The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How Apple Changed What Your Audience Expects

This article is based on the webinar delivered by bestselling author Carmine Gallo, which can be viewed here.

Apple co-founder and CEO, Steve Jobs, was an extraordinary presenter. He brought theatre and storytelling to the dry world of computing, and transformed presentations into an art form, complete with narratives, props and visuals. Years before TED Talks made their foray online, Jobs had already risen the bar for what audiences could expect from a presentation.

“For example, in 1984 when he launched the Macintosh for the first time (some time before PowerPoint and Keynote), it was like a Broadway production,” says communications advisor, Carmine Gallo. “The ability to communicate your ideas persuasively is the single greatest skill that will set you apart in the world of global competition.”

Gregory Berns, professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University, writes that “a person can have the greatest idea in the world, but if that person cannot convince enough other people, it doesn’t matter”. According to Gallo, Jobs made use of three key techniques to persuade and convince his audiences, which helped his ideas to stand out and be memorable…

He used emotion to help his presentations come alive

Steve Jobs wore passion on his sleeve. This passion didn’t necessarily stem from the computers and devices that he developed, but rather the ways in which they could be used to unleash creativity. Within his presentations he would use the word “passion” quite frequently. “It’s okay to share your enthusiasm, and tell the audience what you’re excited about,” says Gallo.“Passion is contagious.”

Harvard researcher Amy Cuddy, writes within her book called ‘Presence’: “we tend to put our faith in people who project passion, confidence and enthusiasm; these traits can’t easily be faked.”

A study by the University of Minnesota found that when an individual meets or hears people who are genuinely passionate and excited about a particular topic, it rubs off on them and changes the way they feel about a particular topic. Presenters, therefore, need to be clear on what they are passionate about, and transfer that passion to their audience. According to Gallo, the best tool we have to achieve this is the art of storytelling.

Storytelling is in our DNA, he says. It began around a campfire 400,000 years ago, and neuroscience has taught us a lot about storytelling over the past few years. Princeton University has been studying the subject, and has found that when two people are engaged in storytelling, a psychological process called neural coupling takes place, when the stories synchronise the listener’s brain with the teller’s brain. Furthermore, when captivated by an emotionally engaging story, chemicals are released in the brain: cortisol which makes you pay attention, dopamine which makes you feel good about the speaker, and oxytocin which is the “love molecule” or empathy drug. So when two people are engaged in storytelling, they have empathy, which is important as it makes the listener more likely to back an idea or a cause.

Bryan Stevenson, a US civil rights attorney, generated the longest standing ovation of any TED Talk in its 30 year history for his talk entitled “We need to talk about an injustice”. It’s received more than 3m views, and according to Gallo, 65% of the content falls under what Aristotle would call “pathos”; i.e. storytelling and emotion. Within it, Stevenson told three short personal stories which related to his theme of injustice; anecdotes of things that had happened to him. These are often called ‘signature stories’, which refer to the one story you can tell about a brand or about yourself, which is repeatable, and which is core to who you are which advances your organisation’s mission, values and strategy.

According to two Berkeley professors, Jennifer Aaker and David Aaker, signature stories are “almost always far more effective and impactful than communicating facts”. So according to Gallo, when you’re giving your next ‘presentation’, think about the signature stories or personal anecdotes you can refer to which will help build some emotion and authenticity into what you are saying.

A notable example of a signature story relates to a Mr Fred Schultz, who in 1961 got injured on the job. He had no health insurance and his family found it difficult to make ends meet. His son, Howard, was only 12 years old at the time. That’s why, several years later, Howard Schultz was one of the first CEOs at Starbucks to offer full time health benefits to part time workers. Howard Schultz has never got tired of telling this story, and writes “the more uninspiring your origins, the more likely you are to use your imagination and invent worlds where everything seems possible.”

“A signature story tells you so much more about the values of a company than 50 PowerPoint slides could,” argues Gallo. “When people know the story behind a product or a brand, there’s a meaningful connection established, making them more likely to buy into it.”

In 2005, Steve Jobs famously delivered his Stanford University commencement speech. He opened with the following introduction: “Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal.” The three stories focused on critical moments within his life, such as when he received his first cancer diagnosis, and shared the impact that these moments had on him. The speech is well worth listening to as a lesson in how Jobs built emotion into his public speaking.

He created a sense of novelty

“All great stories need to have a twist. In neuroscience, we call it ‘violating expectations’,” says Gallo.

Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, employed this technique within a TED Talk in 2009, where he unleashed a swarm of mosquitoes into the audience, to explain how malaria is spread. The video went viral. “If you do something that people don’t expect, they’ll remember it,” Gallo argues.

“Our brains are trained to look for something brilliant and new, something that stands out, something that looks delicious,” says Dr A K Pradeep, author of The Buying Brain.

Gallo suggests the idea of using a prop, for example, which will help to create multisensory experiences. When Jobs launched the iPad for the first time, on stage he had the replica of a living room complete with a leather sofa. Central to his presentation was the message that the iPad was more powerful than a smartphone, but more intimate than a laptop. To bring this to life he wanted his audience to be able to visualise the intimate setting where they would be using the product themselves in the future, and he created this through theatre.

Elon Musk, co-founder of Telsa, last year gave a presentation on a new battery he was creating that could store sunlight and convert it to energy. At the end of the presentation, just before leaving the stage, he revealed that all of the lights and electricity in the room were powered by this battery, which took his audience by surprise. A quote by a blogger at The Verge, T.C Sottek, following the event, said “dude’s selling a battery and he still managed to be inspiring”.

Gallo says to ask yourself what novel moments can you create within your presentations. This will undoubtedly require some thought and creativity, but Steve Jobs relied on this surprise element time and time again.

He made it memorable

Gallo explains that the human brain craves meaning before detail, and processes information quickly by looking at the bigger picture.

Richard Branson once said: “if your idea can’t be explained on the back of an envelope, it is rubbish”. Gallo suggests thinking about your big idea as a tweet, and considering how you could convey it to an audience in no more than 140 characters.“A great leader is able to strip things down to their essence,” says Michael Moritz, investor at Sequoia Capital.

When Steve Jobs launched the MacBook Air in 2008 for example, he did so via a single slide with the headline: ‘The world’s thinnest notebook’.

When the Apple Watch was launched, the media coverage that followed repeatedly referred to it as “the most personal device we’ve ever created”. This happened because it was the way in which Tim Cook consistently spoke about it, in every presentation and interview.

Gallo asks, what is the one thing your audience wants to know? He advises to always begin a presentation with this one thing, but beyond this, give the detail that people crave. Stick to the rule of three he says, that being that with short term memory the human brain can only remember three pieces of information at any one time.

Another memory trick, he says, is to make your data meaningful and put it in a context people will remember. Steve Jobs was already doing this back in 2001. When he launched the iPod in 2001, it came with 5Gb of storage, which at the time meant very little to the average consumer. So Jobs put this data point into a context that people would understand and want, saying “5GB = 1,000 songs in your pocket”. Apple continues to do this today. How thin is the new iPad? “As thin as a pencil”. How heavy is it? “It’s as light as pad of paper”. Take a data point, and use one more sentence to make it relevant. It’s a technique that good journalists use all of the time.

Gallo advises to also make sure that there is a visual component to your narrative. “If information is delivered verbally, people remember about 10%. But if a visual reminder is created, retention of that information will soar to 65%. So you can either create this through an image, or create a visual in the mind’s eye,” he explains.

For example, the Fort McMurray wildfire in Alberta, Canada, consumed more than 877,000 acres of land. When the story hit the news, few would have appreciated the scale of it, so one news outlet put it in context saying the size of the fire was 4.5 times bigger than New York City, which of course made sense to listeners.

Gallo also shares that K-Cups in the US came under widespread consumer pressure to make its coffee pods recyclable, after one reporter claimed that if the nine billion K-Cups sold every year were placed end to end, they would circle the globe 10.5 times. The analogy was picked up and referred to in hundreds of following articles. It made the data point tangible to the general public, and the story went viral, leaving K-Cups with no choice but to make its product recyclable.

There is much that we can take away from the presentation secrets of Steve Jobs. He was way ahead of his time, using master storytelling and theatre to capture the attention and imagination of his audiences, and ultimately persuade them to buy into his products or write about them favourably. See him in action here, in one of his most memorable presentations, utilising minimal slides, and listen to the audience reaction he receives…

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