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Top 6 Skills We Should Learn From Jack Ma – When He Talks

TimeOdd Stories -Jack Maa
Screengrab of Jack Ma at World Economic Forum.

The obvious reason for that is that he’s rich and famous, but there’s more to it than that. There are plenty of tech CEOs who are rich and famous – Musk, Zuckerberg, Lei Jun, etc. – but none of their videos perform as consistently well as Jack Ma’s.

The truth is that when he speaks publicly, Jack Ma does some things few other figures in the tech industry do. Most entrepreneurs won’t ever get access to the kind of stages Jack Ma routinely walks out on, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn some valuable lessons from the way Mr. Ma presents himself when he’s speaking in public.

1. Speaking slowly and clearly

If you’ve only watched Jack Ma speak in English, you might be inclined to think that his presentation style – slow, deliberate speech with numerous lengthy pauses – is just a byproduct of the fact that English is his second language. But nothing could be further from the truth – in fact, he uses the same deliberate style even in his Chinese speeches.

Everything about Jack Ma’s speaking style is carefully tailored to maximize audience understanding. He speaks relatively slowly, so that everybody who’s listening can keep up. He pauses often after particular points of emphasis to give the audience time to process and retain what he’s just said. And he uses relatively simple language, steering well clear of the industry jargon and technobabble that often plagues the speech of other executives.

The end result is that almost anyone – even somebody who doesn’t work in tech and isn’t interested in entrepreneurship – could listen to a Jack Ma speech and come away understanding what he said. You won’t ever hear him going deep into Alibaba’s tech. He claims that’s because he doesn’t understand computers well (and perhaps that’s true), but it’s also probably because his talks are designed to have more universal appeal.

In other words: keep it simple, stupid. That’s what Jack Ma does.

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2. Using repetition for emphasis

One rhetorical technique Ma uses frequently is repetition. Consider, for example, this video, which is one of our most popular Jack Ma snippets. When talking about hiring, he says that the best people are always those you train yourself. Then, in the very next sentence, he repeats the same sentiment with only slightly different wording.

That repetition isn’t a mistake. It’s a very intentional speaking technique. By repeating the same message in a slightly different way, he’s hammering home his point with the audience, emphasizing its importance and giving them additional time to digest its meaning.

Obviously, it’s possible to take this technique too far – you can’t repeat everything you say without your audience being bored to tears. But using repetition occasionally emphasizes the key points in your talk and makes sure that everyone in the audience has a little extra time to digest them before you move on to the next topic.

3. Embracing humor

Another thing you’ll notice about Jack Ma’s speaking style is that he’s pretty funny. He loves to make jokes at his own expense, often talking about how poorly he understands technology and how he isn’t particularly smart. He constantly retells stories about being the only person in his friend group rejected for jobs at KFC and at the local police station. He’s even publicly made fun of his own looks.

Ma’s self-deprecating style is both engaging and disarming. Laughing makes people feel good, and hearing Ma tell humiliating stories about himself helps the audience connect with him. It makes him seem more like a real, relatable person, rather than a mega-successful multi-billionaire.

Of course, humor can be a double-edged sword, and no entrepreneur should mistake themselves for a standup comic. But making a few jokes at your own expense, emphasizing your own mistakes, can help you connect with an audience quickly.

4. Talking with his hands and his body

From a video editor’s perspective, one of the most notable things about Jack Ma’s speaking style is that he’s a compelling speaker even when you mute the sound. You’ll almost never see Jack Ma behind a podium; when he’s giving a speech he’s always pacing the stage, gesticulating and making faces to emphasize his points. Even when he’s stuck in a chair onstage as part of a panel or onstage interview, he’s constantly pointing, waving, gesturing, nodding, etc. – he’s using his body to reinforce what he’s saying.

Consider this video. Even though he’s sitting down and video is barely a minute long, he does a ton to physically emphasize his points with his hands and face:

 

How being a teacher made Jack Ma a great CEO

"A teacher always wants his students to be better and more successful than they are."

Posted by Tech in Asia on Monday, June 26, 2017

 

  • He uses his hands to manually count off list items when he’s listing things he doesn’t understand.
  • He makes a “wave off” gesture to emphasize that he doesn’t understand marketing.
  • He joins his thumb and pointer finger and then bumps them up and down to emphasize a particularly important lesson.
  • He touches his chest with one hand to demonstrate that he internalized that lesson.
  • He puts his hands out and then pulls them back towards himself to emphasize the concept of hiring (symbolizing bringing people in towards himself).
  • He holds up one finger to emphasize another important point.
  • He squints skeptically and points to emphasize the concept of carefully assessing a job candidate.
  • He uses the waving off gesture again to emphasize something he thinks the audience shouldn’t do.
  • He gestures towards hypothetical students when listing possible good outcomes for them, then shifts his body position to the other side and does the same thing when listing possible bad outcomes to emphasize the contrast.
  • He circles his hands to suggest some kind of work or process, and then pulls them toward himself to emphasize that he’s benefiting from it.

Again, all of that gesticulation happens in the space of less than two minutes! Compare that to this video of Elon Musk, where in the same span of time Musk does practically nothing with his hands beyond making slight adjustments in the way they’re folded.

Both men are saying interesting and important things, but Jack Ma’s presentation is much more visually compelling that Elon Musk’s because he’s using his hands, his face, and even his body position in the chair to emphasize his points.

5. Employing analogies

Technology is complicated. Business is complicated. It can be tough for speakers in the tech business to make themselves easily understood when talking about more esoteric subjects like deep learning, cloud computing or venture investments. To be fair, Jack Ma often avoids this problem entirely by focusing on simpler lessons. But he also makes himself easy to understand through the frequent use of analogies.

In this video, for example, he compares hiring an overqualified person to putting a Boeing engine into a tractor. This analogy serves two purposes. First, it’s memorable and kind of funny – the mental image of a tractor with a jet engine is likely to stick with the audience long after Ma’s speech is over, which makes it easier for them to remember his point. But it’s also a good way of explaining his meaning. Not everyone will immediately understand why hiring someone overqualified could be a bad thing – isn’t hiring the “best” candidate what most businesses aim for? – but anyone can immediately understand why a massive jet engine doesn’t suit a tractor.

It’s likely that this is a technique Ma picked up from his years as a teacher, because analogies are an incredible teaching tool. They allow you to take something your audience already understands and use that to help them understand some new topic. If, like Jack Ma, you’re capable of coming up with a unique and interesting analogy, it can also make your speech more memorable and even inject a little extra humor.

6. Taking strong positions

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Photo modified by Tech in Asia; original photo credit: UN Climate Change.

Another thing you’ll notice about Jack Ma’s speeches: he’s not wishy-washy. He tends to take strong, yes-or-no positions, and he words his positions quite bluntly. In this video, for example, he calls people’s complaints “stupid” and even mocks complainers to drive home his point. It might sound a little harsh (and he later softens it by saying he once had the same complaints), but the fact is that direct, blunt statements like these are attention-grabbing. They make for great soundbites and can help you generate extra media coverage, but even without the media, they get your audience’s attention in a way that nuanced statements simply don’t.

Whether or not that’s a good thing is debatable, of course – the world isn’t black and white, and the insistence on always taking a strong side is arguably a big part of what has poisoned the political discourse in countries all over the world. But there’s no denying that as a rhetorical technique, taking a strong view is more compelling than arguing for both sides, and that’s something that Jack Ma almost always does. He’s very clear: do this, don’t do that. You’ll almost never hear him suggesting alternatives or undermining his own points with counterarguments.

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Written by TimeOdd

TimeOdd is a leading technology media property, dedicated to obsessively profiling startups, reviewing new Internet products, and breaking tech news.

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