With nothing but a microphone, Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, made his most famous speech. No slides, no special technology. Just a microphone and a story to tell.
A presenter, a voice, a story. Delivering presentations in person, using only these three elements, is totally do-able. Just you. No slides, projections, flipcharts, posters, boards.
Now, the absence of visuals doesn’t automatically make a presentation worse, better, or even equal to others in which the visual elements are present. Even two professionals doing presentations on identical topics – one using slides and the other not – can be excellent.
The point is that both tactics can be excellent in their own ways. And since it’s impossible to compare the two options, because they’re very different, when guiding a client we usually explain that both alternatives are valid, and each comes with its own advantages and limitations.
Here’s an example in the corporate world of somebody known for, among other accomplishments, his presentations at product launches. Yes, Steve Jobs did use slide projection to announce all the new products from Apple. He always used very good visual support, minimalist slides and great video presentations that touched all kinds of different publics, making his public appearances special, unique moments.
But in a departure from his usual routine, by far the most famous and successful presentation by the founder and former CEO of Apple and Pixar Animation was done outdoors, without a single visual aid – just a presenter, voice and a story.
In his speech, informally named, “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish,” he told three stories in one: the first two, “Connect the Dots” and “Love and Loss,” summarized the life and work of one of the greatest visionaries and achievers in the technology market, and the third, “Death,” expounded a particular view of the idea of finitude and how it’s important for us to recognize it in order to make better choices and not give up the paths we choose for ourselves.
Jobs believed in 2005 he had won his fight against the pancreatic cancer diagnosed the previous year. The experience, in his own words, was “the closest I’ve been to facing death.” Maybe that’s why, on that bright day on the campus of Stanford University, the former student told the graduates a “dramatic” story – or rather, three.
The best of the Steve Jobs performance was undoubtedly the content he was presenting, the story being told. But it’s worth highlighting a few other points, as well, that show how you can have excellent performances without relying on the support of visuals:
VISUAL CONTACT – Disciplined, Jobs maintained constant eye contact with the audience while reading the text from small pieces of paper. This technique increases the levels of interaction and connection with an audience.
SOUND OF THE VOICE – Another aspect worth highlighting concerns the very regularity of the voice. Jobs didn’t use a monotone, nor did he abuse treble or bass tones. Instead, he stayed in a comfortable range for his voice. When we set aside drastic swings in tone of voice, especially when they don’t have a specific purpose, the voice becomes more pleasing to the ear.
PAUSE – Throughout this major speech, the former executive used the so-powerful pause. Sometimes he used short pauses, at other times longer pauses, in this way avoiding the typical mistake of those who remember to pause only when they start a paragraph or see a comma. It’s possible – and highly desirable – to apply the pause at other times, too, to avoid reading too long without interruption. Go back and watch the video: Jobs uses the audience’s laughter to coordinate his pauses.
HUMOR – “A year ago I was diagnosed with cancer … I had a tumor on my pancreas. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was.” You see, you can use humor in even a very formal ceremony, and even to address something delicate, as long as it’s appropriate. So for your own presentations consider the contexts and audience profiles, and, if it seems appropriate, don’t hesitate to use humor. Remember: don’t appeal just to the rational side of your audience; you need to touch them emotionally, too.
TURNING POINT – Leaving college; being fired from his company; the cancer diagnosis. These three episodes from Jobs’s life were negative turning points in the story. He used them not only because they were facts but also because they generated excitement, aroused the interest of the public for what would come next, and above all provided an opportunity for the character (himself) to overcome a difficulty. The real lives of people and businesses are made of ups and downs, so we at SOAP always talk about the need to exploit the difficulties, positive and negative points, in presentations.
BREVITY – In another passage, the founder of Apple talked about another shift, this time a positive one. He spoke of how he went back to lead the company again. Certainly, this passage of his career was infinitely more complicated and full of details than what was presented. But at that time, it mattered little about all the negotiations and legal and financial procedures involved. What mattered was saying that he had overcome the fact that he had been fired from the company. And he did this: “In an unbelievable change of events, Apple bought NeXT. I returned to the company.” Simple, concise, factual, and without compromising the story.
CHANGE OF CHARACTER – The story used by Steve Jobs has much in common with the stories of so many other characters that arouse interest, be they in film, theater, literature or corporate presentations. The main character changes! Throughout the speech, Jobs told us his story: how he went from being a child rejected by his biological family to growing up in a family of limited financial resources eventually to becoming, against all expectations, one of the most important and richest businessmen in the world, due to sheer persistence and the ability to overcome adversity. Finally, Jobs left us with the main message, his formula for success: “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish.”
The Mark of Success
While we were writing this text, the YouTube counter for “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish” showed almost 18 million views – and still, this video is nothing more than Steve Jobs, reading a speech on a stage. Just that. Presenter, voice and story. A Successful Presentation.