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Deliver Engaging Presentations Like Steve Jobs

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This post is part of a series called Presentation Fundamentals.
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Steve Jobs is widely recognized as having been one of the greatest communicators of our time. Millions of people around the world would tune in to see his keynote presentations for Apple. His captivating presence oozed charisma. To a large extent, his engaging style wasn't something Jobs was born with. It was a skill he learned. With that in mind, what can we learn from the way Steve Jobs gave presentations?

Let's start with you. I'm assuming you're reasonably confident in front of a crowd (if not, check out our Jump-Start Guide to Presenting). You give decent presentations, but you wish you had a bigger stage presence. You'd love to be known as someone with the x-factor. You want to give presentations that make your audience go "wow!" and provide them with an opportunity to see the world from your point of view. If this is you, you're ready to learn from Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs was once asked what he thought about the fact that Apple's iTunes software was so popular with users of Apple's arch-rival operating system, Windows.

Jobs replied: "It's like giving a glass of ice water to somebody in hell."

In other words, Windows users found Apple's approach to software design refreshing in the extreme.

We live in a world where business presentations are often bland, uninspiring and lacking in passion. In this world, Jobs's presentation style is as refreshing as the iTunes software was to Windows users.

Let's take a dip in these refreshing waters. As our case study, we'll be looking at Jobs's 2005 Commencement Address at Stanford University, How to live before you die, which is available on YouTube

What can we learn from the way Jobs presents?

Tip 1: Dress Appropriately for the Occasion (0:15)

Steve Jobs's signature style was to wear a black turtleneck sweater. He wore it every day and everywhere. In most situations, it was appropriate.

Yet for his Stanford Commencement Address, Jobs donned the traditional academic regalia. This is the appropriate clothing for a formal academic speech.

Wearing what's appropriate isn't just about adhering to social norms. What you wear will impact how the audience perceives you, and the level of attention they give to your presentation. Additionally, the clothes you wear will influence how you see yourself. Dressing appropriately will give you a confidence boost and add to your charisma and stage presence.

Tip 2: Be Bold With Your Pauses (0:20-0:26).

When you're on stage and the adrenaline is flowing, it's tempting to rush through your presentation. You want to reach the finish line as quickly as possible. As such, you rarely stop to pause. By speaking without pausing, you fail to give space for your audience to reflect on your words.

You'll never see that mistake from Steve Jobs. Jobs knew that silence builds tension and raises anticipation.

After he thanks his Stanford audience for their warm welcome, notice how Jobs continues to pause even after the applause has died down. His silence appears to go on a second or two too long. This creates a rising sense of tension. Every person watching him waits in silence for him to speak. He's only said two words so far, and he's already caught the audience in his spell.

Jobs not only uses pauses to good effect. He also speaks at a steady pace, and enunciates his words carefully. Speaking slowly makes your audience more interested in what you've got to say. By not rushing, you're showing that you're a confident person. You're someone who's worth listening to.

Tip 3: Make Your Audience Feel Special (0:26)

Human nature dictates that compliments make us feel good, even when they're not directed to us personally. Research by computer scientists shows that even flattery from inanimate devices such as computers gives us good feelings.

As such, don't be afraid to compliment your audience. If you make them feel special, the audience will warm to you. When your audience likes you, you're seen as more credible, so they'll listen with their full attention.

Look how Steve Jobs masterfully makes his audience feel special:

"I'm honored to be with you today for your commencement from one of the finest universities in the world."

Tip 4: Open With a Hook (0:35)

Hooks pull your listeners in, making them sit up and listen.

"Truth be told, I never graduated from college, and this is the closest I've ever gotten to a college graduation."

The opening hook Jobs uses is especially powerful, because it's both relevant and surprising to his audience. On top of that, it's humorous and gutsy. If you were invited to give an Ivy Plus commencement address, would you open with the fact that you never graduated college?

When you open with a powerful hook, you should always deliver on what your hook promises or points towards. If Jobs hadn't expanded on his hook in the rest of his speech, then the enchantment of his charisma would probably have been broken.

Notice how Jobs continues to drop hooks throughout his presentation. He's continually giving teasers of what's to come, piquing the interest of his audience. Here are two examples:

I dropped out of college after the first six months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why'd I drop out? It started before I was born.

We worked hard, and in ten years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a two billion dollar company with over ten thousand employees. We'd just released our finest creation, the Macintosh, a year earlier. And I'd just turned thirty. And then I got fired."

Tip 5: Tell Stories (0:47)

"Today, I want to tell you three stories from my life. That's it. No big deal. Just three stories."

If you plan to hold the attention of your audience for any length of time, then the majority of your presentation should consist of stories.

The human brain struggles to process raw data. Presenting facts without showing the connections between them is a turn off to listeners. They'll struggle to pay attention, and it's not really their fault. You're expecting them to work too hard, and you're overloading your brain. So they run out of mental energy to follow what you're saying.

Stories make raw data meaningful. Stories establish connections between facts. When information is embedded in a story, we're more likely to remember it. As communication theorist Nick Morgan writes:

"If ... you tell your audience a story, you get to jump right into the deeper parts of their brain, where emotion and memory work together, the hippocampus and amygdala. They hear your words differently, because they compare them with stories they’ve heard before and log them in along with The Lord of the Rings, Iron Man 3, and Bambi."

Note: Want some Jobs-esque tips on storytelling? Then check out the Pixar storytelling tweets.

Tip 6: Use the Rule of Three (0:47)

Notice how Jobs breaks his talk down into three stories. He's making use of "The Rule of Three". This is a writing principle that's used in storytelling and public speaking. The rule suggests that things that come in threes are funnier, more satisfying, and easier to remember.

Looking back in history you'll find this rule in traditional fairy tales (The Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears) and nursery rhymes (Three Blind Mice). It can also be seen in the traditional three point sermon structure used by preachers.

You can take advantage of the rule of three by:

  • telling three stories (as Jobs does)
  • making three points for your audience to remember
  • basing your presentation on three objects, colors, emotions, events or ideas.

Using the rule of three helps to organize your presentation into a natural structure.

Tip 7: Risk Being Vulnerable (2:41)

"It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made... It wasn't all romantic. I didn't have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends' rooms. I returned coke bottles for the five cents deposits to buy food with. And I would walk the seven miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal at the Hare Krishna Temple."

Jobs shows courage in talking about the difficulties he overcame. Being honest makes you vulnerable, and being vulnerable is a risk. When you're giving a presentation, vulnerability is a risk that can pay great dividends.

All stories need a bad guy to create conflict and maintain tension. Only by overcoming this conflict can the hero of the story discover his true character.

Villains don't have to be monsters or dragons. In Jobs's story of leaving college, the villains are the dangers that lurk in the background and the difficulties he's forced to work through when he makes the tough decision to quit. Later, the villain is the fact that he gets fired from his dream job at Apple  the company he created.

By talking honestly about these difficulties, Jobs holds the attention of his audience. He also uses the tension in the stories to draw lessons for his listeners. The points he makes flow directly out of the tension in his stories.

Make sure the stories you tell have conflict. You'll hold your listeners' interest, and they'll find it easier to recall your main points. A story without conflict isn't really a story.

Tip 8: Use the Phrase "Let Me Give You An Example" (3:28)

Here's a tip that will force you to include stories in your presentation. If telling stories isn't something you do naturally, then this is a great place to start.

When you make a point, finish it off by saying "Let me give you an example." That way, you make yourself get into the details of a story.

This phrase also serves another purpose. It's a mini-hook that indicates to your audience that things are about to get interesting. It's a way of saying "Listen up, guys!" without being obvious. If you ever notice you're losing the attention of your audience, turn to an example.

Tip 9: Makes Your Points Pointy (4:56)

Perhaps you're a natural storyteller. If this is you, then your issue is more likely to be getting to the point or making any points at all.

When you're giving a presentation, people want to learn something from you. You've been given the chance to speak so you can impart wisdom to your audience. Storytelling is a great way to do this, but your stories will be even more powerful if you explain the point of them.

You don't have to be obvious about making your points; you can flow into them naturally. But make sure that at the end of each story you tell, you summarize the purpose of the story.

Jobs does this at the end of each story he tells. Here's his first lesson:

"You have to trust in something. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well worn path, and that will make all the difference."

Tip 10: Practice and Prepare

Jobs's dedication to getting his presentations perfect was legendary. He would spend hours or weeks on stage perfecting his delivery. He'd give his Apple keynote speeches from memory. He'd work the stage, walking back and forth, and grip the audience with his eye contact.

Preparation lies behind the best presentations.

Yet in the Stanford Commencement Address, Jobs reads his speech from notes. He looks down to read them, and rarely makes eye contact with the audience.

Even one of the world's best presenters, giving one of the most heartfelt presentations of his life, wasn't perfect. Remember, learning how to present is a journey, and you'll grow each time you talk in front of an audience.

Tip 11: One More Thing (13:07)

In the opening of his speech, Jobs explains that he'll tell three stories. Yet once his three stories are finished, he concludes by telling another story. This story wraps up everything he's previously said into a neat, memorable package.

This is the trick of saving the best until last. Jobs frequently did this during his Apple keynote speeches. He'd wait until the moment when he'd apparently finished his presentation. Then he'd say "Oh yeah, there's one more thing" at which point he'd introduce the star product, the real reason for the keynote.

Though Jobs didn't always do this, it injected mystery into every speech he gave. Would there be a surprise ending? The audience had to wait to find out. The "one more thing" technique also allowed him to finish on a high, giving his new product announcement the biggest possible impact.

Resources

Graphic Credit: Presentation designed by Alexander Bickov from the Noun ProjectGlasses designed by Thomas Hirter from the Noun Project.

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