Mario Sundar

LinkedIn's 2nd PR hire; I led their social media efforts from 2007 past their IPO. These are my thoughts on tomorrow's social products, today.

5 ways leaders win tough arguments in public

Being a leader is a tough job (just ask these guys).Often you are facing some really tough questions from a lot of folks — your shareholders, developers, etc. — sometimes that happens in the public limelight. Now, you’ve got three options – fight the good argument and earn respect, spin, or just evade said question.

This past week, a video of Jobs at the 1997 Worldwide Developer conference (h/t: Quora) parrying questions from a mostly receptive developer audience began circulating. Most questions were curious developers as to the direction of Apple, except for one really combative question from a developer (obviously pissed off at what happened to a business division that was likely to be closed).

Mr. Jobs. You’re bright.(Jobs: smiles – here it comes…)

It’s clear you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’d like you (for e.g.) to express in clear terms how (say) Java, in all its incarnations, addresses the ideas embodied in OpenDoc.

And, when you’re finished with that, perhaps you could tell us what you’ve personally been doing for the last 7 years.

(audible gasps from the audience. I’m almost sure I heard someone say: “ouch”)

How do you answer this? Right after the jump.

Viewers: You may wanna skip to the 50:23 mark in the video below for the tough question I’m referring to.

This has got to be one of the toughest questions a CEO could face (see how Carol Bartz handled a similar question). BTW, Jobs was an advisor to Apple when he faced the dev community here but subsequently became CEO.

Lessons from Jobs: 5 ways CEOs can win tough arguments in public

1. Have a sense of humor:

While the questioner was setting up Jobs for the tough question, Jobs senses the tension and starts off by saying: “here it comes” and holding up his chair to playfully indicate he’s deflecting the tough question. Either way, his demeanor changes after he hears the question as he composes his thoughts.

Now what…

2. Breathe. Take your time to answer:

Aight, so now you’ve been asked a really tough question. What next? Yes, a lot of people are waiting for you to answer and the press may pore over your remarks – so there is a lot riding on this – so take time to answer as you collect your thoughts.

How many times have we been in an argument with folks when we’re asked something that could potentially make us look silly. Worse still, if that’s in front of other folks. So, magnify that a thousand times in this situation. A lot of folks come right outta the gates with a quick quip or retort, and then they may try to move past it as quickly as possible. But, if you do brush it aside you don’t earn the respect of the audience.

Jobs (as always) is finely tuned into both the psychological intent of the question and is very empathetic with his answer both of which are essential when you’re responding to someone combative.

But remember to breathe. Or, like Jobs, take a swig off that bottle of water while you compose your thoughts.

3. Frame your answer before you begin:

This is a corollary to the take time to answer suggestion. While you take your time, not only do you build viewer interest, but it also gives you time to frame your answer. It’s the same with writing a blog post. I always remember¬†Jeremiah‘s recommendation to frame your post before you start writing it (since it helps nail the key points as succinctly as possible).

4. Every answer is a story waiting to be told:

Jobs is such a master story-teller. Even with his tough questions he takes the audience on a journey. Not everyone is good at it and frankly, no one comes close to what Jobs does here, while answering (tough) questions.

For e.g. in the above clip (starts at 50:23), Jobs starts off with:

“You can please some of the people, some of the time”, right off the bat setting the stage for context, perspective and drama. But then, he pauses and continues setting the context for his answer.

[LONG PAUSE] but… [PAUSE] One of the hardest things when you’re trying to effect change is that… people like this gentleman…

[PAUSE]

… are RIGHT! [PAUSE. Bam! Storytelling, baby!]… in some areas.

5. Appeal to reason in a smart way:

Let’s not forget, the end result of this speech or any CEO or congressman or public figure is an appeal to a common sense of purpose. Everybody wants a sense of assurance minus-evading, spinning, or flat-out ignoring the questions – since it won’t earn you any respect.

I think the key to the answer was how Jobs not only tried to assuage the gentleman’s concerns (“that there are probably things that OpenDoc does that’s better than anything in the market and stuff that even I don’t get”) but he goes on to explain how critical it is to focus, think big and to realize how every product fits into a cohesive larger vision that allows you to go big ($8 Billion Big).

Also, he explains how when prioritizing a million great products – always start with the customer experience and work backward with the technology

“I’ve made this mistake more than anybody in this room, I’ve got the scar tissue to prove it and I know it’s the case… And, I think that’s the right path to take”.

The Laser printer example narration is priceless. After elaborating on it. He once again says:

“I’m sorry that OpenDoc is a casualty along the way. And, there are many things I don’t have the faintest idea what I’m talking about…”

But, then insists, why it’s important to rally the troops, support them and support Apple in the market. He gives examples of other engineers who are working their butt off on executing around the priorities that have been set by the company.

At the end of the day, the gentleman may not have bought Jobs’ answer no matter how convincing it was, which goes back to the very first thing Jobs began with his answer.

“You can please some of the people, some of the time”.

Bam!

Coda: HOW-TO take tough questions without flinching and earn the audience’s respect.

What Jobs is a master of, is the ability to tell you (in as reasonable a manner as possible) what he think, why he thinks so, and why that’s a great idea. And, he’s been doing that consistently through his career (both when Apple was down right up to this very day). The above video is a perfect example of that mastery.

But still this is a template for answering negative questions, esp. when you’re a CEO or a leader in the spotlight to summarize the above. Here goes…

  1. Acknowledge the negativity / elephant in the room.
  2. Assuage the naysayer’s concerns
  3. Restate it in the right context (user experience first, not tech first)
  4. Be humble (accepts his own failings in that regard, humbly suggests this is just his idea, gives an example “laser printer story”¬†of why user experience matters and show-not-tell)
  5. Straight talk: Mistakes have been made and will be fixed.

So, that’s a quick summary of how I see Jobs deal with questions: good, bad or ugly. Lot of lessons in there. Plus, the most important thing is that — throughout that interview, Jobs kept stressing on focus and this answer too fit within that overarching holistic theme.

And, in the long run Jobs was proven right as he took Apple to unprecedented hights surpassing even Microsoft.

Feel free to share this on your favorite social network. Thanks!

Filed under: Best-of, Crisis Communications, Public Relations, Public Speaking, Steve Jobs,

3 Responses

  1. Quora says:

    What are tips for coming across as calm and sharp while being interviewed on live TV?…

    Bill McGowan and Ian Edwards have covered some of the basic ground rules. Here’s a couple more thoughts to ponder — this is true for most interviews — but with live TV the challenge is exacerbated since you’ve got to perform flawlessly (in one take…

  2. [...] response that’s both thought provoking and (frankly) entertaining. Here’s how he’d answer difficult (really tough one here) question in front of [...]

  3. [...] answers, much like he presented Apple at the intersection of Art and Technology. Even when heckled, Jobs knew how to respond to it with a unique blend of emotion and [...]

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