PRINT PAGEPractice: Steve Jobs

Written by Roy Black

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to Be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience by Carmine Gallo

The cliches roll off the tongue when someone says the word “practice”:

“Practice makes perfect”
“Practice makes the master”
“Practice is everything”
“Perfect practice makes perfect”
“In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”

I have been collecting material for a series on practicing, not practicing law, but practicing performance. But I just finished reading the Job’s biography so I decided to use Steve Job’s intense practice sessions for MacWorld as a starting point.

But first a good lesson from the Steve Jobs biography: don’t fall into the trap of having it done by a serious researcher if you have anything to hide. It is a well written book but Jobs comes off as a nasty person and is diminished in my eyes. Jobs was routinely condescending and brutish to his colleagues and staff and thinks nothing of dumping his oldest friends when he no longer needs them. Yet if someone dares to criticizes him or denies him some advantage he bursts into tears. I dislike powerful people who treat their subordinates with contempt. I am dropping Jobs behind the whiney-voiced Bill Gates in my tech top ten list. But despite his miserable personality, Jobs was a brilliant public speaker and there is much to learn from the books dissecting his preparation and style.

Carmine Gallo on the other hand can find no wrong in Jobs. Probably because Gallo has made a career out of studying Jobs the stage performer and keeps far away from his toxic private personality. Jobs was the consummate business stage performer and his MacWorld performances are legendary among the Apple afficionados.  Fortunately there are thousands of videos of Jobs both doing the MacWorld and other speeches on YouTube.

Jobs was demon for preparation and practice. He would rehearse on stage for many hours over several weeks prior to the launch of a new Apple product. He knew every detail of every demo down to the fonts on every slide. Nothing was too small to escape his attention. He was obsessed on details and design. The Isaacson biography is full of examples of Jobs feverishly working on the smallest screws to Apple computers even when they were on the inside of the machine and out of view. His obsession on the presentations made them flawless.

After over-preparing the presentation, Jobs would spend hours rehearsing every facet and every word. Each slide is carefully written, and the presentation staged like a theatrical experience. Jobs made it look effortless, due to the hours and hours of grueling practice. Jobs was not a natural presenter, nor is anyone else. If you watch video clips of his presentations going back 20 years, you will see that he improves significantly every decade. From the famous 1984 Macintosh introduction to the Jobs who announced the iPhone in 2007.  He learned how to relentlessly tweak, optimize, and improve. Isaacson quotes John Sculley on Job’s theory: “Marketing is really theater. It’s like staging a performance.”

Most lawyers are unfamiliar with the concept of practice unless it is on the driving tee. The trial lawyer can’t slavishly follow the Jobs playbook. We don’t have the time nor the enormous resources available to Jobs. He would organize teams of experts and bring in the most talented marketing, advertising and writing professionals. We, not only don’t have those advantages, have to know when to stop and perhaps have to settle still well short of an ideal product. But what matters is not this one specific outcome, but instead the striving for perfection and the deliberate practice this generates. The point is to keep getting better, not necessarily making this one presentation the best ever.

How important is the right team? Last month we watched Obama’s State of the Union address and the Marco Rubio rebuttal. The Miami Herald published a long article on the media and strategic team Rubio had working for him building his “brand.” But it is obvious to me that the Rubio team failed in its message on this occasion. Rubio flunked the Obama moment. He had a national audience to speak to and he failed to impress them. Contrast that to Obama’s speech at the 2004 DNC which catapulted him into national fame and ultimately the presidency. Rubio was stuck the next day making fun of himself to cover the embarrassment. Perhaps like Bill Clinton he can overcome the disaster or be like Bobby Jindal and fade into the Louisiana swampland.

Here are some suggestions for practicing:

You must practice to be any good.

If possible practice on the clock.

Again if possible practice with an audience.

Watch yourself practice.

Video (and audio) record your practice.

Practice as you’ll play.

Rehearse as you’ll do the presentation.

Imagine yourself in the “arena” you’ll be playing in.

Take notes as you practice, stop immediately when you notice a mistake or an uncomfortable moment and correct it. Analyze and re-analyze your presentation as you go. Make staging notes like cutting down on time on certain parts, and how to enunciate tricky words and phrases.

On your own, practice, practice, practice your opening statement or oral argument. Do it yourself at home, in the car, in the conference room, and do it over and over again. Enlist friends as your audience. Listen to their feedback. Listen to yourself talk out loud and try different ways of getting your points across.

Here is Gallo on Jobs and rehearsing:

“Steve usually rehearses on the two days before a keynote. On the first day he works on the segments he feels need the most attention. The product managers and engineering managers for each new product are in the room, waiting for their turn. This group also forms Steve’s impromptu test audience: he’ll often ask for their feedback. He spends a lot of time on his slides, personally writing and designing much of the content, with a little help from Apple’s design team.

On the day before showtime, things get much more structured, with at least one and sometimes two complete dress rehearsals. Any non-Apple presenters in the keynote take part on the second day (although they cannot be in the room while the secret parts – the unveiling of hot ticket hardware such as a new iPod or laptop – are being rehearsed).  Throughout it all Steve is extremely focused. While we were in that room, all his energy was directed at making this keynote the perfect embodiment of Apple’s messages. Steve doesn’t give up much of his personality even in rehearsals. He is strictly business, most of the time.”

Here is Gallo on Jobs and his slides:

“Practice, practice, practice. Steve Jobs spent hours rehearsing every facet of his presentation. Every slide was written like a piece of poetry, every presentation staged like a theatrical experience. Steve Jobs made a presentation look effortless but that polish came after hours and hours of arduous practice. Agencies often are forced to rely on spontaneity to provide creative energy for a pitch because they have spent all of their time on putting together the presentation and leave little or no time for rehearsal. Most unrehearsed pitches end up falling flat.”

Gallo writes about psychology professor Dr. K. Anders Ericsson who teaches refining skills through deliberative practice, not just doing the same thing over and over again, but setting specific goals, and asking for feedback. Ericsson says strive to improve over the long run by practicing specific skills again and again over many years. Ericsson developed the concept of ten thousand hours of practice which Malcolm Gladwell adopted for his book Outliers and the method to mastery. Ericsson suggests that videoing yourself can help you rehearse and manage your body language, vocal delivery and energy, three hours a day, twenty hours a week, for ten years. He noted that the Beatles played in Germany some 1,200 times for 8 hours at a stretch and credits that for their success.

I like what Gallo notes about the Texas preacher Joel Osteen who speaks in a natural conversational style. Osteen spends 4 days practicing for a 30 minute sermon and makes it look effortless. Preaching is hard work, it is weighty. But, when you stand up to preach, you should be so prepared that it looks effortless. You should know your topic, be ready, and preach so it just flows out of you.

One last thought I am stealing from Seth Godin: rehearse success not failure. Visualize your speech working perfectly. Visualize the path to success. Never visualize failure, it is counterproductive.

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5 Comments to Practice: Steve Jobs

  1. Stanley Silver's Gravatar Stanley Silver
    February 27, 2013 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    I don’t know that truer “practice” tips have ever been given. I know that I even after “practicing” law for 25 years fall into a day to day routine that fails to allow time for proper practice. You can bet this blog made me reconsider my methods!

  2. Woody Clermont's Gravatar Woody Clermont
    February 27, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    From page 353 of the Isaacson book:

    “As always, Jobs was compulsive in preparing for the dramatic unveiling. Having stopped one rehearsal because he was angry about the CD drive tray, he stretched out the other rehearsals to make sure that the show would be stellar.”

    From page 569 in Jobs’ own words:

    “‘It’s about trying to express something in the only way that most of us know how — because we can’t write Bob Dylan songs or Tom Stoppard plays. We try to use the talents we do have to express our deep feelings, to show our appreciation of all the contributions that came before us, and to add something to that flow. That’s what has driven me.'”

  3. April 3, 2013 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    Hi Roy,
    I wanted to let you know how much I am enjoying your site and blog, especially this post. I recently gave a talk to the Baptist ER department and friends of mine were teasing me because I basically wrote out everything I was going to say word for word like a script and practiced that. Now that I know Steve Jobs did something similar I feel validated in that technique! I did it because I found it very effective to gauge my time vs. speaking “off the cuff”.

    My question to you is as follows: Do you think some people are just “gifted” public speakers and/or do you get to a point where you don’t have to rehearse so much to be an effective orator? In other words, does the practicing ever make perfect or is the perfection in each successful presentation?

    I would like to do more presentations but I found the preparation very stressful. I’m sure it gets easier over time but in the end is presenting effectively more of a learned skill or an innate ability?

    Just curious on your take. Until then, I will take into account your advice when “rehearsing” for my next presentation!

  4. April 26, 2013 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    Great Article. You just inspired me to read the Job’s bio. Been on the fence and just haven’t gotten around to it. I agree 100% with your thoughts on practice. As a former athlete, our coach used to tell us ‘if you miss that shot in practice you’re going to miss it in the game’. That mantra has stayed with til this day in my professional career.

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