Steve Jobs’s recent presentation to the Cupertino City Council on the unveiling of a new, complementary Apple campus was really heartening to see. Not only because of Apple’s reputed choice of architect in Sir Norman Foster, but because it showed that with a lot of practice and memorization, anyone can be a great speaker.
In comparison with his widely broadcast, super slick keynote speeches touting the latest and greatest from Apple, Jobs’s presentation to the city was noticeably less polished and rehearsed. He glanced at his notes, he stammered. He paused to search for words. It was, in every sense, a very real and human presentation. Perhaps the WWDC keynote he delivered on Monday unveiling iCloud, etc. had taken all his energy and left him very little time to prepare for the council address and he was somewhat unfamiliar with the subject matter at hand (architecture and landscape). The slideshow that he presented didn’t seem to be done in-house and contained very little information beyond what the building looked like (a ring), how many trees there were (‘indigenous’) and how many people would be accommodated. While he artfully dodged silly questions and evaded harder ones like a champion, Jobs’s true standout moment was when he related the cutesy tale of his summer job at the Hewlett Packard campus. In that moment, it is clear that he is in his element. The most effective presentations are those that tell a story, and here, Jobs knows everything there is to know about his longstanding relationship with the site and it comes through. He becomes more articulate and more confident. His voice takes on a soothing quality and he doesn’t need to look at his notes. He’s a great communicator and is able to project so much likeability and humility that he can make you believe in him, his silly little ring, and that one day, Apple’s new infinite loop is going to be the Salk Institute of the Silicon Valley.
(I don’t really know if I believe that, but with Foster at helm, it’s certainly possible.)
Carmine Gallo’s slideshow on Jobs’s presentation secrets contends that Jobs is not a natural born speaker, which I agree with. What he is, however, is a manic pursuer of excellence. Gallo notes that the two days prior to each keynote are spent going over his presentation, practicing and practicing, committing every word to memory and finding exactly the right tone and balance. Inasmuch as Apple’s tech gadgets go through refinement and testing, so do his presentations.
It’s not a gift, and it’s not even a secret. I’ve been told that I’m a confident presenter and the last firm I worked with pursued me ferociously and gave me great opportunities because I was able to convince them of that during the interview process. But I’m actually not, never knowing what to say to people. I’m a nervous wreck before and during each presentation, and most of it is an act, for in my heart, I’m a shy little crab who would rather stay home and knit something. But I do think that what I do well is that I am able to convince myself that I DO like the attention and I DO know everything there is to know about ___, and perhaps that comes through to the audience. I try to explain my work in the same way that one would tell a story–with logic, clarity, and cohesiveness that flows easily from one thought to another. I try to lay out my presentation materials in the same manner, so that if I forget, they prompt me to remember the script. I don’t think I’m a great actor, but I suppose that great presenters are by necessity actors, especially if they weren’t fortunate enough to be born with the innate talent of speech. The keys to being a great presenter are then conviction, writing it down (verbatim), memorization, practice, and a little bit of friendly swagger.
Here’s Mr. Jobs’s council presentation and a clip from the WWDC keynote for comparison: