Steve Jobs: 5 Lessons He Taught Us From The Stage

The Web is alive with Steve Job tributes this week after his announcement to step down from his role as CEO. This tribute is dedicated to remembering the lessons Mr. Jobs taught us from the stage.  The ultimate showman, Steve Jobs reminded us that technology should be fun, loveable, and filled with thrills and suspense.  Even now in 2011, few CEOs are brave enough to infuse his level of creativity and playfulness into their public appearances. 

For those of us who are brave enough to learn them, here are the 5 Lessons Steve Jobs taught us from the bright lights of centre stage.

1) The Art of Simplicity – In a world where speed talking has become a badge of intelligence, Steve Jobs chose a cadence and rhythm that was slow and thoughtful.  He was not afraid to pause, and give important words the space they needed to take root in our imaginations.  He showed us his genius not by dropping SAT words, or heavy technical jargon.  He used the ordinary to express the extraordinary.  One of my favourite clips that exemplifies this comes from his introduction of the new iPod Nano in 2009. When it comes time to talk about the Nano’s video camera, he resists the temptation to talk megapixels, and simply says, “How good is it? Turns out, it’s great.  Let me just show you…” and he proceeds to SHOW us a beautiful video.  Simple. Powerful. We all nod our heads and agree that this is the right way to present. We know the golden rule of “show me, don’t tell me,” but rarely – and I mean rarely – do we really hold ourselves to this standard.

2) Connect the Dots – In his now legendary Stanford Commencement Speech, Jobs talked about his fascination with topography and the art of font creation during college, which lead him to spend a semester in a calligraphy class.  He loved learning about the different type faces, and as he put it, he loved learning about “what makes great typography great.” Everyone thought he was crazy for wasting time on something so obtuse.  Later in life, he would infuse this delight into the Mac.  Without that curiosity and “cross training,” we might never have had different type faces in our personal computing lives.  It sounds small, but for those of us who live in the written word, it’s a pretty big deal (I love me some Garamond). 

When things delight us in our personal lives and find their way into our work lives, invariably it makes our work better, and reveals a side of ourselves to people that they might not have otherwise seen.  Following our curiosity and infusing that delight into our work is part and parcel of being truly authentic and “present” to our profession of choice. 

3) Keep it Beautiful – One of the defining characteristics of Steve as a presenter over the past several years has been the beauty and elegance of not only his blockbuster product line, but his presentations.  Sitting in the cool darkness of the Moscone centre during MacWorld, audiences were wooed by their elegant design. He painstakingly rehearsed each and every slide to commit his key thoughts to memory, freeing up the slides to do what they were meant to do: set the mood, paint a picture, or drive home a simple, repeatable piece of information.  How often do we take the easy way out, burdening our audiences with slides that look like Word documents? All bullets and words, and nothing for the eye to rest on.  Creating beautiful things takes time, care, precision… it is a labour of love.  Which brings me to….

4) Launches As Love Letters – You need only listen to the audio of a Jobs presentation to understand that Mac World Keynotes were love letters to Apple fans.  Thunderous applause and unabashed nerd worship were to Jobs Keynotes what drum circles and patchouli oil were to Dead shows.  This was not by accident.  The products Apple has so painstakingly designed over the years were never for Wall Street. They weren’t to show up competitors.  They were for one thing: thrilling and delighting us.  When Jobs was interviewed by Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher at the All Things D show, they asked him how he felt knowing that Apple’s market cap had surpassed that of Microsoft.  Jobs replied, “It’s surreal.  But it really doesn’t matter much.” This devotion to Apple fans influenced every staged appearance Jobs did (perhaps with the exception of one press conference).  The next time you take the stage, how might you make it an expression of respect, admiration and ultimately love for your audience?

5) Frame the Argument – As my lawyer friend always says to me, “She who frames the argument, wins the argument.”  When Steve Jobs was asked a pointed question about a controversial aspect of Apple’s business, he was incredibly adept at re framing the argument on his own terms in a way that was seamless, authentic, and frankly, hard to argue with.  My favourite example comes, once again, from his interview with Mossberg and Swisher.  Mossberg broaches the subject of his letter, “Thoughts on Flash” that was written in response to the hue and cry surrounding Apple’s decision to not support Flash.  Mossberg was framing the issue as “Isn’t it bad for consumers who want the entire web? Aren’t you limiting their choices?”  Effectively, Jobs re frames the issue away from “consumer choice” to “creating the best possible experience for consumers,” two very different approaches.  In Jobs’s argument, technology products are “packets of emphasis,” and that as a company, they choose their emphases carefully, all in the name of creating the best possible consumer experience.  Flash didn’t live up to Apple’s standards, so they nixed it.  And guess what, “If people don’t like it, they won’t buy it! And if they do, they will!”  And what does the audience do? Erupts in applause.  So much for worrying about “consumer choice.”  Steve Jobs re-framed the argument, and won the argument.

To me, Steve Jobs will always be the ultimate Willy Wonka CEO. Sure, behind the scenes he was prone to occasional outbursts of anger or confrontation, but at the end of the day, it was all about making the most exciting, surprising, delicious candy possible to the delight of children around the world.  Thank you, Steve Jobs, for ruthlessly focusing on that which would make our eyes sparkle, and our pulses quicken.