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The visual transformation of Bill Gates the presenter

Bill_stage Many years ago I began pointing to the presentation style of Steve Jobs as a good example of how to present with visuals on a large stage. Often I would contrast Jobs' presentation techniques with those of Bill Gates. Bill Gates is a man with a big heart and a big brain. I'm a fan. Yet, in spite of all his talents and contributions, delivering effective presentations — especially if slides were involved — was not one of his strong points. Things, however, started to change in early 2009. When I attended TED in Long Beach that year, I witnessed an engaging presentation by Bill Gates. Even his visuals were better than the usual cluttered and bullet-point filled slides, though they still had a ways to go. Bill's TED talk in 2009 got a lot of attention

Bill_pointing   Bill_small_linechart
ABOVE: Bill's TED 2009 talk saw the introduction of better visuals sans bullet points (top photo), but the charts and graphs were way too small (bottom photos), curiously using only half the screen available and using colors with no clear reason. Still, it was a pretty good presentation.

Improvement continued
Bill and Melinda Gates (October, 2009)
Malaria In October of 2009, we began to see much more improvement in Bill's delivery, and especially in his visuals.
In this presentation in Washington, D.C., Bill and Melinda Gates explained why they are "impatient optimists." They clearly illustrated in this formal keynote that they are optimistic because they have seen first hand that the investments are working, yet they are impatient because more needs to be done soon. They used a good mix of data and real examples to make the case that the world is getting better, but (1) not fast enough, and (2) not for everyone. And that's what they mean by "impatient optimists." With the help of high-impact visuals and video clips, Bill and Melinda did an effective job of showing the good news about how real people have been transformed. Telling the stories of how investments are indeed paying off and making big differences, though you rarely see this in the media, is a way to generate even more aid. The visuals in this presentation were the best I have ever seen in a Bill Gates presentation by far. (Yes, Bill is still a bit stiff and looks at the monitors too much, but it's not a bad keynote.) Watch a 6-minute clip from the presentation below (or directly on YouTube).


Sample slides from October, 2009
Here are some sample slides from the "Impatient Optimists" presentation.
Bednets2  Bill_chart1
Malaria_cambodia  Malaria_rawanda
Bubbles1  Bubbles2
Review_investment  Review
Reduced  Melinda_hansgraph3

Bill Gates at TED 2010

Bill improved even further this year. I love this talk by Bill Gates at TED 2010. He uses logic, reason, and structure and a bit of humor. He states the problem, the challenges, some possible solutions, and goes into just a little detail on one example, which is a storytelling example of zooming in on the particular to illuminate the general. Bill's visuals are much better than those used in his 2009 TED talk. Watch the presentation below or here on TED in one of twenty languages including Japanese.

Bill's slides where good (see below) — and his charts were simple and clearly visible — but I thought his delivery was much better than I have seen. He did a good job of only glancing at the confidence monitors (as they are called) and keeping his eyes on the audience.

ABOVE: The two monitors on the floor mirror the screen behind, there are no extra speaker notes. Bill had this talk completely internalized and was much more speaking from the heart this time. Note the time remaining (6:02) which is also visible at the back of the room for those presenters who are looking more directly at the audience.

Bill's slides at TED

The slides below represent over half of the slides used in Bill's talk.

Kids Price_electric Co2
Innovate_zero 26billion Carbongraph
Co2_equation Co2people Co2_s
1energy_mic 5miracles Onewish

A look back at the old bullet point days
Just to give you something to compare Bill's TED and "Impatient Optimists" slides with, here are some slides from the past. Below are most of the slides Bill used in his CEO Summit 2007 presentation.
This was a talk about "technology megatrends that will shape the future of business and society," but it was not a technical talk. The bullets may have kept the speaker on track, but they were not good visuals for amplifying the speaker's message.

Picture_1_3 Picture_2_3 Picture_3_2
Picture_4 Picture_5 Picture_6

Picture_12_3 Picture_8 Picture15

Here are some of the visuals used in his 2005 "Live" presentation.
Live1  Live2  Complexity_bill

We can all get better
Every presentation situation is different. If you are doing a presentation for a much smaller audience, presenting without any slides at all may be more effective. For more technical talks, using the whiteboard to explain your ideas and answer question may work better. Detailed tables and charts would be better understood as handouts. You have to decide based on what your desired goals of your talk are. But what is certain is this: doing ballroom style or keynote-style presentations with bullet-point filled slides with small graphics and tiny charts is an antiquated and ineffective way to make a meaningful presentation. We can all get better. It looks we'll have to change the foreword from the PZ book in the next edition.




It is clear that Bill chose to improve himself, and it has paid off in spades. I'm sure his audiences have appreciated it as well.

Bravo, Bill! Nobody is laughing at this slide deck.

Ben Decker

Great post Garr! We will continue to direct our clients/partners to this blog. Very valuable for people to see the changes someone successful like Bill Gates has made. Incredible transition for him - should push everyone to be willing to change what they use as slides, as their support. Keep it up!

Brian  Rice

Life long learning and continuous improvement is always inspiring, especially when it is in people like Bill Gates. I wonder if it is his passion to influence others with his own mission that propelled him into this improvement?


If only Steve Ballmer would do the same.


The presentation technology used for the Impatient Optimists presentation in DC was WATCHOUT version 4. It is a perfect solution for wide screen or multi-screen presentations with an evolved presenter. That is why it looks great and made the message clear to the audience.

Mike Sporer

Enormous transformation! His old way contained paragraphs.......stilltoo many people using templates. Better to use nothing at all!!


The other noticeable aspect of the presentation is Mr. Gates' use of body language. I hark back to an old Malcolm Gladwell article on Cesar Milan which focussed on this aspect.

An excerpt
== quote ==
Movement experts like Bradley use something called Laban Movement Analysis to make sense of movement, describing, for instance, how people shift their weight, or how fluid and symmetrical they are when they move, or what kind of "effort" it involves. Is it direct or indirect—that is, what kind of attention does the movement convey? Is it quick or slow? Is it strong or light—that is, what is its intention? Is it bound or free—that is, how much precision is involved? If you want to emphasize a point, you might bring your hand down across your body in a single, smooth motion. But how you make that motion greatly affects how your point will be interpreted by your audience. Ideally, your hand would come down in an explosive, bound movement—that is, with accelerating force, ending abruptly and precisely—and your head and shoulders would descend simultaneously, so posture and gesture would be in harmony. Suppose, though, that your head and shoulders moved upward as your hand came down, or your hand came down in a free, implosive manner—that is, with a kind of a vague, decelerating force. Now your movement suggests that you are making a point on which we all agree, which is the opposite of your intention. Combinations of posture and gesture are called phrasing, and the great communicators are those who match their phrasing with their communicative intentions—who understand, for instance, that emphasis requires them to be bound and explosive. To Bradley, Cesar had beautiful phrasing.
== end quote ==

John Harper

I was the lead art director on these projects (Impatient Optimist and TED 2010) while working for PBJS (the creative agency in Seattle). It was a great pleasure to produce these designs along with Maiko Senda and Greg Simanson, creative director Ian Saunders, and the team at Watchout.

Thanks for shining a spotlight on our work!

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