Steve Jobs: Master of Presentation (aka the Reality Distortion Field)

Steve Jobs is famous for his presentation skills. I myself have seen him present and speak at over a dozen different occassions, at Stanford, at Pixar, at Apple, and at big Apple events like WWDC and Macworld. Audience members can be so taken with Steve during a speech that they often are surprised themselves at how locked in the moment they were, hence the infamous “Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field”.

Steve Jobs is not a great speaker by accident. It’s something that he spends a lot of time and meticulous attention on. Marissa Mayer, VP of Product at Google, told me that she often goes to the Macworld keynote with members of her product management team. Afterward, they try and do a quick breakdown of not what Steve said, but the how and why of his presentation, timing, word choice, and style. I personally agree that anyone who has an outbound role representing their company and their product in the technology space should go to the school of Steve, when it’s in session, if possible.

There was a great article in Seeking Alpha this week by Carl Howe that did a wonderful job breaking down why Steve is such a good speaker. Normally, I’d just link to it, but the content is good enough that I’m going to reproduce it here, for fear of the link at some point going dead.

If you enjoy public speaking, or are called on to present to executives or large audiences, think about the points below and your own presentation style.

One of the benefits of being at MacWorld this year was that it gave me the chance to dissect Steve Jobs’ presentation style in person (you can stream it yourself from Apple’s Web site). And while I was madly blogging on my cell phone while the keynote was going on, I did jot some notes about just how he sets up what is fondly referred to as his reality distortion field. My conclusion: there’s no magic here. He simply does all the things that a great communicator is supposed to, including many techniques that we teach. Jobs is so persuasive because he:

Rehearses — a lot. Jobs is extremely comfortable on stage. You can see in his eyes that he knows his content cold before he even starts. He isn’t trapped behind a podium. He knows when to get excited and when he needs to pull back. All of these things aren’t hard — provided you have the entire story you want to tell in your head. Jobs does — and that only happens if you have done the story over and over again in rehearsal.

Is himself. Jobs doesn’t try to imitate other people or be something he isn’t. He’s not afraid to get excited and emotional over what he is talking about. As an example, when he thanks the families of Apple employees at the end, you can hear him getting choked up about the commitment and dedication they had. The audience can feel the emotion behind his words, and that adds impact to anything Jobs says.

Uses visuals effectively. Jobs doesn’t clutter up his presentation visuals with a lot of words. In fact, the slide shown above probably had the most words of any slide he used. Most of his slides have such illuminating reading as 2.0B (the number of iTunes songs sold to date), or “Ads”. Without a lot of reading to do, the audience listens to Jobs more, giving the words he says more impact. Jobs also uses demos effectively; all of them use very simple examples rather than complicated ones. Why simplicity? Because simple ideas are easier to convey and easier for the audience to absorb.

Focuses on the problem he’s solving in detail. Watch Jobs’ first 7 or 8 minutes of the iPhone introduction (starting about 26 minutes in and running until 33 minutes). All of that time he spends setting up why smartphones are dumb and clunky. He doesn’t even talk about his solution to the problem until he’s told the audience no fewer than three times what criteria a successful product in this market must have. And amazingly, the product he introduces has exactly those criteria. It’s not only an effective marketing technique, but it creates drama and tension where there would be none otherwise.

Says everything three times. Jobs always introduces new ideas first as a list, then he talks about each member of the list individually, and then he summarizes the list later. And, he always uses exactly the same words each time. A great example is the three functions that the iPhone has: an iPod, a phone, and a revolutionary Internet communicator. Every aspect had its own section of the keynote, and its own icon that kept being repeated. He even got the audience to chant the three items sequentially with him over and over. The result: even listeners who aren’t paying attention get the message.

Tells stories. At one point late in the presentation, Jobs’ slide advancing clicker failed. He switched to the backup, and it wasn’t working either. So what did he do? He told a story about how he and Steve Wozniak build a TV jammer and used it in college TV rooms to stealthily mess up TV signals. The story had nothing to do with the presentation, but it kept the audience laughing and amused while the backstage crew fixed the problem. Yet, the story fit beautifully into the larger iPhone story overall.

Isn’t afraid of the dramatic pause. When Jobs switches topics or is about to say something important, he doesn’t rush into it. Often, he will go to the side of the stage and grab a drink of water. Or, he’ll just stand to the side of the stage and say something like, “Isn’t that amazing?” and just wait. The pauses both keep the audience from getting tired out and allows them to absorb what he has said. And more importantly, they create drama and anticipation for what is to come.

Uses comparisons to demonstrate features. When Jobs has a feature he really wants people to remember, he always compares it to something else. In the iPhone introduction, he compared the iPhone with other smartphones. When he introduced the iPod nano, he compared it with other flash players. Comparisons allow him to emphasize the unique selling propositions of his products and paint the competitive landscape on his terms. This one feature of Jobs’ presentations puts his presentations head and shoulders above others.

If anyone needs more convincing of how much of a difference presentation technique makes, just contrast Cingular CEO Stan Sigman’s presentation yesterday with Jobs’. Despite his professionally written content, his presentation just falls flat on too many words and not enough life. The audience started clapping at once point just to try to convince him to cut it short. Ouch.

Apple has built its reputation by sweating the details for its customers. Jobs does the same for his audiences. Few companies will effectively compete against Apple until they start doing the same. Until then, Jobs’ reality distortion field will be as powerful as ever.

Next year, the Macworld 2008 Keynote falls on my birthday.  I think I’m going to try and attend in person.  It has been a while since I’ve seen Steve Jobs live, and its something you want to do while you can.

2 thoughts on “Steve Jobs: Master of Presentation (aka the Reality Distortion Field)

  1. Pingback: Public Speaking Tips from Steve Jobs | listen to...

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