The Smartest People in the Room

Have you ever had that moment when you listen to someone speak and you realize just how inept your communication skills really are? I’m continually humbled by people who are far more gifted, skilled, prepared, and just flat-out smarter than me. If you’ll indulge me for just a moment, I want to share such an experience with you.

As part of the initiative, I recently participated in a thinking “jam session” at the Office Depot Headquarters in Boca Raton, FL. The purpose of the session was three-fold:

  1. How can we help more small businesses?
  2. How can we make their online experience great?
  3. How can we add more value to their lives and businesses?

Our session strategy was simple and straight forward: Find really smart people who share our same passion for helping small business, get them in a room, lock the door, keep them well fed and caffeinated, ask a lot of questions, shut-up, listen, and take a lot of notes.

While there were many smart and talented people in the room, I’m going to focus on 6 of them, and what I believe makes them such effective communicators.

Smart_BannerFran Tarkenton

Tarkenton Companies

Be excited.

When Fran spoke about his vision for and its purpose, he spoke from the heart. He spoke with passion and vigor. His tone clearly expressed his commitment to what he wants to accomplish. Energy and excitement are contagious; don’t be pedestrian in your communications. If you’re not excited about what you’re doing and where you’re headed, no one else will be, either.

Tell stories.

Facts tell, but stories sell. As Fran spoke, I excitedly followed the twists and turns of the stories he told. And a few days after the meeting, the stories were still just as clear in my mind as they were when Fran told them. Conversely, I didn’t have such clear recollection of the bullet points, statistics, and metrics that were communicated throughout the day. Stories are personable, sharable, and memorable. Numbers, talking points, graphs, and charts—while sometimes necessary—are static, non-emotional, and mostly forgettable.

In a meeting that is meant to spur conversation and the sharing of ideas, you and your message need to be front and center. When making an argument for your product, tell stories, which allows your audience to become emotionally invested in you and what you’re promoting.


What’s In It For Me? This meeting was composed entirely of well-seasoned, wildly successful entrepreneurs. You know, the type of people who get pitched, stretched, and pulled in a thousand different directions each and every day. And those pitches are usually one-sided: “Hey, with your status and your reach, you could really help sell my stuff!”

Maybe it’s the quarterback in Fran, but everything he communicated came back to how could he help his teammates. How could he help build a winning team? He clearly put their interests and needs ahead of his own, continually saying, “If this doesn’t work for you, then it won’t work for me.” He asked questions like, “How can I help you?” or “How can this be of benefit to you?” When speaking with others, do you answer their question of “What’s in it for me?”

Pamela Slim

Escape from Cubicle Nation

Speak in actionable terms.

High priced business consultants get paid for their big ideas. But the real gold is in the execution. The group was tossing around a lot of great ideas. Pam observed, took notes, and then responded with suggestions on how to make those ideas work. She worked the ideas in reverse, starting with the desired outcomes and working her way backwards to come up with the steps required to achieve them. She presented her action steps to the group both verbally and, for more sophisticated explanations, on a whiteboard. When participating in strategy sessions, think strategically! Speak in actionable terms.

Shep Hyken

Shepard Presentations

Great icebreaker.

Bear gifts! After all, everyone likes gifts. At the beginning of our meeting, each participant introduced themselves to the group. Sometimes this ritual can feel a little like an AA meeting, with people muttering their names and adding a few random thoughts about themselves and why they’re attending. On the contrary, Shep stood up and revealed that he had gifts for everyone.

As any best-selling author would do, he gave his most recent book to everyone in the room! This approach immediately did three things. First, he broke the ice through a nice “giving” gesture. Secondly, it gave him a natural way to introduce himself and what he does. And lastly, it helped establish his credibility as a customer service expert. Of all the introductions, I remember this one the most. And to top it off, I’m now the proud owner of new (signed) book on how to Amaze Every Customer Every Time!

Tim Berry

Palo Alto Software

Experiential feedback.

When you have thousands of hours of experience under your belt, share it! Throughout our conversations that day, nearly all of Tim’s thoughts and responses were driven from his professional experiences. When an idea surfaced, he would respond with “What I’ve found…” or “In my experience…” or “When we tried this…” Framing things that way gave us relatable data points to help steer discussion in a positive direction. When you have experience relevant to a conversation, speak up.


Sometimes meetings and strategy sessions can become a little stressful. People will inevitably disagree, sometimes strongly. While our group never reached nuclear armament levels, there were times when we disagreed on things. When this occurred, Tim offered up pithy—but relevant—comments to defuse the situation. For example, when the group was going back and forth on whether or not a particular strategy would work for our entire audience, Tim dropped a Bill Cosby quote that seemed to extinguish the disagreement. Business is serious stuff, but don’t let the seriousness get in the way of good decisions.

And in case you were wondering what quote Tim dropped on the group, it was this: “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

Bob Burg

Name recall.

I’ve had the privilege to work with Bob on other projects in the past and the thing that always amazes me is his ability to remember names. Not just a few people’s names, but a room full. This meeting was no different. When addressing participants, his response would always include a name. For example, “That’s a great point Fran,” or “Tim, you said…” This is such an invaluable communication skill. When you can recall the name of someone you just met, it makes that person feel respected and important. Additionally, by using someone’s name in conversation, it gets, and keeps, their attention throughout that conversation. One day, I’m going to ask Bob how he’s so dang good at this!

Gary Vaynerchuk

Be real.

Unfortunately, Gary couldn’t attend our meeting due to family commitments. Instead, he adapted to the situation and did what he does best: make a video! And with Gary, what you see is what you get. If you’re one of Gary’s millions of followers online, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Gary’s communication style is authentic, honest, and real.

Put in the same situation, others may have ditched the family, made up a lame excuse, or ducked the whole thing altogether. Gary was upfront and honest; he kindly asked for understanding and restated his commitment to the group. It was refreshing to see a wildly successful businessman put family first and not be embarrassed or ashamed about it. Great stuff. When speaking with your colleagues, be authentic. Be you.

Learning Never Stops

I have to confess that I wrote this article as much for me as I did for all of you. I have a long way to go to elevate my communication and interpersonal skills, and I’m hoping that this writing exercise will help me in that maturation process. As we know, learning never stops.


2 thoughts on “The Smartest People in the Room

  1. Will, you flatter me. Thanks for including me in the post. It was a great meeting, with great people – and you were a big part of that meeting too! And, you wrapped it all up, nice and neat, and put a bow around it. Great recap and great way to bring us all back together. See you at the next meeting!

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