October 10, 2011

Steve Jobs and the Six-Minute Presentation

By Heather Baldwin

In 1997, advertising guru Jon Steel, author of Perfect Pitch: The Art of Selling Ideas and Winning New Business, met Steve Jobs. In roughly six minutes, the Apple Computer CEO gave the most “focused, passionate, and inspiring” presentation Steel had ever seen in more than 20 years in the advertising business.

Steel discusses the event in the introduction to his book. Here’s the background. Jobs had just been brought back to Apple to rescue the company from the brink of extinction. One of the things he wanted to change was Apple’s advertising and so Jobs asked two firms whose work he liked to come in and speak directly with him. One of these firms was Steel’s agency.

When Steel and his two partners arrived at Apple, they were met by two senior members of Apple’s marketing department-employees Jobs had inherited from the former CEO. “Steve’s running late,” announced one of the executives. “We’ll get you up-to-speed while we’re waiting.” And they ushered Steel’s group into a darkened conference room.

Presentation #1
Steel and his colleagues were invited to take seats at a big conference table. As they did so, one of the executives turned on a laptop, turned on the projector, waited for the “no signal received” message to disappear from the screen, then proceeded to hunt for his file. He scrolled through what seemed like hundreds of titles until he finally came to one called, “Agency Briefing.”

“I have a few slides,” said the executive, clicking on the file. And for the next two hours he brought up “slide after slide, graph after graph, table after table, each densely packed with numbers and with commentary that he read verbatim,” recalls Steel. “Occasionally his colleague would say something like, ‘If I could build on that,’ or, ‘Let me drill down a little deeper.'”

The executive lectured about the computer business, Apple’s product line, “core competencies,” “key learnings,” and just at the point when Steel and his team were, as Steel put it, “weighing the relative benefits of murder or suicide,” the door opened and in bounded a man wearing jeans and a black sweater. “I’m Steve,” he said.

Presentation #2
Jobs turned up the lights, switched off the projector, strode to a dry erase board at the front of the room, and grabbed a marker. He said the marketers had no doubt been spewing a bunch of garbage and the bottom line was that the company was in deep trouble. “But I believe that if we do some simple things very well, we can save it, and we can grow it. I’ve asked you here today because I need your help. But let me tell you first what I’m going to do. My end of the bargain.”

Jobs drew about 14 boxes on the dry erase board, writing in each one names unfamiliar to Steel and his team, names like: Cyberdog, OpenDoc, G4, iMac, and others. Each of these boxes, said Jobs as he wrote, represented a project into which Apple had invested millions of dollars. Then he began crossing them out. “In the past days, I’ve killed this one, this one, this one…” until all that were left were G4 and iMac. “These two projects that remain,” Jobs said, “represent what we always wanted this company to be about; they’re technologically superb and visually stunning. And I’m going to bet the future of this company on them.”

Jobs then came back to the table and summed up in a sentence or two what he wanted from an ad agency—the communication of a “thank you” message to all the customers who had stuck by Apple and its products. “He had explained his strategy for the company in less than five minutes, and he told us how he saw the role of communications in not much more than 60 seconds,” says Steel. “The only visual aids he used were produced live using a marker pen and dry erase board. Yet they seemed as vivid as any expensively produced slides or blown up photographs or videos we had ever seen.”

Take a look at your own presentation. Are you presenting like Jobs—briefly, to-the-point, compellingly, and memorably? Or are your presentations more like the high tech, meandering drone of the executives (who, by the way, were let go from Apple less than a week after Steel’s visit).

Try boiling your message down to its essence and communicating it with passion and simplicity in less than six minutes. Then watch your sales grow.