The Mouse That Roared
How great communicators create an intimate bond with their audiences.
I am fortunate to have been invited on a few occasions to speak at Harvard Business School. Aware that these students are not lacking for lectures, I like to entertain them with unconventional perspectives based on my own experiences. On my very first visit to campus, I started to talk about the psychology of why we do the things we do. The subject goes back to my childhood and how my journey in life—my entrepreneurial passion—is a result of my atypical view of the world. The lecture hall started out with maybe 10 or so students, and because of cell phones and instant messaging, word got out about my talk. The room began to fill up until there was standing room only.
I am curious by nature and enjoy getting to know people, especially what motivates them to take risks and change the rules. Because I struggled with schoolwork growing up, I turned my attention instead to watching people. I could not grasp a language or memorize a math equation, but I learned to read people. As I talked to people, their facial reactions, body language and speech patterns told me more about them than what they were saying. This isn’t ESP, it’s human interaction.
To demonstrate my point, I singled out a student in the audience who seemed visibly struck by my talk. I could tell when she was deeply interested in what I was saying, when she became intrigued and when she was overcome with happiness. I asked her to stand up, and I commented on my observations—the way she thinks and what she was going through in life at that moment—with astonishing accuracy.
Fast forward five years, and I was invited to speak at a Harvard Business School alumni event in New York. This time I thought I’d make everyone laugh by bringing my grade school report card. Math: D. English: D+. History: D. Science: D-. Spanish: F. Physical Education: B. (At least I was an athlete.) I spoke about perseverance, fighting through bad grades and how to find yourself even as other factors are defining you. I spoke about intuition and following your inner voice. Again, I picked an individual out of the crowd and awed the audience with my instincts.
“The ability to engage a mind, understand what other humans are thinking and speak to them so effectively that they begin to have a conversation of their own with you is incredibly powerful.”
That evening I joined a group for dinner and was approached in the restaurant by a woman who recognized me. She asked if I remembered her. It turned out that not only was she the woman I had singled out that night, but she was also the same woman I had asked to stand up at my first HBS talk five years earlier. That public exchange had played out in her mind since it happened, and when she learned I would be speaking again she was eager to tell me what she had been doing.
The experience with HBS fascinated me as I watched the recent presidential election unfold. The ability to engage a mind, understand what other humans are thinking and speak to them so effectively that they begin to have a conversation of their own with you is incredibly powerful. An effectively engaged audience is one that is listening to you so intensely that they have a conversation with you in their minds, believe they have a relationship with you and will make decisions based on that perceived relationship.
Some of the greatest communicators, whether they are in politics or Hollywood or business, have this remarkable way of igniting a conversation in their listener’s head. Strong communicators know how to read audiences, connect to them from a podium or through the television and incite an internal conversation in return—the listener believes that they know you personally and that you’re friends. My pal Ellen DeGeneres speaks so authentically to her viewers that I know if she were to mention heartache or pain, her fans will think to her, “I am there to protect you” and maybe even take action.
What a beautiful thing it is to appreciate a person’s mind. We live in a world where we are constantly trying to escape through smart phones or games or music or reality TV. The more we escape, the more we become nonparticipants in our own world. Maybe it’s time for us to slow down and connect to the world around us. I will often plop myself down in a high-traffic location—such as the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue—and watch as people pass by. You can predict a lot about a person’s day—or life—just by observing.
Strong communicators also know how to draw out someone’s dreams and emotions and put them into a place where they feel incredible. I see many people who are scared shitless. But we all fear the unknown: our personal future; the future of a company we’re running; the future of our country. So how do you drive a person, an organization or a nation to believe? By taking them to a mental place where they feel safe, happy, energized and passionate.
When I meet with entrepreneurs, I want to have an honest conversation about who they are and their fears and help them find a solution. This is what transpired when I spoke at Harvard—I realized we all have a voice that has the power to motivate people. And with great power comes great responsibility. Our politicians and celebrities and athletes and talk show hosts and others with broad platforms must remember this—because an audience’s voice back can be equally as strong. Even a mouse in a parade of elephants can be seen and heard.