As the news of Steve Jobs stepping down as Apple CEO swept through the business community, I found myself watching some of his greatest hits online. My favourite is from way back, when he first introduced the Macintosh in the Fall of 1983 and used likely the most famous TV commercial of all time (“1984”) to do so.
Watch it now, then let’s talk.
Steve Jobs is a great leader because he’s a great communicator. And he’s a great communicator, in large part, because he’s a great storyteller. Steve’s ability to use storytelling to pull his audience in is truly remarkable. Through the story that he shares of IBM, he gets the audience to see what he sees, feel what he feels, and in doing so, both rally and become one with them. Of the many things Steve does so well—as a leader, communicator and storyteller—here are a three I would like to point out.
1) He builds tension with the story that he tells, and then resolves it.
While there many different types of stories you can share as a communicator, the most effective are ones in which tension is built and then resolved. This is what happens here as Steve recounts IBM’s history of arrogant oversight and pits that history firmly against Apple’s. Of note is his repetition of key phrases to add to that tension—e.g. “Too small to do serious computing.” Beyond his material, Steve’s delivery is fantastic as he uses the rise and fall of his voice and pregnant pauses to add drama to his story. In just a few short minutes, he is able to work his audience into a virtual frenzy, creating an incredible hot pot of tension that only gets resolved (or more appropriately, released) with the showing of “1984.”
2) His storytelling is just as much about what he doesn’t say as what he does.
Steve uses the story of IBM to establish context for the main purpose of this event—i.e. to publicly launch the Macintosh. Through his story he shapes the way he wants his audience to think about what is to follow. He also builds a collective sense of purpose, a clear commitment to the mission ahead and a rabid understanding of the big blue machine that has tried to squash that mission. But he never flat out says, “We’re disrupting things and we’re bringing IBM down in the process!” He doesn’t have to, because every single person in that audience already feels it by the time he’s done. They’ve reached that conclusion with Steve, not because he forced it down their throats. And because his audience was able to reach that conclusion on their own, they will respect it all the more and become infinitely more committed to acting on it.
3) He listens, engages and interacts with his audience.
Even though Steve is clearly the one on stage doing the talking, he never creates too much distance between him and his audience. Any distance that is there is minimal and completely appropriate. As a leader, he is both apart of his audience and a part from them, able to establish empathy and connection while never compromising his ability to shape their thinking and guide their actions. His audience both sees him and looks up to him. He gives his audience energy, but also clearly gets energy in return as evidenced by his expression when the room erupts into thunderous applause following the viewing of “1984.” It’s almost like a tonic for him. It’s no wonder he fought so hard after his liver transplant to get back on that stage and do what he so clearly loves to do.
It will be interesting to see what happens to Apple with Steve’s departure. I think they’ll continue to thrive, working from an incredibly solid foundation of innovation that he designed and built. Still, I doubt there will ever be anyone that can replace Steve’s role as Storyteller in Chief. The man has a gift, and we are all the richer for it.