Six lessons from Steve Jobs on public speaking

06 October 2016

By Loizos Heracleous

With his cool, calm exterior combined with a charismatic personality, Steve Jobs is often seen as the poster child for business leaders wanting to take centre stage and win audiences and customers over with a compelling rhetoric.

Jobs was instrumental in Apple becoming the world’s most valuable publicly-traded company within just over a decade after returning to the firm he co-founded.

His ’reality distortion field’, in other words his ability to bring people round to his way of thinking, is well known and admired. Here, I reveal six lessons we can learn from Jobs’ rhetorical style.

 

1 Know your audience

Jobs was brilliant at this and would adapt his style to suit his audience. Being able to gauge your audience is a vital skill for any business leader: a knack of knowing the language and rhetoric to use is an essential component of conveying leadership skills and getting the audience on your side.

Of course, you only need to watch an Apple product launch presentation to see how Jobs played to a receptive audience, but in my research of Jobs I found he was also able to alter his rhetorical style, depending on the situation and audience in question, far beyond simply playing to the Apple fans.

For example, when being interrogated by the US Securities and Exchange Commission in 2008 during a deposition - an audience which basically saw Jobs as a potential criminal and therefore paid little regard to his senior position at the firm - he used economical, descriptive, straightforward language, emphasising emotional appeals (ie pathos).

He mentioned that he was overworked, couldn’t see his family and was eventually ‘fired’. In other words he presented himself as just a human, as opposed to an all-powerful CEO of a huge tech company.

 

2 Practice, practice, practice

When looking at someone like Jobs, many people will inevitably ask “how can I develop rhetorical skills as a business leader like him?”

I would suggest the answer is simple: effective language skills can be learned by watching great rhetoricians and learning from them. 

Of course that is easier said than done, but by taking the time to reflect on speeches that made an impact on you and trying to understand why this was the case, you’ll really help yourself develop.

Take this a step further and use any opportunities you can to practice public speaking. While my study focussed on Jobs, who was unusual in his dedication and effectiveness of publicly presenting his company, you can focus on a leader who really inspires you.

By doing this you can raise your self-awareness in order to use language more useful to the context of the situation at hand; while at the same time, consistently promoting themes that are instrumental to your company’s future.

 
3 Choosing the right tool

Combined with knowing his audience, the late Apple boss was an excellent orator, utilising Aristotle’s classic tools of persuasion - ethos, pathos and logos to play to the differing audiences.

This is a skill I found Jobs to be especially proficient at throughout my study. I found the driving factor in Jobs’ rhetoric was his perceived ethos - his credibility in the situation - which significantly influenced how he used logos (logic) and pathos (emotion).

For business leaders I would, therefore, suggest that it is wise to appreciate the situation and how the audience sees you, and customise your rhetoric to that situation.

For example, in high-ethos situations use open, expansive and entertaining rhetoric. Jobs would certainly do this at product launches and at the Wall Street Journal’s D8: All Things Digital Conference where he was seen as a Silicon Valley icon, and therefore, able to impart his knowledge with abandon.

At a low-ethos event like the SEC deposition, which put Jobs under the microscope while Apple’s alleged backdating of shares was investigated, the Apple guru adapted his style to use rhetoric that was descriptive, formal and restricted to the facts.

Using the right tool for the occasion, whether it is ethos, pathos or logos, and sometimes a combination of them, is another lesson business leaders can learn from Jobs.

Business leaders should try to understand the level of their perceived ethos and how credible they are with that audience. They can then adapt as appropriate as Jobs did.

 

4 Re-purpose and reframe to remain in control

While researching Jobs’ rhetoric I found the Apple icon was often able to re-direct a conversation if it seemed to be heading somewhere not in line with his objective or end goal.

A CNBC TV interview featuring Jobs was a prime example of this. The interviewer took a hard line on Apple’s shift from IBM to Intel as a supplier, but Jobs re-directed an aggressive line of questioning into his own way of seeing the situation.

He was able to reframe the tone from the aggressive ‘business is war’ line of the interviewer to more of a ‘business is a journey’ theme, presenting the decision as one made in the normal course of business as the paths of Apple and IBM diverged, casting Apple in a more positive light and avoiding any inflammation of tensions with IBM.

This ability to divert a potentially negative line of questioning and reframe situations can help you keep the audience on the message you aim to present.

 

5 A constant key message

Despite being able to customise his rhetorical style to different situations, Jobs was also able to present a set of constant messages or themes through all his public appearances, something I witnessed across a number of different scenarios involving the late Apple boss.

Across a variety of situations Jobs often referred to his company as looking towards the future, being on a “journey” and he did this by using strategies such as reframing using metaphors and evocative language.

Similarly, Jobs often liked to refer to the people element of his firm, to highlight how important to Apple talent was, and Apple’s commitment to getting the best people and keeping them happy.

A third constant message was about Apple’s pipeline of products, how Apple was focused on creating innovative products that the market loved; in order to create excitement and anticipation of what Apple would introduce next.

It is important for you as a business leader to decide on the key messages that you want to share. These should ideally be consistent across situations and over time, no matter what the context.

6 Make strong use of metaphors, stories or imagery

A solid use of metaphors, stories and more generally evocative language, especially in high-ethos situations, is another skill of the most charismatic leaders.

Jobs often used the ‘business is a journey’ metaphor, as well as the ‘circle of life’ metaphor, that he used to structure his famous and influential Stanford commencement speech in 2005 (see above).

Metaphors can help aid the understanding of even the most complex of topics and connect on an emotional level beyond typical conscious awareness. 

People will remember these long after they forget about numbers and statistics. The exception to this rule would be if you are speaking to a specialist audience that wants to hear numbers - in that case, use numbers as well as stories and metaphors.

Even when using statistics, you are still selling a story, a vision of how things will be, and this is what brings the audience with you.  

 

Read Professor Loizos Heracleous’ research paper Charismatic Leadership and Rhetorical Competence: An Analysis of Steve Jobs’s Rhetoric.

Loizos Heracleous is Professor of Strategy and teaches Strategy and Practice on the Executive MBA (London).

Follow Loizos Heracleous on Twitter @strategizing.

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