By his own high standards, Steve Jobs had something of a tough time yesterday at WWDC where he launched the iPhone 4. His demonstrations went embarrassingly wrong when the WiFi connection wasn’t fast enough and his brand new iPhone 4 was unable to load the New York Times home page.
You can view the video here.
Failure isn’t falling down, however – failure is staying down. Despite the best rehearsals, Murphy will often attack you on stage, and Jobs has been frankly quite lucky up to now. Even his meticulous preparation could not get over the 500+ WiFi base stations in the room, with half the audience taking notes on laptops or smartphones and the other half tweeting furiously.
So it’s all about how you handle it. To his credit, Jobs handled it very well (although I wouldn’t like to be the technician having to answer to him after the show – Jobs is well-known to have a remarkable temper and a low tolerance of failure). He smiled, he improvised a request for everyone to switch off their devices so he could do another demo, he joked (“Please police each other”, “I’ve got time!”), and he did not get flustered or annoyed.
If everything is going wrong, you can either laugh or cry. Laugh, and the audience will laugh with you, and probably sympathize. Cry, and the audience will disengage completely. Jobs got this right. But he could only be comfortable improvising because he knew his presentation so well and had prepared thoroughly.
Many people seem to think that presenting is either improvisation or learning-by-heart, or somewhere in-between. That is too simplistic. In fact it’s so much easier to improvise – or look spontaneous – if you have prepared everything meticulously, as Jobs does.
I’ve taken a good long critical look at his whole presentation yesterday, and here are my thoughts as a presentation designer and coach about what went well, and what didn’t go so well – the WiFi issues aside. I’d love to hear your comments too.
WHAT WENT WELL:
- Great slides. Jobs always uses simple, clear and beautiful slides, with one idea per slide.
- Very positive language. Jobs is a master at using extremely positive language to convey his enthusiasm and convince people his products are incredible. (Of course, if they weren’t as good as the hype, he’d be guilty of raising expectations falsely, so if your products aren’t as amazing as Apple’s, you might not want to be quite so positive – but you have to admire his use of positive language.) Here are some examples:
“Without a doubt one of the most beautiful things we’ve ever made”
“Beyond any consumer product you have ever seen”
“The thinnest smartphone on the planet”
“Never been done before”
“People haven’t even dreamed of a display like this on a smartphone”
“Really cool engineering”
“When you hold this in your hands, it’s unbelievable”
“Once you use a Retina display, you can’t go back”
“The best window on the planet”
- Use of humour. (Or ‘humor’ for the US audience. More on that later.) Jobs used humour on a few occasions to get the audience laughing. When showing the iPhone 4 for the first time, he joked: “Stop me if you’ve already seen this” – a reference to the stolen prototype widely broadcast recently, and the audience roared with laughter. This was a great way of getting over a perceived weakness of his keynote – that people had already seen what he was unveiling. Later on, after the initial WiFi issues, he joked: “Since this demo does not require the network, we should be OK” to similar laughter.
- Excellent structure. There were three key parts to Jobs’ presentation – the iPad, the App Store, and the iPhone 4. Three is a good number. The iPhone 4 part was split into 8 points, announced at the start. What makes it work, though, is the way Jobs has a clear beginning and end to each section. For example, “So that’s my update on the iPad” closed the first section, and not only was this a simple and clear way to close it, it was also a cue for applause, and audiences love nothing more than knowing clearly when it’s time to applaud (cf my recent post on applause).
- Clear use of figures. No useless graphs or tables here. The slide showed “2 million”. Jobs said “We’ve already sold 2 million iPads. That’s one every three seconds.” Nobody can really visualize 2 million of anything, but if you put a number in terms anyone can relate to, then the number suddenly means something. Furthermore, when talking about the App Store, Jobs had three figures to give: 15000 apps received every week by Apple; in 30 languages; and 95% are approved within a week. He used three slides, with one figure per slide. Couldn’t be clearer or simpler. How many of us would have been tempted to use a pie chart?
- Use of real-life examples. People love stories, they love real-life examples and not just theory or sales guff, and Jobs knows it. To show how cool the iPad is, he simply reproduced this quote from an email he had received:
- “I was sitting in a café with my iPad, and it got a girl interested in me. Now that’s what I call a magical device!”
- What a simple and great story! It uses pathos very neatly, made the audience laugh, but also makes a serious point in that the iPad is a very cool, even seductive piece of equipment.
- Playing to the audience. Although Jobs knew clearly that his worldwide audience would be many times larger than the 5000+ people in the WWDC conference, he also knew that getting the live audience on his side, applauding and laughing, would positively affect the viewing experience of the many virtual viewers around the world. So on multiple occasions, he talked to developers and made points which were particularly positive for them. He used another great story for this which says things far more positively and authentically than Jobs ever could:
- “I earned more on sales of The Elements for iPad in the first day than from the past 5 years of Google ads on periodictable.com” – Theo Gray, Wolfram Associates
- Repetition. When launching FaceTime, the new video calling app, Jobs recapped the main selling points, then showed a video about FaceTime, and then showed the same slide again with the same selling points. This didn’t seem false or wrong in any way – it was simply a very effective way of getting the message across. A point you don’t repeat or recall in any way is a point destined to be forgotten very quickly.
- Rhythm. If Jobs had simply been speaking for 80 minutes, even he wouldn’t have managed to keep the audience very interested. It is important to break things up at various points to maintain the audience’s attention. Jobs did this with videos, demos and guest speakers so there was never a long monologue and despite such a long presentation, nobody had time to get bored.
- Conclusion. Jobs concluded his speech with these words: “This is our new baby. We hope you love it as much as we do. Thankyou very much.” Again, this was a clear cue for applause, and a very simple and succinct way of finishing his presentation. You can bet he rehearsed that carefully.
Now, not everything went so well. There were some things that even Jobs could do better, and some of his guest speakers weren’t up to the same standard. Here are a few points to take away and improve for next time:
- Lack of enthusiasm. Jobs has been more enthusiastic in the past, not with his language, but with his delivery. Although at most times he appeared positive enough, at one point he said “We’re very excited” but he sounded as if he couldn’t care less, and it detracted from that message. If you are a newsreader and you have a wide smile while announcing a major catastrophe, that just doesn’t look right. Likewise, if you say you’re excited but sound glum, it also doesn’t work and sounds false.
- US focus. Jobs announced the US prices for the iPhone line-up, and a special offer from AT&T. That’s fine, but this was the “Worldwide” Developers’ Conference, and Jobs’ audience was a worldwide one. He could at least have used words around this such as “for the Americans in the audience” or “here’s an example of the prices we’ll be offering, and we’ll announce prices for other countries soon”, but he missed that opportunity, and to a non-American like me, came across as just yet another American who doesn’t realise that the US is one of many countries in the world, and far from the biggest. He also used US figures for smartphone usage – why is US data so important when the US is one of the least developed countries when it comes to mobile telecoms? Maybe many people will disagree, but I felt Jobs missed a trick with such a strong focus on the US which represented far from the majority of his total audience.
- Language blooper. This most likely isn’t Jobs’ fault but he was the messenger, and there’s nobody else there to shoot… Jobs presented a new component in the iPhone 4 called the “backside illuminated sensor”. This sounds fine until you realise that for the rest of the English-speaking world, ‘backside’ is what an American would call ‘butt’ or ‘ass’. Frankly, I’m not too sure I want my backside illuminated any time soon. Whoever named this needs an urgent lesson in intercultural communication (and Ideas on Stage will be happy to volunteer).
- Swaying around. This wasn’t Jobs but one of his guests, Activision SVP Karthik Bala. There was little wrong with what he said or how he said it (and he did have a very strong conclusion), but he had a real problem with swaying from left to right, which was accentuated because directly behind him (as viewed by the video camera) there was a border between the curtains and screen, and this accentuated his apparent nervousness. When presenting, either walk deliberately and for a reason, or stand still and move only your head and your arms (or some combination of both). Never sway!
- Hands in pockets. This was Marc Pincus, CEO of Zynga, presenting FarmVille for iPhone. (Am I alone in wishing that app had never been invented?) He looked nervous and unnatural on stage, tried hard but was seen to be trying hard, but his worst sin was to put his hands in his pockets. Jobs is a fine example of how to use your hands and arms in a presentation. Pincus would do well to learn from him.
Those are my conclusions from what was overall a very well-prepared and successful keynote. I’d love to hear your comments about the keynote and your reactions to my thoughts.