Steve Jobs remains, without any doubt, my greatest presentation skills hero. It certainly helps that his work is so readily available on the internet, but no other business leader I have seen comes anything like as close to epitomising the presentation skills that I espouse in my coaching sessions and my book Presentation Magic.
Many studies have been made as to what made Jobs such an exceptional presenter, but I believe the most important answer is hidden from most of us and it remains hidden, despite an insightful new biography from Brent Schendler entitled Becoming Steve Jobs.
That secret is the time, effort and thought that Jobs put into the preparation of his presentations. This is truly important because it’s the one aspect of presenting that most business people fail to grasp fully, if at all. They always have other duties they perceive to be more important, to the extent that that many high-ranking executives get someone else to do most of the work for them and then ‘look through it on the train’. Even those who know or suspect they are not giving enough time and attention to preparation seek to justify their lackadaisical approach, perhaps by protesting that they want it to sound ‘fresh and off-the-cuff’. This usually produces unsatisfactory results, if not actual disaster.
The author of the latest biography got about as close to Steve Jobs as anyone outside his immediate circle, so I was really hoping for the ‘missing link’ to the secrets of his presentation skills. When coaching business presenters I often show them videos such as the launch of the MacBook Air. I point to various ways in which Jobs communicates like all the very best magicians wrapped up into one. Then I have to speculate, as I say: “Notice how it’s all beautifully relaxed and conversational. But don’t be fooled by that. I bet he wrote many, many drafts and then rehearsed it over and over again. He would have known how many paces he needed to walk to pick up the MacBook. He would have known which way the string was tied on the envelope – he couldn’t afford to get in a muddle at that point. He will even have practiced sliding it out of the envelope – props, he knew, could be your enemy, and he didn’t it want it falling on the floor at the big moment or maybe coming out upside down!”
So we still don’t have the definitive answer on Jobs-style preparation, but Becoming Steve Jobs does offer a few hints such as references from his wife to the way he agonised over his legendary Stanford address. Best off all, perhaps, is a tantalising insight, from Bill Gates no less:
“I was never in his league….I mean, it was just amazing to see how precisely he would rehearse. And if he’s about to go on stage, and his support people don’t have things right, you know, he is really, really tough on them. He’s even a bit nervous because it’s a big performance. But then he’s on, and it’s quite an amazing thing.
“I mean, his whole thing of knowing exactly what he’s going to say, but up on stage saying it in such a way that he is trying to make us think he’s thinking it up right then….” Gates just laughs.
In other words, the sort of attention to detail that Steve Jobs applied to, say, the development of an Operating System, examining progress ‘pixel by pixel, feature by feature, screen by screen’, according to the book, was replicated in the preparation of his presentations. Until the rest of us put in that sort of time and effort we will never know how good we can really be.