Anthony Club in San Antonio in 1966, two friends meet for drinks at the bar. Rollin King is a Texas businessman. Herb Kelleher is a gregarious, whiskey-swigging lawyer. They’ve been kicking around a business plan to get into the airline business. What happens next is brand-making history.

Rollins reaches for a cocktail napkin. At the top of the triangle, he writes “Dallas.” On the bottom left, he writes “San Antonio.” On the bottom right, he writes “Houston.” Their vision was simple—to create a small, local airline connecting three Texas cities. People would fly instead of drive between them.

“You’re crazy,” Kelleher responded. “Let’s do it.”

And with that, Southwest Airlines was born. It democratized air travel for millions of Americans who, previously, couldn’t afford to fly.

This week the hotel commemorated the meeting with a special edition cocktail napkin. They sent me a photo of the design which you can see below. If you’re near the hotel, stop in for a drink and feel the energy!

If a cocktail napkin isn’t handy, a beer coaster will do. Just ask Richard Branson—which I did. In this video interview with the billionaire entrepreneur and founder of Virgin, I ask Branson why he prefers pitches that can fit on a napkin, envelope or—in a real case—on a beer coaster.

Dream Bigger With the New Book Bill Gates Calls His ‘Favorite of All Time’

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After reading Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now, you might never complain again about a delayed flight or a long line at Costco. And if you do, you’ll feel bad about it.

Pinker, a Harvard psychologist and Pulitzer-prize winning finalist, has written a book that Bill Gates calls his “favorite book of all time.” In the 500-page book, Pinker tells “the greatest story seldom told.”  What is the story? In a sentence,

 

The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being and almost no  one knows about it.

Pinker reminds us of the daily gifts we take for granted. For example:

“Newborns who will live more than eight decades, markets overflowing with food, clean water that appears with a flick of a finger, and waste that disappears with another, pills that erase a painful infection… critics of the powerful who are not jailed or shot, the world’s knowledge and culture available in a shirt pocket.”

The graph below shows the stunning progress that America and the developed world has made since the recorded calendar began in the first century. As Pinker notes, the history of civilization has been marked by extreme poverty among everyone except a few nobles. Massive wars that collectively killed millions were common, as was famine, starvation, and early deaths (most children never made it past their 5th birthday), and no access to the life-saving medicines, vaccines, and procedures that have only arrived in the last half century.  Around 1820, something changed. The ideals of the enlightenment—freedom of ideas—began to flourish. And then suddenly—BOOM—the world made “spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being.”

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The Mental Bias That Will Hold You Back
So why don’t people know this story? Blame a mental bug we’re all born with—the availability bias. In 1971, Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman and his academic partner Amos Lewis Tversky discovered the bias. They defined it like this.

People estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind.

In other words, if you’re glued to the news and you stick to the echo-chamber on Facebook or among your friends and peers, your view of the world will be distorted by the problems and bad news you’ll hear over and over.  Our brains are wired in such a way that we look at the available information and extrapolate the future based on what we see today.

According to Pinker, “Every day the news is filled with stories about war, terrorism, crime, pollution, inequality, drug abuse, and oppression…news is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying, ‘I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out.’”

What does all this have to do with leadership? Bill Gates says you cannot move the world forward if you’re not motivated by the progress that is happening every day. It’s only by learning about what works that we can spread the progress. If you consume negative news, studies show you’ll become more glum, have a higher and distorted picture of risk, higher anxiety, lower mood levels, more hostility, and—very dangerous—fall into learned helplessness, which means you give up on bettering yourself. And remember, A great leader sees around the corner. You’ll be more successful if you recognize and manage the bias.

Great Leaders Have Perspective

Pinker advised us to maintain perspective. “Not every problem is a Crisis, Plague, Epidemic, or Existential Threat, and not every change is The of This, the Death of That, or the Dawn of a Post-Something Era…problems are inevitable; but problems are solvable,” Pinker writes.

The story of progress is truly “heroic, glorious, and uplifting.” If you need a lift, pick up Pinker’s book. It might change your life–it did for me and Bill Gates.

Carmine Gallo is a popular keynote speaker and bestselling author. Carmine’s new book, Five Stars: The Communication Secrets to Get from Good to Great, is available for pre-order (June, 2018 St. Martin’s Press)

Marc Benioff ‘s Master Class in Public Speaking

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Salesforce CEO and billionaire Marc Benioff opened his keynote at DreamForce 2017 by doing something very few presenters have the courage to do. He delivered the presentation as he walked among the audience. It’s a technique that Benioff has mastered over years of hosting the blockbuster conference/party in San Francisco.

More than 170,000 people are registered for DreamForce this year. It’s a massive conference that Benioff kicks off with a two-hour presentation where he introduces new ideas, features customers who are in the audience, and introduces other speakers.

The ability to walk around a massive conference hall while delivering a presentation requires 1). courage and 2). practice. It takes courage to walk out from behind a lectern, and to make eye contact with people who are standing right next to you. It takes practice to know your slides and message so thoroughly that you’re not tied to notes.

Marc Benioff is a storyteller and an engaging/energetic presenter. It’s worth watching one of his astonishing keynotes as a master class in public-speaking.

Carmine Gallo is a keynote speaker and author of the bestselling books “Talk Like TED” and “The Storyteller’s Secret.”

How Hall-of-Famer Steve Young Went From 8th String To Super Bowl MVP

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It was a pleasure to swap stories and leadership philosophies with former 49ers quarterback and hall-of-famer Steve Young. I hope he enjoys “The Storyteller’s Secret” as much I loved his new autobiography, QB: My Life Behind The Spiral.

In this video interview for Forbes.com, we talk about overcoming adversity, how leaders take responsibility for their actions, earning your pay, and how Young went from eighth string quarterback at BYU to the highest paid athlete in professional sports.

When Young was playing eighth string, he didn’t suit up for games. He was lucky to get a ticket to sit in the stands. He called his dad and said, “I’m done. I’m quitting. I’m coming home.”

“You can certainly quit,” Steve Young’s dad said. “But you can’t come home. I’m not living with a quitter.”

Young stayed at BYU and and kept pushing day after day after day. He was the first to show up for practice and the last to leave. He threw 10,000 practice spirals in the off-season. He was determined to outwork everyone else.

“The difference between average and great is in the work ethic,” Steve Young told me. “If you want to be good at something, it takes practice, practice, and more practice.”

When Young got his chance he was ready. He set records at BYU and is enshrined in the College Football of Fame. He went on to sign a $40 million contract with an expansion league before heading to the 49ers where he would lead them to two Super Bowl victories and claim his place in the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame.

Young says character and conviction are everything. He believes in living a positive example both on the field and in private. Today he runs a private equity firm in Palo Alto, California, where my wife and I see him from time to time attending his daughters’ gymnastics events. Whenever I see him I think to myself, “He played the game when character mattered.”

Carmine Gallo is a popular keynote speaker and internationally bestselling author of eight books including “Talk Like TED” and “The Storyteller’s Secret: Why Some Ideas Catch On And Others Don’t.”