This article is my contribution to the latest Angela DeFinis Blog Carnival which is on the topic of “The Impact of Public Speaking on Top Sales Performance.”
Steve Jobs is a laid-back, softly spoken, jeans-wearing, middle-aged geek. So what makes him one of the best salesmen in the world? You could argue that he doesn’t have to try too hard because his company, Apple, designs such fantastic products. But great products don’t sell themselves. No, the key to Steve Jobs’ success is his way with words, and his consummate skill in using them to work a crowd.
Over the years, his Macworld keynote presentations – in which he announces his company’s latest products – have become legendary. He makes it look easy, but there’s a great deal of careful thought and artifice behind his masterful performances.
Take, for example, his historic 2007 Macworld keynote presentation, which launched the iPhone. Despite his understated delivery style, Jobs succeeds in drawing us in from the outset by quietly telling us that he’s been looking forward to this day for two and a half years.
In just three minutes he takes his audience from a state of hushed expectation to a crescendo of delight. He accomplishes this by repeating three key words: change, introduce, and revolutionary. These words leave us in no doubt that something amazing is about to happen.
Jobs is using the rhetorical technique of climax, and it’s interesting to note that the English word climax comes from the Greek word klimax, meaning ladder. It’s as if he’s leading his audience up the ladder of anticipation, one rung at a time.
Great political orators like Barack Obama appreciate what a powerful effect a word like change can have on an audience – and so does Jobs. And the juxtaposition of the word introduce – with its promise of delivering change – eventually whips his audience into a frenzy of applause; one that is sparked by the final curtain-raising phrase, “today we’re introducing…”
“…every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything…Apple’s been very fortunate; it’s been able to introduce a few of these into the world. In 1984 we introduced the Macintosh. It didn’t just change Apple, it changed the whole computer industry. In 2001 we introduced the first iPod. And it didn’t just change the way we all listen to music, it changed the entire music industry. Well, today we’re introducing three revolutionary products…”
Apple is of course one of the most powerful – and instantly recognised and understood – global brands in the world; and the three words encapsulate its essence: “introducing revolutionary change”.
Having taken his audience almost to the top of the mountain, Jobs then pulls off a masterstroke. He uses the classical rhetorical device of the three-part message to trick his audience. Having already told them that one would be very fortunate to get the chance to work on even one revolutionary product in the course of a single career, Jobs starts the drum-roll by announcing not one, but three such revolutionary products: a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, and a breakthrough internet communications device.
Next, in another carefully choreographed climax, he repeats the list four times; and then in final sleight of hand he uses a puzzle – or enigma, as the ancient rhetoricians would call it – to focus his audience’s attention before they finally set foot on the summit.
“An iPod (applause), a phone (applause) and an internet communicator… Are you getting it? (puzzle)” And in a final coup de foudre he removes the veil with a flourish. “These are not three separate devices. This is one device. (cheers!) And we are calling it: iPhone. (more cheers). Today Apple is going to reinvent the phone!”
It’s no accident that Jobs uses the present tense here, because it adds to the thrill of the occasion by fostering the illusion that the revolutionary new phone is literally being invented before his audience’s eyes. Now there’s showmanship that even the great P.T. Barnum would happily have doffed his hat to.