Write, Teach, Laugh

SXSW V2V: How Neurobiology and Yoda Can Make You a Better Speaker

(Originally published on Blogcritics.org)

On October 20, 2000, they pulled the plug,” explained motivational speaker John Bates. “We had lost $80 million and when you do that, they come in, usually with security guards, lock you out, and you have nothing. I was so embarrassed, so crushed, I thought I was going to die,” he explained. But, Bates survived the bursting of the Internet bubble and today, as founder/CEO of ExecutiveSpeakingSuccess.com, he teaches executives all over the world how to pitch to obtain funding and achieve other objectives.

John Bates

John Bates explaining how he lost $80 million during the internet bubble.

A “pitch” is an oral presentation wherein you sell your idea, yourself, or both. At SXSW V2V, a four day educational event in Las Vegas, July 19-22, for startups and entrepreneurs, Bates invoked neurobiology and Star Wars to help people learn to pitch successfully. He suggested that it wasn’t enough to know what speaking techniques work. In the long run, he explained, you need to know why they work so you can adapt to changing conditions.

Communicating with human beings is not logical,” he said. “It’s biological.” He went on to explain the three neurobiological elements and how to use this understanding in order to connect to all kinds of audiences. His lessons are also applicable to more day-to-day interpersonal challenges as well, such as leading a team or communicating with a close friend.

The Animal Inside

The first element is the paleo-mammalian brain. He drew a picture of a brain on the white board. “This is sometimes called the limbic system or the emotional brain,” he said. He pointed out that it was in the center of the brain with cerebral cortex, the logical brain, wrapped around it. “It does not have access to logic or reason or language. Its job is to keep you alive, so it has an override switch on your behavior,” he said.

Bates said that it’s the brain that creates those voices in your head making you insecure or nervous. “It comes from inside you, but it’s not you,” he explained.

He asked people if they had ever had the experience of a sales encounter where customers agree that the product has good features, would improve their lives, and was priced fairly, but then say, “We’ll need to think about this for a while.” Logic failed. Paleo-mammalian brain didn’t feel safe.

If you lead with logic,” Bates said, “you will not succeed. You need emotion and that’s what the paleo-mammalian brain is in charge of.”

Mirror, Mirror

The second element involves mirror neurons. “When we see someone taking action or experiencing emotions we feel their joy or pain. It’s why when we see someone hurt themselves, we say ouch or jump,” Bates explained. It’s why we cry at movies.

The moment people see you they begin picking up on your emotions and attitudes. A presentation does not begin when you start to speak. It begins when you walk into the room. If you are nervous and insecure, they will be, too. If you have the confidence that you are bringing them a great opportunity, they will pick up on that.”

For several years Bates was in a rock band. “When I’d come on stage worried,” he said, “the performance would be a flop. But if I ran out on the stage ready to rock, the audience would get excited and enjoy themselves even if we didn’t play that well.” 

Your results are in your lap,” Bates said. “It’s about you, not about them. The downside is that all those bad audiences in the past – you did that. The good news – the good audiences in the future – you will do that.”


The third biological element of pitching according to Bates is micro-gestures and body language.

This is tied to mirroring,’ he said. “The paleo-mammalian brain is always working and seeing these things. If you go in and don’t have a good opinion of the audience, they will know that. There is no way to consciously control it. I lie to no one, because if I lie to someone on some level, they will know. Your facial micro-gestures will give this away.”

Bates said that the way to deal with this was to create yourself and create your audience. “This is how you take control of your unconscious communications. This may seem esoteric,” he admitted, “but, if I had to pick one thing for you to be more successful, this would be it.”


Bates demonstrating the wisdom of Star Wars

Bates demonstrating the wisdom of Star Wars

Here’s how I created myself,” Bates said. “That little nagging voice saying all the negative things — the Buddhists call that chatter the Monkey Mind and it’s always yammering away. Pat it on the head and put it in the back seat. Think about how you would like to show up as a presenter. Me, I am the ‘drill sergeant for your greatness’. That’s the role I’ve made for myself. It’s playful mastery, and I’ve been doing this all my life. When you walk into the meeting, to the podium or on stage, if you believe you bring value and they want to hear you, that creates a positive set of micro-gestures.”

And the audience can be created, too, according to Bates.

When I came in here, I knew I wanted to be in your world – you’re already great communicators, you’re interested, and you are extra courageous because you are at start-up conference.”

But what if you don’t know anything about your audience? Bates advised, “Make something up about them. Create a positive view of them and maintain it whatever happens.”

Would you like the secret of really connecting with an audience?” Bates asked.

He quoted motivational speaker Les Brown: “People don’t connect with your successes, they connect with your messes. Your message is in your messes.

This doesn’t mean to go up on stage and be a whiner, Bates explained. “If you have the courage to tell us what went wrong and then tell us what you learned, people will love you for it,” he said.

Then Bates pulled out his light sabers. “Should you be the Luke Skywalker of your speech?” he asked. He fenced against an imaginary opponent. Nice light sabers. They had sound effects. But no information was transmitted.

No,” he explained, “Instead of being the hero of you speech, be Obi Wan or Yoda.”

This time he struck a pose with the light saber and provided Jedi inspired wisdom such as “Use the force, Luke” and “Do or do not, there is no try.”

Bates concluded, “Make your audience the hero.”

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