Earlier this year, I was standing in front of a room filled with Indian entrepreneurs. At first, it looked as if I’d be speaking to a half-empty room – but noted Indian investor Vinod Khosla was speaking to a full-house next door and the overflow crowd drifted into the next open door where I was waiting to speak.
Soon, I was in front of a room filled mostly with people who’d rather be listening to the hometown hero next door, covering a topic I had not previously talked about. I wasn’t sure I understood the culture in India.
So I was more than a bit apprehensive. I began by sharing a thought that occurred to me as the room filled up: “I’ve been assigned to talk about how to give great presentations. This is scary. What if my presentation on great presentations sucks?”
A few people laughed. Then almost everyone joined in. Their faces went from neutral but curious to a look that said they were interested in what else I had to say. From that point on, my talk went very well. When it was over, a small crowd gathered around me asking me questions. Some followed me out into the hallway. A few inquired about hiring me to consult or coach them. I’ve been invited back to speak to the group again next year.
The experience reminded me just how much I’ve learned about how to give great presentations over the past 30 years, and I decided to write a book about the strategic importance of a skillful presentation, especially for startups and entrepreneurs at the critical moment when they are launching their company or flagship product.
In this guest post, I’m going to share the prologue from that book. It’s a look at the stellar presentations from the best speaker the technology industry has ever produced: Steve Jobs.
We Are Not Steve Jobs
I saw him speak many times over the years. The most memorable of them goes back to the rainy Tuesday morning of January 24, 1984, when he introduced the Macintosh to the world. When Jobs first walked out onto the stage at De Anza College’s Flint Center in Cupertino, California there was an audible gasp from the audience.
The young entrepreneur had been famous for his hippie look. When he wasn’t barefoot, he wore Birkenstock sandals. His hair and beard were in constant states of disarray; his clothes looked like they were overdue for a session with detergent.
But not on that day. On that rainy Tuesday morning, Jobs was clean shaven and sported a stylish haircut. In short, he changed his own look and feel just as the Mac he was about to introduce would change the look and feel of personal computing. But it was more than his apparel and hair that caused the audience to gasp. Jobs exuded a certain energy that would spread through the hall filled with about 1500 people. He showed on that day a presence that would inspire and captivate people in almost every room he ever entered.
Then there was his speaking style. He was candid and slangy. While other companies talked about the technology inside their gray boxes using the jargon of technical insiders, Jobs said the Mac was his baby and called it “insanely great.”
His was the sort of language that Silicon Valley people used when chatting with friends in casual settings. It was the language that most people in the audience used when talking with each other. He was what some speech coaches might call a natural. But, there really are no great naturals, just like no stars are really born overnight. To present so naturally, Jobs had practiced obsessively.
He also had the ability to look inward, find the most engaging parts of himself and serve them up to the audience in a way that sounded like he had thought it all up in that moment. He was a maestro, getting from the audience what a symphony conductor might get from the string and percussion sections. On top of that he also played the magician. At the crescendo moment, Jobs picked up a mysterious black bag, and as if he were pulling a rabbit from a hat, he unveiled the first Macintosh as the audience gasped, then erupted in applause.
As twin spotlights centered on him and his new device, he tenderly set it on a table, connected it and pulled a floppy disk from his shirt pocket, inserting into the single external drive. “My baby,” he declared proudly, as the audience laughed and clapped even more.
Then he demonstrated what it could do “for the rest of us,” those who did not have engineering or computer science degrees. It turned out that Jobs had not really been the star of the show. He was just a very entertaining emcee. The Macintosh was the star and each of us immediately wanted one.
Now, the audience rose to its feet. People cheered; others applauded wildly. Even the press in the room, who were supposed to remain detached, joined in.
On that day, Steve Jobs broke the mold for technology presentations. Nearly every successful product intro that followed would borrow elements from what he did on that rainy Tuesday in 1984. There were many variations.
Sometimes those launches would be accomplished at news conferences, but those were expensive and seemed to best suit large companies. Sometimes product introductions would be conducted via media tours where executives and their communications consultants would travel to New York City and Boston where the tech media was originally concentrated.
But over the years, more early-stage companies would introduce their products at conferences, where their products would be viewed and reviewed not just by the press and investors who would most certainly attend; but also by anyone and everyone who cared about technology products and companies.
In the tech sector these days, most companies launch in front of their peers at a multitude of product-focused tech conferences held all over the world.
To Be Stellar, Start by Being Yourself
In nearly 30 years, I have watched thousands of these product presentations. I have coached scores of entrepreneurs who have stood on the dais; many of them receiving best of show awards. I have also been the conference reviewer for the media. In short, I was the critic.
In all these experiences, I have not yet seen anyone who was as good at it as Steve Jobs was. And that brings me to the warning. As a speaker, I have come to realize that even on my very best day, I will never be as good as Steve Jobs and as a coach, no one I help can ever aspire to eclipse him.
We are not Steve Jobs and we should not try to be.
It’s rare than I can sit through a day of presentations without seeing one or more young entrepreneurs on stage wearing blue jeans and black turtlenecks. If you are planning to launch your new company or product a Steve Jobs-like presentation, please heed this piece of urgent advice: Don’t.
You are not Steve Jobs and imitating an original will not take you to where you want to go. Do not say “insanely great,” or “one last thing,” and choose any apparel you wish except jeans and black turtleneck.
If you want to give stellar presentations, you must be original. While we are not Steve Jobs, he was also not us. He was always smart enough not to imitate anyone. That is one of the many lessons we can learn from him. There is much we can learn from other speakers, but do not forget that what will make your talk really stellar is more likely to be found inside of you, rather than from someone who took the stage before you.
About the Author: Shel Israel is a writer who blogs on Forbes.com, consultant, and technology marketing expert. His new book, Stellar Presentations: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Giving Great Talks is now available in paperback or Kindle format. Copies can be purchased by clicking on this link. His critically acclaimed previous titles have included Naked Conversations: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers, Twitterville: How Businesses Can Thrive in the New Global Neighborhoods, and The Conversational Corporation: How Social Media is Changing the Enterprise.