By Adam Lashinsky
November 24, 2010

Salesforce.com’s Marc Benioff shows that he knows how to work a room, at Larry Ellison’s expense.

I’m convinced that the ability to promote one’s self or one’s company is an innate rather than a learned trait. That doesn’t mean someone can’t try. But they’ll never be as good as the born showman, like, for example, the chief executive of Salesforce.com CRM , Marc Benioff. (To many, he’s still The Big Benioff, as Fortune.com Managing Editor Daniel Roth dubbed him way back in 2004, three jobs ago.)

Benioff appeared last week on a panel at the Web 2.0 Summit that easily could have been a big snore. (Watch it here.) It was about cloud computing and featured Benioff; Paul Maritz, CEO of VMware VMW ; and Andy Jassy of Amazon AMZN Web Services. Benioff was so sick with a head cold he could barely speak. This didn’t stop him from taking a simple and substantive question from moderator Tim O’Reilly — who isn’t getting the cloud? — and hijacking the panel.

The sickly CEO used the question as an opportunity to plug his company’s upcoming user’s conference and offer a discount to attendees of the Web 2.0 conference. When O’Reilly had the presence of mind to remind Benioff that he hadn’t answered the question — though it would have been even better to have offered Maritz and Jassy the opportunity to plug an event too — Benioff then gave the best substantive answer of the panel. He took a shot at Larry Ellison for Oracle’s ORCL approach to the cloud, which involves selling an expensive piece of hardware. (This is not a new trope for Benioff.)

The lesson was clear. Audiences love controversy. Nobody will ever get penalized for being playfully shameless. And only someone with a gut feel for how to pull off this serious silliness can ever really succeed at it.

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