We included Larry Ellison on our “Best Public Speakers” list because of the clarity and simplicity with which he speaks, his confidence, and his ability to use personal narratives to convey universal observations about life’s journeys. Ellison is the co-founder, executive chairman, chief technology officer and former chief executive officer of Oracle Corporation.
We reviewed Ellison's commencement speech to the 2016 graduating class of the University of Southern California in which he shares the hardships, obstacles, and personal choices that he navigated on the way to success. He is candid about his identity crisis in his early years and how he maintained his vision through adversity and doubt from others.
Ellison’s greatest effective communication skills:
Clear and Concise Language: Ellison’s arguments and messages are always clear. Part of his clarity is due to his word choice. He never tries to speak over his audience’s head or use overly descriptive language even while being evocative. This gives him a familiar quality, which is an effective choice for someone who can easily be perceived as intimidating.
Shares Personal Details Effectively: Ellison shares personal details about his relationships which include heartache and divorce. He tells these stories without getting emotionally indulgent, or without trying to win the sympathies of his audience. The purpose in his sharing is to illuminate the hardships he had to overcome and the price he had to pay for honoring the identity he created over the years. As his speech unfolds, we see his personal integrity as an indelible ingredient to his success.
Physical Poise: In the beginning of the speech, we can see Ellison repeatedly shift his weight from side to side. Perhaps this is nerves, perhaps physical discomfort. Despite whatever is causing this movement, as his speech progresses, stillness dominates his physicality. He firmly plants his feet and uses very few gestures at chosen moments. This behavior raises his status. The fact that he starts off-balance and progresses to stillness illustrates how important physical poise is to him, and that he’s conscious of how to use it effectively.
Narrative Structure: Ellison reaches way into his past to tell his stories and make his points—the timeline of his speech spans decades. This endeavor can make some speakers meander in time and lose the “thread” of a story, but Ellison has a keen instinct for how long to stay in the past and which details to highlight. The audience never feels lost in his stories and can easily track the structure.
What Ellison could do to improve his effective communication skills:
Speak Naturally: Although he is candid and straightforward, we always remember that he’s reading his speech off a script. This can come across stilted and impersonal. If he allowed himself to be more conversational, his personal details would be more effective, and we would feel closer to him. His script, although well crafted, at times becomes a barrier between him and his audience.
React in the Moment: Some things Ellison says get rather larger reactions from his audience in the form of laughs or applause. Ellison doesn’t seem to be phased by this and keeps moving on without acknowledging the audiences’ reaction. If he took a moment to respond physically or even verbally, he would further align himself with his listeners and create more of a connection between the orator and the audience. Audiences always want to feel connected to speakers, and it’s the speaker’s job to create that connection. As a speaker, validating the audience’s experience is one way to forge that connection.
Show Enthusiasm: Although Ellison is inspirational in speaking of his experiences and accomplishments, he doesn’t seem to be noticeably excited to address the graduating class. His audience is a huge group of young people who are moving into one of the most significant moments in their lives. They have just graduated from a major American university and are raring for their professional life to begin. If Ellison had presented himself as someone who is excited for them, it would have allowed the graduates more room for their own enthusiasm. This exchange of excitement would have been another way to celebrate their accomplishment and allow Ellison to make them feel he experientially understands the importance of the moment they’re standing in.
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