Fast Chat: Steve Jobs’ Quintessential Salesmanship

Nancy Duarte on how Apple icon transformed the pitch

When it comes to great presenters, Nancy Duarte says there's no one better than Steve Jobs.

Duarte, whose company offers presentation training and services, has written several books on the topic, and in both her writing (as in her book Resonate) and speaking cites Jobs as the gold standard. In a recent talk at TEDxEast, Duarte broke down the structure of Jobs' launch presentation for the iPhone, comparing it (really) to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

Following the announcement that Jobs is stepping down as Apple CEO, Adweek spoke to Duarte about what makes him so unique.

Adweek: Can you talk about how you became interested in Steve Jobs as a presenter?

Nancy Duarte: When your business is presentations, as mine has been since 1988, I do tend to fixate on the best presenters. I would say he is the quintessential corporate presenter. There really is a very big gap between him and everyone else. He's just brilliant. Not very many CEOs can deliver a 90-minute keynote well, let alone have it make the news.

The thing that's cool is how much physical reaction he gets while he's talking. If you look at how often an audience laughs and claps, it's almost every minute. That's a physical reaction to what he's saying, that's how he keeps this heightened emotion.

Do you think that there's anyone else in the same league?

It was a real struggle for me [to find other examples], especially business communicators, that were as compelling. I still have yet to find them. I think he just stands so far above everyone else. He's creating a big gap to fill.

When you started analyzing his speeches, did anything surprise you?

I think that the sheer amount of physical reaction he gets from [the audience], how often he gets it from them. It creates that tension and release over and over. It's what we love about great storytellers.

But isn't that partly because he's speaking to fans of the company? He's got the most sympathetic audience possible.

Well, who creates that excitement? I mean, he has built it all up to this. Everything is cloaked in secrecy at Apple. He creates an emotional appeal of suspense: What's this next breakthrough product?

Do you think there's an arc to how his presentation skills have developed? Has he improved over time?

My friend Garr Reynolds has a blog post showing Mr. Jobs backstage before a TV interview when he's younger, and Jobs is nervous. I think what great communicators do is apply the same discipline to improving their communication skills as they do their subject matter expertise. I do think Mr. Jobs has a natural charisma, but how much work he would have to put into a presentation to have it be that good, it has to be tremendous.

How important do you think these kinds of product presentations are in the context of a larger advertising and marketing campaign?

It's kind of interesting because the presentations are the galvanizing moment. It's all intentional. He'll say repeatable sound bites and use a phrase that's the same one that's in the press release and the same one that gets picked up in news headlines.

Do you think that Jobs' presentation style has had an influence on other executives?

We have customers that call and say they wish they were Steve Jobs. And I say, "Well, show us your revolutionary, breakthrough product." Many CEOs aspire to be as good a communicator. Sadly, some people just think it's about pretty slides, rather than having a compelling message.

Do you think that there's someone who can take his place as a great corporate presenter?

I think that won't happen without three things—innovative products, galvanizing leader, and great communication skills.

In your TED talk, you analyze Jobs' iPhone presentation alongside Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Did comparing a product demonstration to one of the 20th century's great political speeches give you any hesitation?

It felt natural, because they are two of the greatest communicators. They have very different types of subject matter, but they're both riveting. Sometimes I'll talk to people and they'll say, "There's such a big gap between me and Mr. Jobs—why don't you use a more common example? I'm just a middle manager, I'm just an ad exec." Well, you know what? At one time Mr. Jobs was just a college dropout. Why do we keep thinking we have to wait for something else to happen to us before we become great communicators?