Comms 101: Four Tips from the Master of Presentations

Chances are you’ve endured at least one boring presentation in your time. Whether the presenter mumbled, read off a screen, or just failed to keep the audience’s attention, they were memorable for all the wrong reasons. Enter entrepreneur and founder of Apple, Steve Jobs. Millions of people around the world would tune in to hear his speeches. Inspired by his words, customers would queue for days outside Apple stores to be the first to buy whatever product he was touting. Every announcement he made became front page news.

He was the ultimate presenter. And there’s a lot we can learn from him. Here are four lessons we can take from the late, great master of corporate presentations.

Less is more with your PowerPoint

Steve Jobs was well-known for his minimalist presentations. Each slide contained a single image or thought that reinforced a key message from his speech. This ensured the audience’s attention was on him. He would rehearse his presentations over and over until his delivery was fluid, so he didn’t have to look at the screen for prompts.

The lesson: If you want to engage your audience, the worst thing you can do is cram your slides with text and read them verbatim. If you have a burning desire to use PowerPoint, stick to ‘Twitter-friendly headlines’ instead of walls of text. A Twitter-friendly headline is a one-sentence summary of a product that captures the main message. For example, the headline from the launch of the very first iPhone in 2007 was, ‘Apple reinvents the phone’, while the iPhone 5S headline was ‘the most forward-thinking phone we’ve ever created.’

This is a clever communication technique, as it frames the way you want the public to think and talk about your product.

Introduce a villain

Every great story has a hero, a villain and a conflict in need of a resolution. In the 2007 iPhone keynote, Jobs’ villain was the competing smartphones on the market. He proceeded to point out their weaknesses. He said, ‘the problem is that they’re not so smart and they’re not easy to use. What we want to do is make a leapfrog product that is way smarter than any mobile device has ever been, and super easy to use’. As he described the problems with the other smartphones at the time, he used language to position them as villains in the narrative, referring to them as ‘the usual suspects.’

Your customer won’t care about your product or an idea unless it solves a real problem for them. Jobs never introduced a new product without first describing the conflict, or the problem he set out to solve.

Use the rule of three

The Rule of 3 is a writing principle that suggests that a trio of things is more likely to engage the reader and stick in their memories than any other number. And we use it all the time without thinking. ‘Blood, sweat, and tears,’ ‘mind, body, spirit,’ and ‘sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll’ are three examples that spring to mind.

Steve Jobs understood the importance of the number 3 and applied it to his presentations. In 2007 he introduced the first iPhone as the third of Apple’s revolutionary products, after the Macintosh and the iPod. He also said that Apple would be introducing three revolutionary products; ‘a widescreen iPod with touch controls’, a ‘revolutionary mobile phone’, and a ‘breakthrough Internet communications device’. Jobs kept repeating the three products until the audience figured out he was talking about one device capable of handling all three tasks.

The lesson: Apply the Rule of 3 to your presentations to make them more memorable and effective for your audience. Divide them into three sections. Introduce three key features, give three reasons for and three against, highlight three key benefits. You get the idea.

Build in ‘wow’ moments

The ‘wow’ moment is the moment the audience will remember and talk about long after your presentation is over. Every Steve Jobs presentation had one. In 2008, he announced that Apple had made the thinnest notebook in the world. He then proceeded to show the audience a picture of it. After a short pause, he picked up an envelope off a table, pulled out a MacBook Air notebook and held it up for the audience to see. This was the ‘wow’ moment. Jobs could just have told the audience the dimensions of the notebook, but that would have had no impact. The act of pulling the notebook out from the envelope was much more powerful. As the old adage goes, sometimes actions speak louder than words.

The lesson here is simple: If you want your audience to remember you and your key messages, think about how you can incorporate ‘wow’ moments into your presentations.

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