Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Precious (free) Gift from Steve Jobs: Communicate with Impact

11 Million Views and Counting…
With the unfortunate passing of Steve Jobs last week, most people immediately think of his companies (Apple, Next, Pixar) and product innovations (Mac, iPod/ iTunes, iPhone, iPad) as his greatest contributions to modern society. However, his passing has brought even more attention to one of his most famous public appearances. In 2005, Steve Jobs spoke at Stanford University’s commencement ceremony and delivered an inspiring and memorable speech. In less than 15 minutes, the speech conveys a lot of wisdom and was particularly relevant to the audience of young people just starting their professional careers. He advised on important decisions about character, priorities, relationships, and more.

There’s no simple scientific formula that would enable someone to replicate exactly what Steve Jobs did in those 15 minutes. That said, Steve makes very effective use of some high-impact communication techniques that you can leverage to advance your career by improving your  speeches, presentations, and even one-on-one communication.

“Hook” Your Audience
More often than not, people start presentations with something soft, bland, and procedural. “I’m Mike Johnson, Vice President of Channels, and for the next 20 minutes I’m going to talk to you about our 2012 Channel Strategy.” Yawn. These kinds of intros often feel necessary to speakers, but they don’t immediately engage your audience. And keep in mind, your audience is probably used to video-on-demand on airplanes, DVRs, and internet content that lets them switch, in only seconds, from boring content to engaging content. If you don’t engage them from the outset, while they may physically remain in the room, their minds will be “surfing” to other places.

A hook is a communication technique designed to engage the audience, and it can take the form of a personal story, a controversial statement, a quote, or a question to the audience. Steve Jobs spends one sentence to say “Thank you I’m honored to be with you,” and then goes immediately into a hook to engage the audience. “Truth be told, I never graduated from college.” What a great way to get people’s attention at a college commencement speech!

People Remember Stories
At 00:50, Steve explains that he’s going to tell 3 stories, which highlights another powerful communication technique: storytelling. Stories are memorable, so if you want people to recall key points in your presentation, use stories.

Steve also uses a couple of techniques that help increase the impact and richness of his stories. First, he shows vulnerability. Anyone who’s been in high-tech for a few years has heard people tell self-aggrandizing stories about their unbridled success. As an audience, when we hear those kinds of stories we tend to see the speaker as egotistical and phony. Why? Because we’re all human and we all have weaknesses. And most importantly, those stories don’t really engage the audience.

By contrast, Steve Jobs, one of the most spectacularly successful and innovative people of our time, describes how he was given up for adoption as a child, and passed on by a couple who decided that they wanted to adopt a girl. This vulnerability helps us relate to him and draws us in. Later on, he also describes why he got fired by Apple’s Board and how that was the best thing that could have happened to him.

He also uses first person dialog, meaning that he uses specific direct quotes rather than simply characterizing what was said. At 1:45, he describes how the hospital called his parents-to-be and said “We’ve got an unexpected baby boy. Do you want him?” While the linguistic difference is subtle, the impact is much stronger than if he had said “The hospital called, said they had an unexpected baby boy, and asked if my parents wanted him.” Use first person dialog to make your stories more vivid.

Perils of the Podium
He may not have had a choice in whether or not to use a podium. In general, in our speaking engagements, we avoid podiums when possible because they tend to restrict and limit you as a speaker. Not only do they create additional physical separation from the audience, they tend to dampen hand gestures, restrict physical movement, and lessen eye contact with the audience. You can see this in Steve Jobs’s speech – he uses very few hand gestures, never leaves the podium, and has to deliberately force himself to look up periodically to re-establish eye contact with the audience. Granted, some of this naturally flows from the fact that he’s reading prepared remarks, but in general, we’d recommend that you either avoid podiums when possible, or be conscious of their limitations and try to compensate in other ways.

More than technique, what makes a great speaker and a great presentation is authenticity, meaning “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.” Get comfortable being yourself when you communicate. People dislike and distrust fakers, posers, and phonies. In politics, you hear candidates’ authenticity evaluated when people use phrases like “comfortable in his own skin.”

Steve Jobs comes across as extremely real in the commencement speech – not as a game-show host, not as a master thespian, not even as the all-powerful founder and CEO of Apple and certainly not as a phony. One great example is at 4:00 when he talks about his love for typography and says “It was beautiful…historical…artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.” You can feel his passion and curiosity, and it helps you understand him as a person. You feel like you know him, and that the person up there in front of the crowd is the same person he’d be if you met him for coffee.

Metaphor is a powerful tool that can both increase your audience’s understanding of your point and enhance the dynamism of your content. Steve uses metaphor multiple times during the speech, like at 7:20 when, in talking about being fired from Apple, he says “The heaviness of success was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner.” You can almost feel the weight of Jobs’ success at Apple, and the airy freedom when he started over. At 8:15, when he says “Sometimes, life is going to hit you in the head with a brick,” you feel a sense of suddenness, surprise, violence, and pain. It’s compelling and memorable, and that’s why you should thoughtfully use metaphor in your communications including metaphorical language and metaphorical images in your presentation slides.

Bring it Home
Just like the weak and boring openings described above, we’ve all seen (and probably delivered) regrettable closes to otherwise decent presentations: “Well, that’s my last slide,” “I’m just about out of time but I can take a couple of questions,” etc. These kinds of closes aren’t memorable, don’t reinforce your point, and don’t maintain the engagement of your audience. For his closing hook at 14:28, Steve uses a pithy quote, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” to put a memorable and inspiring finish on his remarks that reinforces the messages of his three stories.

Steve Jobs was a unique and incredible person whose legacy includes fundamental transformations of major industries including consumer electronics, personal computing, music publishing, movie production, and more. While there will probably never be another Steve Jobs, we can all take advantage of the techniques he used in one of the most memorable and widely-viewed speeches of his career.

Master Executive Communication and Presentation
ExecCatalyst has partnered with The Henderson Group to create a unique 2-day communication and presentation skills workshop designed for mid and senior level high-tech professionals. Executive Communicator teaches attendees how to influence executive decisions through more effective dialog and presentations according to Line of Business priorities. One Marketing Director said:

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Please share your thoughts on Steve Job’s presentation style and technique by commenting. You can also share this blog with your colleagues using the social media toolbar below.


  1. Terrific blog post! I really liked your explanation about the need for a hook.  The language "something soft, bland, and procedural" is very insightful and right on! -TG

  2. I think the analysis of Steve Jobs address was very good. To follow it with a sales pitch was tacky.

  3. Excellent analysis! Thank you!


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