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(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Stagecraft of Steve Jobs

The second speech took place at the Worldwide Developers Conference in 2002, where Jobs staged a mock funeral for the out-of-date Mac OS 9 operating system. The stage was brightly lit, giving it a “heavenly” feel, and a church interior with stained-glass windows was projected onto a huge backdrop. Fog billowed from smoke machines, while a black casket rose from a trap door. As Bach’s organ dirge Toccata and Fugue faded, Jobs — dressed in a purposely out-of-place mock-turtleneck shirt and jeans — gave a humorous eulogy for the operating system.

“Please join me in a moment of silence as we remember our old friend, Mac OS 9,” Jobs concluded, and the audience dutifully fell quiet. In this moment, the authors write, “the humor and symbolism of Jobs’s performance had exorcised years of developer frustration and anger.” Jobs’s wit and cleverness reflected Apple’s identity and that of its customers, who see themselves as good-humored, goal-oriented, and willing to learn.

The third appearance was at the 2007 Macworld Expo, where backstage rumors circulated among analysts and bloggers about a new device called the iPhone. The rumors brought unprecedented attention to Apple, and raised the stakes for Jobs’s keynote address. Once again, the audience was facing a minimalist stage with a huge screen at the rear, its attention shifting back and forth from Jobs to the screen thanks to lighting effects.

Wearing his familiar casual ensemble, Jobs began by alluding to the sense of occasion and invoking the collective identity: “We’re going to make history together today.” But not immediately: First he teased the audience with sales data for the iPod and iTunes music service. Then, after a pause, Jobs said, “Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone, and here it is.” The big screen showed a picture of an iPod with a rotary dial, sending waves of laughter through the audience. “No, actually here it is,” Jobs said as he removed a phone from his pocket to gasps from the audience, “but we’re going to leave it there for now.”

The well-timed gag acknowledged the months-long anticipation of the audience; over the next hour, Jobs demonstrated all of the iPhone’s features. Finally, he revisited Apple’s organizational narrative, saying that with the Mac, iPod, Apple TV, and now the iPhone, the company had outgrown its registered name, Apple Computer. To reflect the new product mix, Jobs announced that the company would now be known as Apple Inc., garnering a standing ovation from the employees in the front row that spread to the wider audience. Jobs had managed to take the audience into the future with him.

Bottom Line:
A study of Steve Jobs’s presentations at Apple conferences and trade shows demonstrates how charismatic leaders use narrative and storytelling to define themselves and their companies. Not everyone has the stage presence or the storyline that Jobs has. But other CEOs can apply his techniques and their emotional underpinnings — humor, spontaneity, a mix of self-deprecation and pride, and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of community — to their own corporate stages.

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