The ‘Jobsian’ imitation

27 September, 2011 by Lex Friedman, Macworld
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Last week’s f8 keynote began with comedian Andy Samberg doing an imitation of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. But if you followed the subsequent announcements of new features to Facebook’s social messaging site, you might have gotten the feeling that Zuckerberg was doing an impersonation of his own – his presentation seemed like an imitation of one of Steve Jobs’s keynotes.

Jobs’s presentation skills are legendary, even beyond the world of technology, so it’s understandable why Zuckerberg’s f8 keynote Thursday seemed to hew very closely to the Steve Jobs School of Public Speaking (though more so in design than in execution). It’s also understandable that, with Jobs leaving his CEO post at Apple, observers are eager to see how his successor Tim Cook handles his first media event in charge of the company. Will he also attempt to emulate Jobs’s presenational style? And would it be a good idea if he does?

Dissecting a Steve Jobs keynote

Before we can answer that question, we should examine what it is that makes a Steve Jobs keynote special. Most of the presentations and media events that Jobs led during his terms as Apple’s CEO stuck to a consistent formula: He freely roamed the stage with a wireless microphone, a massive screen behind him displaying simple slides or live demonstrations of what he was describing. He would laud the world-changing amazingness of the products he unveiled, thank and acknowledge the teams responsible, and bring out various folks – from elsewhere in the company, or from Apple partners – to elaborate on certain key points. Jobs would often then show a couple videos to add further color to his announcements.

Oh, and he’d often inject a little humour into the proceedings, too. The 1999 Macworld Expo keynote began with Noah Wyle repeating his Pirates of Silicon Valley performance as Steve Jobs before the real McCoy shooed him off the stage. Similarly, at WWDC 2007, celebrity (and PC in the ‘Hello I’m a Mac’ ad campaign) John Hodgman appeared on the video screen, proclaiming himself to be Steve Jobs, and announcing that he was quitting as Apple’s CEO.

How did Zuckerberg’s keynote at the f8 conference go earlier this week? There was Samberg’s aforementioned appearance as a faux Facebook CEO. After a few hammy minutes, the two ‘bergs met on stage, and Zuckerberg launched into his presentation proper. A giant screen behind him showed simple slides and live demos as he freely roamed the stage; he made frequent reference to the greatness and game-changing impact of the features he unveiled; he repeatedly thanked all the individuals and companies responsible; he showed a few videos; he trotted out guests like the CEO of Spotify; and eventually he handed the reigns to a few of his deputies, like CTO Bret Taylor.

It’s no surprise that Steve Jobs’s approach to keynotes now feels like the obvious (and only?) way; Jobs’s Apple inspired the same feelings with smartphones, tablets and desktop operating systems. He’s surely accustomed by now to seeing his innovations emulated.

Close but no cigar

But though the endless similarities between Zuckerberg’s f8 keynote and a typical Jobs performance were obvious, equally apparent was the fact that Mark Zuckerberg is no Steve Jobs. Set aside leadership styles, inventions and technologies: Zuckerberg simply lacks Jobs’s charisma and natural stage presence. Zuckerberg’s presentation style was decidedly more wooden than Jobs’s ever was. There were moments where you could observe Zuckerberg recalling the next lines of his script, flubbing a word or two and even occasionally starting the next line – and stopping himself – before finishing the preceding one.

Most assuredly, Steve Jobs worked from a script, too. But you’d never know it to watch an Apple event live: He never stumbled for a line, never seemed to need to gather his thoughts and spoke with the same smooth, calm delivery you’d expect between friends at dinner.

I don’t fault Zuckerberg for his more stilted style. Public speaking is hard; public speaking in front of massive crowds (more than 100,000 people were watching the live video stream, not to mention the in-person audience) with no notes is harder still. And I don’t fault Zuckerberg for attempting to take a page out of Steve Jobs’s playbook either: Apple clearly honed the craft, and was continually successful at building tremendous excitement with its presentations.

Surely, however, there’s someone at Facebook who could skew more Jobsian on the performance side than Zuckerberg is able. Steve Jobs didn’t run Apple’s keynotes because he was the company’s CEO; he ran them because he was the company’s best presenter.

What’s next for Apple

It’s widely expected that Apple will host an event of its own sometime soon to unveil new products, like the next model iPhone. All Things D reports that Tim Cook will ‘preside over’ the event. Cook has been in the public eye before – he was Apple’s representative at the Verizon iPhone launch earlier this year and he joined Jobs on stage to field questions at last year’s press conference regarding iPhone 4 antenna issues. But this will be his first time running the show.

Though the presenter will change, it’s unlikely that Apple’s presentation format will vary dramatically from the showmanship we’re accustomed to. We don’t yet know whether Cook will seem as comfortable as Jobs did, or skew closer to the less-polished Zuckerberg approach. Should Cook – and his audience – find that the presentation role doesn’t suit him, one hopes that he’ll be confident enough to delegate that task to a better option the next time around.

After all, Apple’s keynotes aren’t designed to showcase the greatness of their presenter, but rather the products they’re presenting.

One Comment

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  1. Xenophos says:

    In recent years other execs have been getting more floor time and this could continue to work very well for Apple. They’re blessed with a depth of talent.

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