What Tennis Taught Bill Gates: Ask, Don’t Tell


(By Randy Lane) When I was a young DJ at KUPD Phoenix, I set up a song with what I thought was a clever intro. Suddenly, the PD burst into the control room and sharply said, “Don’t ever say anything stupid again on the air!” I was speechless; mortified.

Did my on-air performance improve? Well, no. For the next month, I was afraid I’d say something stupid every time I opened the mic. I played it safe and regressed as an air talent. That PD was later fired and replaced by the late great Todd Wallace, who took a positive approach to coaching and encouraged creativity.

I read Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis shortly after becoming a program director. That landmark book formed the basis of my talent coaching philosophy. Rather than dictating feedback to pro athletes, Gallwey perfected the art of asking the right questions so the athletes would own their growth.

He wouldn’t tell a tennis player, “Keep your eye on the ball.” Instead, he’d say, “Which way was the ball spinning when it came across the net?” The player would likely respond, “Let me watch it more closely, and I’ll tell you.”

In his blog GatesNotes, Bill Gates said The Inner Games of Tennis is one of the few books he’s read twice, “Groundbreaking…I still give it to friends today,” Tom Brady credits the book for keeping him calm and composed in the face of Super Bowl adversity. Billie Jean King called the book “her tennis bible.”

The Randy Lane Company continues to use Gallwey’s technique effectively, coaching talent at all skill levels. Rather than telling talent their story lacked emotional connection, we’ll ask, “What parts of your story connected emotionally with the audience?”

Take a deeper dive

Approximately 20% of the time, talents won’t respond to a question with the point you want to make. Presentation is everything. We have found the tone of your feedback must match the individual’s personality. If we’re not sure, we’ll ask talent if they perform best when feedback is mild (very positive), medium (matter of fact), or spicy (direct).

If you want to dive deeper into managing employees and coaching personalities PCM (Process Communication Model) and  Myers-Briggs give you the tools to customize your approach to giving feedback to different personality types.

Both methodologies will help you be a better manager or coach. I’ve had the privilege of taking the personality test on both programs, and I’ve found PCM to be more actionable.

Randy Lane is the owner of the Randy Lane Company, which coaches and brands radio and television personalities, business professionals, sports personalities, entrepreneurs, and pop culture artists, helping them master communication skills to have an impact on their audiences. Read Randy’s Radio Ink archives here.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here