I recently came across this TED Talk by Mark Bezos, the Senior Vice-President of Development, Communications and Events at Robin Hood, a leading poverty-fighting charity in New York City. He is also the Assistant Captain of a volunteer fire company in Westchester County, New York, where he lives with his wife and four children.
Firefighters are bona fide heroes. In this talk, however, Bezos recounts one of his unexpected acts of heroism that taught him an important lesson. Have a look — it’s less than four minutes — and then we’ll examine the talk from a public speaking perspective.
So what can we learn about public speaking from Mark Bezos? Here are some thoughts.
- What struck me very early in this talk was that Bezos is genuine. He’s the real deal. His style was simple and straightforward. There was nothing artificial in his presentation. He came across as sincere and likable. I was left thinking, “If my house were burning, that’s the kind of guy I would want to show up to help.”
- I liked the fact that he wore his firefighting outfit. Wearing non-traditional clothing for a speech is a risky proposition. It can appear gimmicky or contrived and cost the speaker much in terms of credibility. In this case, however, I thought that the firefighting attire went well with the talk and actually enhanced Bezos’ credibility.
- I liked Bezos’s quick introduction of what he does and I liked the symmetry in the phrase, “when I’m not fighting poverty, I’m fighting fires” (0:20).
- Bezos conveyed an important message but wrapped it in a story. Telling stories is one of the most important things that a speaker can do to make his message memorable. I particularly liked how he quickly set the scene of his first fire (and the basis for the story): “When I found the Captain, he was having a very engaging conversation with the homeowner who was surely having one of the worst days of her life. Here is was, the middle of the night. She was standing outside, in the pouring rain, under an umbrella, in her pajamas, barefoot while her house was in flames.” In 20 seconds, I understood the situation in which Bezos found himself. I was there with him.
- He spiced up his talk with some nice humour, particularly with respect to his firefighting “rival”.
- He used simple words. One does not have to use fancy words in order to give an effective speech. To the contrary, as Winston Churchill said, “Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.”
- He made good eye contact with the audience. I particularly appreciated the fact that he did not forget the people along the sides.
- He projected his voice well and had nice vocal variety when telling his story.
- Bezos used gestures effectively, particularly from 1:10 to 2:15 when he describes his “rival” getting to save the dog, his own instructions to get the woman some shoes, and the great pose with his helmet and the statement: “But I’m no hero.”
- At 2:50, we see what I like to call “the pivot statement”. It’s that part of the speech where the speaker makes the transition from the story that he has been telling to the message. Notice how Bezos moved from the woman’s appreciation for his act of kindness in getting her shoes to the importance of acts of kindness and generosity (big and small) that we can all do.
- There was some nice pausing for emphasis toward the end of the talk: “And you know what I’ve learned? [pause] They all matter.” (3:05); “I would offer this reminder. [pause] Don’t wait.” (3:18); “If you have something to give, [pause] give it now.” (3:25). Pauses are tremendously important for getting your audience’s attention and driving home your key points.
- I very much liked the symmetry in the important sentence, “Not every day is going to offer us the chance to save somebody’s life, but every day offers us an opportunity to affect one.”
- He ends with a call to action and also a clever callback to his story about getting the woman her shoes: “So get in the game. Save the shoes.”
What could Bezos have done to make the speech even better? Honestly, not a whole lot in my opinion. It was a touching speech, with an important message, delivered very well. Just watch the audience’s reaction at the end.
If I had one suggestion for Bezos, it would be to slow down a bit more at the beginning. For the first minute of the speech, he spoke more quickly and did not pause as much as he did afterwards. I put it down to nerves and the excitement of speaking at TED.
To avoid this in the future, I would recommend doing some warm up exercises before going on stage — swinging the arms; stretching; clapping the hands; voice exercises — anything to get the blood flowing and the vocal chords warmed up. Watch the athletes before any sporting event. What do they do? They warm up. Speakers should do likewise.
All in all, however, a great speech by Mark Bezos.