How To Disappoint An Audience – by Apple

October 5, 2011

Every battle is won before it is fought.

So said Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese warlord-philosopher and strategist, and Apple proved him right again yesterday.

In Tim Cook’s first public outing as CEO, Apple’s fans were led to expect the much-trumpeted iPhone 5, and they were disappointed. Instead, Apple announced a new iPhone 4S, which has many cool features and is much more powerful than the original iPhone 4, but it looks the same and it’s not a 5.

The immediate reaction was one of disappointment among fans and commentators. A poll showed 81% of respondents were disappointed. The AAPL share price dropped, at one point by up to 5%, although it later recovered, but the market was hit, and a Business Insider article was entitled “Apple’s Disappointing iPhone Kills The Entire Market Comeback”. Jay Yarow said “People were right to feel let down! They didn’t get what they expected.”

Steve Jobs is a hard act to follow by any measure, and all eyes were on Tim Cook’s performance on stage to see if he could match the master. But if his performance was competent enough, the event still disappointed, because expectations had been raised and the event had been hyped, and the substance of the message failed to match the expectation. The BBC reported that “you could sense a great wave of disappointment rolling through the Apple community”.

Now I can hear you saying that Apple never announced that they would release anything called an iPhone 5, not yesterday, not ever. True. But the media speculation was so high in recent weeks that it was almost a fait accompli, and everyone was talking about the event as “the iPhone 5 launch”. TechCrunch announced a very certain “We know the iPhone 5 is being debuted soon.” LoopInsight announced the event as “the iPhone 5 event”. And there had already been plenty of leaks about the new teardrop design of the iPhone 5 which had originally been expected in June, and so they couldn’t possibly delay it any later than October, could they?

So were the media completely wrong to lead people to believe this was going to be the big day? Perhaps. But Apple were wrong to allow it.

I’ve already blogged about how it’s important to raise expectations to a level that’s high enough to make people interested, but not so high that you can’t then meet or exceed them. Apple just got this the wrong way round. To put it crudely, people were expecting a cool new iPhone 5. They got Cards.

That news sites and influential blogs gave people false expectations is certainly Apple’s problem, because what could have been a great event with some cool announcements turned into an event which disappointed people because of what it didn’t say, so it does affect Apple’s image – even if they will still sell shedloads of phones.

It was like going to see Jurassic Park 8 and leaving the cinema disappointed because there was only one small and docile dinosaur. If that’s what you’re expecting, it doesn’t matter how great the cinematography or acting are.

So since the resulting disappointment was Apple’s problem, it should have been Apple’s responsibility to influence expectations beforehand. That’s what PR is there for.

What, then, could Apple have done before the event to set expectations to a level that was high but achievable? Plenty. Here are some ideas.

  1. The event name and invitation. Having detected that people were expecting something unrealistic, they could have set clear expectations in the invitation or even the event name. If the invitation had mentioned something like “You remember the leap forward between the iPhone 3G and the iPhone 3GS? That’s nothing compared to what we’ll be announcing on October 4th” then people would still have expected a lot, but they’d have probably expected an updated 4 series and not a 5. And if a few journalists had received that, they’d have picked up on it and relayed it, and started speculating along the right lines. Instead, on receiving the press release, sites like LoopInsight immediately called it “the iPhone 5 launch”.
  2. A strategic leak. Apple should have realised that the battle was going to be lost unless they reset expectations, so a strategic leak to an influential blog or journalist might have been enough to achieve that. “We’re not calling it an iPhone 5, but it’s still a big step-change from the iPhone 4” might have been enough. Or “The outside is the same as the iPhone 4, but what’s inside is completely new.” Would that steal some of Cook’s thunder (or Schiller’s, as it happens)? Perhaps. But it raises the question “so what’s new inside, in terms of hardware and software, and what will it do for me?” – and that’s the right kind of question for people to speculate about before the event.
  3. A teaser. Imagine a video on the Apple web site, building up to the brand-new phone, and then unveiling what looks like the iPhone 4. Then someone saying “Hold on, that’s just an iPhone 4!” And the answer could come: “It only looks like an iPhone 4. Find out what’s inside on Oct 4.” And then perhaps the new phone’s screen could open one eye invitingly. The slogan “It only looks like an iPhone 4” takes something that people will say anyway, and adds the important word “only” which then raises expectations about what’s inside.

Frankly, there are all sorts of things Apple could have done. Yes, it is in a ‘quiet period’, but if it can make such a major product announcement during a quiet period, it can also set expectations properly. Its failure to do so has rebounded on it, and has caused the first perceived failure of Tim Cook’s tenure.

It just goes to show that it’s not always the delivery that lets a presentation down: it’s often mis-setting or misunderstanding the audience’s expectations. And with all it could have done to set expectations right, Apple can’t go blaming the media. Worse, when you willingly allow so many journalists to bark up the wrong tree, they end up getting angry at being made to look like fools, and they could decide to turn on Apple, which is no longer the cool underdog that inspired cult status, and which could end up portrayed as the next big corporate villain surprisingly quickly if they are not careful.

It’s a pity, because the iPhone 4S seems pretty cool, and deserves to be judged on what it is, not criticised for what it is not. And giving away the iPhone 3GS is a market-shaking announcement. If only they’d ensured expectations were set right, perhaps people would be talking about a successful debut for Cook, not a disappointment.

Every battle is won before it is fought. Tim Cook didn’t lose this one through his performance on the stage. Basically his PR people led him into an ambush even Jobs wouldn’t have escaped unhurt.

One more thing…

Apple’s product launches are quite long. This one had a lot of padding. The more stuff you announce at the same time, the lower the overall impact. If Jobs got one thing wrong in his most recent launches, this was it. One hour is enough, half an hour is better. Apple has absolutely no business giving air-time at an iPhone launch to an underwhelming app like Cards, or a few new skins for an iPod Nano. They can launch those with one of their regular emails.

BBC News Online’s Rory Cellan-Jones called it “an extremely long and ponderous event“. And many of Jobs’ events fell into that same trap.

When he launched the iPad2, he had three key messages. It’s lighter, it’s thinner, and it’s faster. That was all it needed – but it went on a long time. If Apple’s agenda yesterday had been to get three key messages across, it would have been these:

  • Here’s a fantastic new iPhone 4S with Siri and iOS5
  • We’re giving the iPhone 3GS away for free
  • iCloud is launching next week (I was wondering when it would finally launch, so it’s good to mention it)

And quite frankly, they should not have felt the need to add any more subjects to the agenda. I’d allow them a brief intro (a brief one) talking about some of their recent successes. But that’s all.

Lessons for presenters

  1. Delivery isn’t everything. Yes, it’s important, but your message is just as important as the way you deliver it.
  2. Understand your audience and their expectations.
  3. Set (or reset) expectations to a level where you can meet or exceed them. If you can’t or won’t do that, it will become your problem, so make it your responsibility.
  4. Choose 1-3 key messages and work to communicate them memorably. Cut out anything that doesn’t help deliver those key messages.
  5. Be brief, as FDR would have said.

Pitch 2.0 – The New Art Of The Pitch (Video)

August 1, 2011

To mark the end of the first season of Le Camping, the Paris-based start-up accelerator of which I’m proud to be a mentor, the Silicon Sentier team organized a fantastic event at the end of June 2011, the Le Camping Festival, for which no less than 900 people signed up. I was asked to give a short keynote presentation on something relevant to start-ups, so being the resident pitch coach, I chose to talk about the art of the pitch.

They wanted me to entertain and put on a show, and that’s what I enjoy most, so I decided to create a simple structure, with three easy-to-remember messages, and to borrow the style of Steve Jobs (for the observant, it’s heavily inspired by Jobs’ brilliant iPhone introduction in 2007 – see if you can spot all the references). The young and entrepreneurial audience knew exactly where it came from.

So here is the video (8 minutes) – I hope you find it entertaining and enjoyable, and if you can remember the three key messages afterwards, then it will have served its purpose. Any investor pitch – and in fact any sales pitch – will be far stronger with these three key ingredients which all too often are missing.

Context is King

November 2, 2010

Steve Jobs is great at it. But it only takes a little effort and imagination, and you can be great at it too. Great, that is, at putting things into context so your audience can understand and relate to them.

Of course, it’s the audience’s context that matters. You have to put yourself in their shoes, work out what they know and how they think and feel, and find something which is meaningful to them. It’s all about using something they understand to help them understand something new.

This post was inspired by the picture below, by Kai Krause (kindly shared under a Creative Commons license), which shows the true size of Africa by cleverly fitting other countries inside it. For people who do not know Africa well, but are well aware of the immensity of China, India and the USA, this is a great example of using something they do know to show them something they perhaps do not. (More examples below.)

There is a sound scientific basis for this. We all have our own reality tunnel, which means that we see new things in the context of everything we already know or have already experienced. If we can’t fit something in, we’ll either ignore it, or distort it – subconsciously – so that it does fit with our own reality. (The filters of generalization, deletion and distortion will be familiar to students of NLP.)

Therefore you have far more chance of getting your message across successfully and undistorted if you purposely relate it to something your audience already knows or understands. It’s like giving them a piece of a jigsaw puzzle and showing them where it should go.

Here are some other examples of putting things into context.

iPad sales. Steve Jobs announced in June 2010 that several million iPads had been sold since the recent launch. It’s hard to relate to several million of anything. It’s a big number, but is it a good or bad sales figure?

But Jobs hadn’t finished. He then announced that it was the equivalent of one iPad every three seconds. Now that you can imagine. Visualize an iPad coming off the production line every three seconds. Visualize a huge queue of people in an Apple store each with an iPad in their hand, and how many sales assistants would be needed to get one out of the door every three seconds. That’s something we can imagine and relate to. For the financial thinkers among us, that’s also a large chunk of profit every three seconds. Four months on, I don’t remember the sales figure, but I do remember ‘one every three seconds’.

Paper usage. Here’s one I used back when I was selling print outsourcing. I was working with the Brazilian subsidiary of a large US corporation, and I needed to grab their executives’ attention on the importance of saving paper and optimizing their print infrastructure. So I calculated their annual paper usage, and knowing that several million pages would elicit a ‘so what’ response because they couldn’t relate to it, I worked out how far the paper would stretch if laid end-to-end.

I then asked them how far they thought the paper trail would stretch, and when they had no idea, I was able to show them the answer on a slide similar to the one below. Their jaws hit the floor. This was something any Brazilian could relate to, and the idea of their paper trail going all the way through the Amazon (particularly since paper uses trees) hit them hard. I think that was the slide which won us that multi-million dollar contract.

Back to the Mac. Here’s another Apple example, from its recent Back to the Mac event where Apple tried to convince everyone that for all the success of their iPods, iPhones and iPads, they haven’t forgotten the Mac.

Apple COO Tim Cook talked about Mac sales, which are worth $22 billion, but again, he put this big and unimaginable number into context by adding that if Apple only sold Macs, it would be #110 on the Fortune 500 – i.e. the 110th biggest company in America. That’s something people can relate to far more easily.


Each of these examples is about using something people already know or understand, in order to help them to learn or understand something new. It requires you to get inside your audience’s head, to think the way they think, and to know what they know. Good presenters do this anyway.

Great presenters then use that empathy to communicate their messages in a way which is not only easy to understand, but which people want to remember.

Three Cs of Presenting

July 22, 2010

Don’t just present: Connect, Communicate and Convince.

Anyone can present, some well, some poorly. It just takes an opportunity and (usually) a few minutes to write all your notes in Powerpoint slides, and hey presto, you’re a presenter. You might even learn to use slides properly, remembering the basic principle that people can’t read while listening to you, and considering that you owe it to your audience to actually prepare what you’re going to talk about, instead of using bullet points as your teleprompter.

So you’re a presenter. Congratulations. Is that enough? Is it sufficient to have pretty slides and something to say? Will that achieve your objectives?

Woah, stop right there. Did you say objectives?

Yes, I did. As a presenter, your objective is not to get out of the room alive without having embarrassed yourself or negatively impacted your career prospects (although naturally it’s good if you can at least manage those). You have an objective to communicate one or more messages to your audience so they can do something with those messages.

OK, stop again. A message?

Yes, a message. You are there to pass a message – otherwise you might as well not be there, unless you are only there to entertain. (This rarely happens in business presentations.) Once you know your audience and your objectives, you need to work out what are the 1-3 things you want them to remember a week later, and which will help them to recall other details. 1-3, no more. If you don’t do this work, they’ll remember these three things:

  1. How boring you were
  2. Something wrong with the way you were dressed
  3. Something you said which they don’t actually need to remember

So get that message clear in your mind, so you can find a way to get it clear in the audience’s minds.

But how can you get that message across? This is where the 3C approach comes in. Connect, Communicate and Convince.


People will listen to you more readily and attentively if you have properly made a connection with them – if you are in the room WITH them, talking WITH them rather than presenting AT them. There are usually plenty of ways to do this. Here are just a few:

  1. Talk to members of the audience before you take the stage.
  2. Research your audience and find something you have in common with them. Ideally a common objective.
  3. Find ways to talk about THEM more than you talk about yourself.
  4. Smile.
  5. Make eye-contact with each individual for long enough that they really notice (assuming your audience appreciates eye-contact – don’t try this in Japan).
  6. Ask the audience some questions at the beginning. If you’re really daring, ask them what THEIR objectives are for your talk.

Think of it like a telephone call. Before you start talking, you have to dial the number, place the call and exchange pleasantries. So don’t just take the stage and start presenting. Take the time to make a connection, and then keep that connection going throughout your talk.


Presentation is not a great word because it focuses on the act of sending information, whereas the receipt of that information is at least as important. Your role as a presenter is in fact to be a communicator. You need to know the science of understanding so that you can get your messages across effectively and durably. You need to know your audience to understand how to get through to them, and adapt your talk and your delivery to them – they will not happily adapt to you.

Think of presenting at a brick wall. You can make a great presentation to a brick wall, but it won’t make any difference because the wall won’t listen or understand. Then imagine the wall disappearing and an audience taking its place – and then imagine yourself communicating with that audience, focusing not on how the message leaves your mouth but how it arrives and stays in their minds, and do what it takes to make your message stick (stories, examples, emotions, great images, etc.).


You might have managed these first two steps, which is already a great leap forwards, but the audience’s reaction might be:

So what?

Maybe they get your message, but they don’t believe it, or they don’t accept it coming from you because they don’t respect you enough. Perhaps you don’t have enough credibility in your subject. It might be because you’re not senior enough, don’t have the right education, or are clearly biased because you’re selling something. There are a thousand reasons why people might not be convinced. Therefore you need to prepare for that.

Work out why your audience (yes, this SPECIFIC audience) might find you lack credibility, or why they might not be convinced by your message. Then address those possible weaknesses in your talk. You can’t pretend to be a VP without being found out, so a lack of seniority might be an insurmountable obstacle in some circles, but in that case, maybe you should consider whether you are the right person to communicate such a message. Most perceived weaknesses can however be addressed.

Let’s take an example. Steve Jobs called a press conference to talk about ‘Antennagate’, the question of the iPhone 4’s apparent antenna difficulties. He had no problems with seniority, but if he’d just said “Well it works fine for me, just don’t hold it that way”, he wouldn’t have convinced many people. Instead, he used AT&T figures on dropped calls, Apple figures on complaints and returns, and the results of lab tests with multiple brands of smartphone. Furthermore, he gave the figures ‘warts and all’ – i.e. he included figures which partly suggested there was a difficulty. This made his arguments far more credible and convincing.

Remember: work out what your main weaknesses might be with that SPECIFIC audience, and create a plan to address them, so your message can be communicated convincingly without obstacles.

That’s what I call the 3C approach. Don’t just present: Connect, Communicate and Convince. If you can do all three of those, your audience will thank you.

Steve Jobs launches iPhone 4

June 8, 2010

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.


  • 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”
“Unheard of”
“Just gorgeous”
“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” – 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.

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