Interview With International Leadership and Communication Expert John Bates

Leadership and Communication Expert John Bates
Photo courtesy of John Bates

About John Bates
John Bates is a world renowned expert in leadership & communication. Many of his clients call him one of the absolute best leadership communications trainers and coaches working today. He is also a keynote speaker and a savvy entrepreneur. Bates has been actively coaching since 2005, working with CEOs and the executive teams of Johnson & Johnson Innovation Labs, the VW Electronics Lab, Janssen Labs, DudaMobile, Motorola, Goldstar, Oculus International, LAZ Parking,, Stone Brewing Co., and many others on their leadership, presentation, media and business skills.

Prior to his training career, he has been involved in helping to found and start up Goldstar, (which raised over $80 million) and VirtualVegas the first online "destination site". He has raised hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital funds, successfully opened resistant markets for new products and has run the customer service department for a multi-million dollar company. Bates is also a contributing author to the book World Class Speaking in Action: 50 Certified World Class Speaking Coaches Show You How to Present, Persuade, and Profit, which became a multiple Amazon best seller.

About Bates' Company, Executive Speaking Success
Founded in 2012 and based in Los Angeles, California, Executive Speaking Success (ESS) is a global leader in communication and leadership training. The firm's techniques are grounded in evolutionary biology and human neurophysiology, revealing both what works in communication as well as why it works. The company's training style is dedicated to bringing out greatness in people and companies so they can make a real difference in the world. ESS delivers its programs all over the world working with C level executives, business development and sales teams, keynote speakers, TED and TEDx speakers, as well as anyone who is committed to being successful in their leadership and communications.

What does a leadership communications coach do?
I bring out what is awesome inside every person so that it can live in the world and make a real difference. I believe that a leadership communications coach brings out the best in leaders so they can bring out the best in the people they lead.

What kinds of jobs did you have before becoming a leadership communications coach?
I was an entrepreneur and had the title Chief Evangelist at all the various startups I either co-founded or at which I was an early employee.

What made you decide to become a leadership communications coach?
TED. Wow. My first time was 2009. Mind blowing. I was originally inspired by Benjamin Zander's 2008 TED talk. After seeing that talk, even though I knew I wouldn't be accepted and I knew I couldn't afford it, I knew I had to apply. So, I applied to attend TEDActive and to my surprise, I got accepted.

At that time, TEDx was ramping up and the TEDx Organizers of Southern California asked me to do a training for potential speakers so we could keep the quality level very high. Along with my friend Michael Weiss, I developed and began delivering the Speak Like a Leader Boot Camp for various TEDx organizers for free, or nearly free. Funny thing: early on I realized was telling people what to do, but not doing it myself. I went home that night and worked till well past midnight making sure that I was doing everything I was telling people to do, myself! I started walking my talk and that's when people started asking me to come train people at their company.

Although I don't mind being called a speaker coach, I'm always playing a much larger game. I approach leadership, life and being fulfilled through the lens of communications with all of my clients. I believe everyone is a leader and the only question I have for them is: are you leading people in the direction in which you mean to be leading them? I believe that leadership is inextricably, completely and totally a function of communication.

What kind of certification or training does being a leadership communications coach require?/What has qualified you to be one?
I graduated Summa Cum Laude from the UCLA Honors Collegium in Sociology and Social Psychology, which helps. I'm a certified World Class Speaking Coach, too. But I got my real certification through failing while in the trenches of numerous startups which I co-founded or at which I was an early employee. Most notable was what I call my $80M MBA. Three other co-founders and I started a company called We raised $80M and were dotcom darlings until the crash in 2000 when our investors pulled the plug on us since they didn't think we could be profitable soon enough. It was soul crushing for me. I think that certifications and degrees are nice, but I can't ask someone to walk through the fire if I haven't at least tried it myself.

Is your field a competitive one? If so, how do you stand out?
What makes me stand out is that I created my training for TED and TEDx speakers knowing that most of them would be engineers, scientists, technologists, CEOs and so on. Very logical people. So, I knew I had to teach them not only what to do, but why it works, based in science! I make a lot of great decisions by accident and this was one of them. It turns out that EVERYONE likes to know not only WHAT works, but WHY it works. Things took off pretty quickly. It is also highly effective and memorable since it is all based in Human Evolutionary Biology and Neurophysiology.

What kind of marketing or promotion do you do for your training offerings?

So far it has all been word of mouth. I guess that means the answer is that I have focused deeply and with great passion on making what I offer the very, very, very best I can make it and on over-serving anyone who engages with us. That's another really smart decision I made by accident. As well, for the first year or two I made the very scary move to just do anything. I spoke anywhere. For $500, nothing, $6000, gas money... It didn't matter. I just did it. And, as scary as it was to me, as much as the cheapskate inside me screamed, I gave it my all no matter what they paid. I didn't hold back anything. Now, I did focus on making sure the free ones were for big groups of influencers like CEO groups and such, whenever possible. And, it was really scary to just give it all away for free. I held nothing back. And, it paid off stunningly quickly and in a very deep fashion. Amazing. I was very scared and at times I thought I was maybe being really stupid, but it was what my principles and values told me to do, so I did it. And, it has worked like mad.

John Bates
Photo courtesy of John Bates

What are the most important things speakers must learn about successful connection with their audience?
There are a number. But the overarching thing is that communicating with human beings is not logical... it's bio-logical. To that end, I would point at mirror neurons. We have mirror neurons which have us mirror the emotions of the people around us. When someone starts crying, we feel sad, too. When someone is very happy, even if we don't know anything about why, we feel happy, too. And, mirror neurons are always on, always working and when you're on stage, the audience is mirroring you!
That can be good, or it can be bad. I've been in the audience when the person on stage was so scared that I thought I was going to throw up. I've also seen people who were just so passionate and excited that I wanted to follow them to the moon just because being around them was so wonderful. If you remember that you get to set the tone every time you take the stage and then you give the audience something GOOD to mirror, it will make a big difference for you. It's also deeply important as leader, in personal relationships, and everywhere else you deal with human beings.

You say that human evolutionary biology and human neurophysiology govern effective communication, persuasion and leadership. How so?
In every way possible; it's the equipment we're using to communicate, lead and persuade, so it can't help but govern every aspect. Your logical brain is essentially at the mercy of your emotional brain. Things like loyalty, trust, love, respect... those are not logical. They are emotional. And, the thing I find very few people realize is that action originates from the emotional brain, as well.

Before providing communications and leadership training for a business, what kind of research and preparation must you do? Is it different for each business?
No, and yes. First off, no. Everyone I have worked with so far (that I can tell you about) is human! So, it's the same for all of them in that important respect. And, knowing the organization; knowing as much as I can about them and this particular moment in their history and what they need and what they want and what they aspire to be, is tremendously helpful. The first time we worked with NASA we got the rock star tour of Houston Kennedy Space Center. My jaw was on the floor the entire time. I was geeking out so hard I felt like I should be embarrassed, but they said it's normal.

I learned a lot about who they are, where they are, and what they are going through through the experience of hearing about their history from the people who work there now. When I finally did my presentation and training, I cried several times because I was so touched by the entire experience. And, they got that I was genuinely moved so they just cried right along with me. One of the leaders later told me that I had re-inspired not only him, but his entire leadership team. Imagine that. I pinch myself as I say it. I inspired NASA? Yes, because I cared and took the time to get to know them before I went in and trained them. Knowing about and caring about your audience really works.

What are some of the common problems and challenges you deal with when working with business executives, and how do you address them?
#1, I don't want to share a personal story, this shouldn't be about me, John! To which I reply, "Yes, they don't want you to just yak on about yourself, that's true. However, really sharing yourself, really revealing who you are, your passion, your foibles, your humanity, that is one of the most generous things that human beings can do." And, once they get that, we're off to the races. It's amazing. We just did a bunch of work with some of the very top executives at Accenture Strategy. Now, that is a bunch of high functioning, brilliant movers and shakers. And, in one way or another, they all said this to me, to begin.

I know from personal experience that it can be very uncomfortable to share yourself. I also know the value of breaking through that barrier, so I invited them to try it on and it just blew their colleagues minds when they finally spoke at the event. It was extremely gratifying to watch the looks on their faces because they had to trust me that it would turn out and it did and it was wonderful and has set them all up with a new, even deeper level of respect in the organization. I find that when people share themselves with the intention of offering something to the audience, being authentic and giving up on trying to look good, it is a wonderful, lovely experience for the audience. And, it is very much harder than it looks. Watch both of Brene Brown's TED videos, in order, to see what I mean.

You talk about the value of saying, "I don't know." Why should an expert consider saying this in front of an audience?
I don't know when I said that, Mark! (Just kidding.) The value of saying "I don't know" is counterintuitive. It makes people trust you. If you admit what you don't know then they can be more confident in what you say you do know. "I don't know" is one of the most powerful phrases you can use (use it sparingly, but...). Especially when you follow it up with: I will find out and get back to you by end of day tomorrow...
It makes me laugh to think about how many people I've worked with thought they shouldn't ever say that. To the point of being willing to just completely make something up in order to avoid saying: "I don't know." Now, sooner or later you're going to get caught if you do that. If it's something you really should know, then prepare better and go in knowing it. However, if it's something you really don't know, have the courage to admit it and then get them the answer if they want it. A lot of times it was an idle question and they don't really even care!

Could you elaborate on the value you place on how a speaker hears and responds to audience questions?
I place a high value on listening to audience questions. I also think that most people I've seen think they have to be far more constrained, or bounded, in how they answer than I think serves them or the audience.
As long as you hear the question and deal with it respectfully, you can pivot into whatever you think is most important, most interesting and which will serve the audience in the best way. I am always listening for the commitment beneath the question; what the person genuinely cares about that would prompt them to ask this question rather than another. When I do a good job of picking up on that, my answers are both less constrained and more fun and useful.

A famous study ranks public speaking as the thing people fear most in life, even more than death. You claim you can help someone "leave your fear and anxiety around public speaking behind for the rest of your life." How can you possibly do that and how long does it take?
It can happen very quickly. It does not take time. I'll tell you some of the best advice I have in that realm, but first I want to tell you about a woman I just love, whom I worked with a few years ago for TEDxHoboken. Her name is Sharon Guynip and she and her partner Steve Winter care deeply about big cats in the wild. They had an amazingly beautiful coffee table picture book coming out called "Tigers Forever" and I highly recommend you get a copy! My friend and TEDx Hoboken Organizer Elizabeth Barry had asked her to speak and she had said, "No." She was just too scared. Elizabeth put us together and we talked a bit, I gave her the advice I'm going to give you and she did the talk. She was nervous, but it went well. Recently I got an email from her in which she said: "John, I was just thinking about you the other day and remembering that I had initially said no to the enormous opportunity of speaking at TEDxHoboken. Thank you for what you did for me. I've been traveling all over the world since then, speaking almost every week, and I'm almost not scared."

And, I'm glad she said "almost." I'd be worried if she didn't have any fear of speaking. A little bit of fear is a good tonic. So, here's the thing I told her, and I have a powerful ally in this, named Snoop Doggy Dogg. I said, "Sharon, here's what I learned from Snoop Dogg. He said, 'Don't be nervous. Be at their service.' And, that's pure brilliance right there. And it's the same advice I got from one of the top leadership trainers anywhere in the world outside the military. Her name was Candace and she told me, "John, if you get up on stage and you have your attention on yourself, then you have your attention on a minor ball of petty concerns that's of no real interest to anyone but you!" Ouch. She went on to say, "If, however, you get up on stage and you have your attention on the audience and the difference you're going to make for them and the difference they will make with the people in their lives because of it... Well, now you've got your attention on something worth thinking about!"

Don't be nervous, be at their service! Here's the bottom line. It's dangerous to get noticed by the group. Look what happened to people who got noticed by the group! Martin Luther King, Jesus, Joan of Arc, John F. Kennedy and the list goes on! So, if you're scared, that's healthy! It's normal! And if what you have to say is not worth walking through that very reasonable fear, then don't do it! But, if what you have to say matters more to you than your fear, then all there is to do is get up and speak even if your voice shakes. People who speak even when they're scared are actually tremendously inspiring.

John Bates
Photo courtesy of John Bates

How can a speaker stand out from a crowd and be remembered?

There are many things that can assist with this, but the number one thing, I'd say, is to put a disproportionate amount of time into your opening and closing. They are the two things the audience will remember the most so they deserve more attention. If you lose them with the opening, then nothing you say after that will matter at all. And, the closing is your last chance to put that one, clear, memorable idea into their minds, so make the most of it.

What insights have you acquired from your involvement with the TED Talks organization?
One of the biggest things I've learned is the power of not worrying about "what am I going to get out of this?" and just giving of yourself. The TED organization is all about forming relationships. Notice I did not say networking. It's not about quick, surface card gathering. It is about real relationships. TEDx organizers are people who want to make a difference for the world and they are all 100% unpaid volunteers. That's utterly crazy, but it's true and it's beautiful. It also means that they do not take kindly to someone trying to use them to sell their book or something. I guess the insight is that trusting the universe and giving freely of yourself is at once both satisfying and in the long run pays amazing dividends, as well.

Another insight is an obvious one, but it is just another loud reminder that people love people. People are deeply interested in people. People want to know you; not the fake you, the real you. People are interested in your stories and experiences. We love to hear from one another and if it's a well-crafted short story, it's just all that much better.

Why do you consider storytelling to be the most effective communications tool?
Before Google, I mean, the printing press, stories were the way we got all of the important information that there was. We didn't share things like masonry, agriculture, brewing beer and building civilization in big long lists of stuff. We don't remember things that way at all. Everything important had to come in the form of a story so we could retain it. That says to me that our brains would evolve to more highly valued stories than anything else! And that's how it works!

When people realize you're telling them a story; even when you do something as simple as say, "let me tell you a story about that," the part of the human brain that lights up is the same part that lights up when you expect to get a reward. Stories are like rewards. It's why we have to be taught not to fall for anecdotal evidence. The thing they forget to teach you, though, is that if you're not using anecdotal evidence (use it ethically, of course) then you're missing out on the most important tool of communication that Mother Nature has given you for communicating with human beings.

What mistakes have you made and what lessons have you learned from them?
Ha. Far too many to list. I'll tell you about how I blew my first TED talk. It still just tears me up to talk about this. I'm beyond embarrassed. It was 2011, I was invited to give a talk at TEDActive and they even hinted that if it was good, they might be able to show it on the screen at the main TED conference later in the week. Wow. I was super excited. And I was working in the realm of virtual goods and virtual currencies and this was even before bitcoin and I was super excited to share something that was so cutting edge and so close to my heart. They gave me 4 minutes. And, I thought, "Wow. That's not much time. I think I'm going to just have to show them all kinds of cool things that are happening and just blow them away with the sheer volume of cool things that are happening."

Well, as my friend and mentor Craig Valentine says: "When you cram your information in, you cram your audience out." But, I just did it anyway. And, on the day of the talk, I wanted everyone to just be blown away by the amazingness of it all, but instead they were just overwhelmed with the information and instead of saying, "WOW!" they said, "whoa." And, instead of landing all kinds of amazing points, I landed nothing. Zero. Zip. Nada. And then I agonized the whole rest of the week and they did not show my video on the big TED stage and it took me a while to realize why, but when I did, I turned red with embarrassment from ankles to eyebrows and it's a painful, but deeply learned lesson.

You've done a lot of surfing. What's the appeal? Does it have any connection to your speaking work?
I love surfing. I think there's a lot to string theory, so at some level everything is waves. I believe that surfing is a way to be in the largest, most impactful waves that are happening in the local vicinity, so for me surfing is a way to get myself into the flow of the prevailing waves in this region of space/time. I get that same feeling when I am speaking to a big group of people as well. I get into the flow of the audience and then do my darnedest to channel that flow and leave them with something they maybe didn't even realize they wanted, but are happy to have. I've surfed all over the world and it takes something to relax into really going with the flow; to surrender in that way. Learning that through surfing has definitely made a huge difference in how I live my life, as well.

What are you doing now? What are you planning for the future?
I just came out with my first professionally developed online training course, the Speak Like a Leader Boot Camp, which everyone has been asking me to create for a while now. It's transforming the way we work with our clients. Aspect Software recently got the online course for 50 of their top employees and then we came in for a day to work with them after they had done the course. It's a lot like how things work with the Kahn Academy. People get the training via video, work on a first draft of their talk, pitch, speech, presentation, whatever it is, and then we come in and work through that with them in front of the entire group and it's utterly transformational for the entire team or company. That's been beyond fun. We've got more courses coming. In the future, we'll focus on pitching and storytelling and perhaps dealing with the media and more.

I'm also at the beginning of creating a series of webinars that will allow people to get personalized coaching from me and my team no matter where they are in the world. I'm interested in how I can scale myself, my organization and, by doing that, the difference we can make in the world.

John Bates
Photo courtesy of John Bates

Other than surfing, what are your hobbies and interests?
I am what you might call ADD. This job is perfect for me. I get to focus on the thing I love most, communicating with human beings, and then I get to work with people who are at the absolute top of the game on their amazing talks which run the gamut from Saving Tigers in the Wild, to Sustainability and the Circular Economy, to Digital Government, to astronauts and engineers and administrators at NASA and on and on. I'm interested in everything everything everything. Besides surfing, I love playing guitar and singing - I'd love to put together a fun cover band again. I also love traveling and new cultures and diverse points of view. We've been to the UK, Yemen, Slovakia, Germany, Poland, and all over the place for work, which I think is a blast.

If you could choose one person, living or dead, to have as a coaching client, who would it be and why?
Wow. What a question. It's funny I never thought of this before. Hmmmm. One of my big heroes was Jim Morrison. If he would stay sober and work hard, I'd love to hear what he'd say in his TED talk. David Bowie, too. What if we could get Churchill to give a TED talk where he really opened up and shared his ONE idea worth sharing? Wow. Gee. I'm going to be thinking about this for weeks now. Richard Branson is still alive; I'd just love to work with him. Dolph Lundgren is a truly wonderful human being and I recently worked with him on a truly stunning TEDx talk. Here we go: I've been working with NASA a lot lately and I would love to work with Scott Kelly once he's back from his year in space, to hear what his one idea worth spreading would be.

Any final words?
I'm in a running argument with a friend of mine. He says most people don't have interesting enough lives, enough expertise, etc. to give a good TED talk. I, on the other hand, believe that everyone has the potential to give a good TED talk simply because they're human and they've lived and loved and had the experience. It may take some real work, but it's in there. Some people may be closer to their ideas and what they have to offer, but everyone has something to offer. The debate with my friend is ongoing, but I have not yet met the person who would force me to change my mind. And, the incredible majority of people will never get to speak at TED. But, you don't have to speak at TED to have your voice make a difference. If you're willing to be rigorous in your thinking and dedicate the effort and time to crafting your message, you can change the world by merely speaking up.