Mario Sundar

LinkedIn's 2nd PR hire. These are my thoughts on products, public relations, and startups.

Steve Jobs as Luke Skywalker. Circa 1987.

Rockstars are made, not born. They practice tirelessly; honing their craft at every given opportunity, and with the help of Jobs’ 1987 Playboy interview, I’d like to shed some light on the early stages of Jobs’ communication savvy and the communication consistency that he has now perfected into an art form.

Jobs In 1987. p.s. What’s up with the bow-tie.

Fine tuning the metaphors:

Nobody hits a home run on Day One. Some have an in-born talent but it’s always a work in progress. Steve Jobs’ D8 presentation, his keynotes, his Stanford commencement speech — is the culmination of years of assiduous practice. I’m gonna walk you through three examples of Steve coming up with metaphors to describe nascent technology that most people (at the time of the interview) didn’t grok.

Let’s see how his thinking and his metaphors are fine-tuned over time.

Let’s take his earliest interviews, the Playboy one in 1987 is a great example, and look at his response to what is a computer. I know. Bear with me here. The year is 1987 and people still don’t get the PC revolution that’s gonna hit them. It’s amazing how hard it is to impress upon the reporter what a game changer the Mac is gonna be.

His first attempt to describe computers is kinda rambling:

Computers are actually pretty simple. We’re sitting here on a bench in this café. Let’s assume that you understood only the most rudimentary of directions and you asked how to find the rest room. I would have to describe it to you in very specific and precise instruction. I might say, “Scoot sideways two meters off the bench. Stand erect. Lift left foot. Bend left knee until it is horizontal. Extend left foot and shift weight 300 centimeters forward…” and on and on. If you could interpret all those instructions 100 times faster than any other person in this café, you would appear to be a magician: You could run over and grab a milk shake and bring it back and set it on the table and snap your fingers, and I’d think you made the milk shake appear, because it was so fast relative to my perception. THat’s exactly what a computer does. It takes these very simple-minded instructions––”Go fetch a number, add it to this number, put the result there, perceive if it’s greater than this other number”––but executes them at a rate of , let’s say, 1,000,000 per second. At 1,000,000 per second, the results appear to be magic.

That’s a simple explanation, and the point is that people really don’t need to understand how computers work. Most people have no concept of how an automatic transmission works, yet they know how to drive a car. You don’t have to study physics to understand the laws of motion to drive a car. You don’t have to understand any of this stuff to use Macintosh––but you asked [laughs]

Wow! Quite verbose. It’s got the early stages of his story-telling but it’s definitely too technical for a reporter and not impressive since he asks him again the same question. Steve takes a second shot at it, which goes…

A computer is the most incredible tool we’ve ever seen. It can be a writing tool, a communications center, a supercalculator, a planner, a filer and an artistic instrument all in one, just by being given new instructions, or software, to work from. There are no other tools that have the power and versatility of a computer. We have no idea how far it’s going to go. Right now, computers make our lives easier. They do work for us in fractions of a second that would take us hours. They increase the quality of life, some of that by simply automating drudgery and some of that by broadening our possibilities. As things progress, they’ll be doing more and more for us.

Meh. Kinda there, but he’s hinting at the potential it possesses as a revolutionary, incredible utility. Still not convinced, the journalist asks him a pointed question on computers for business and Steve ends with:

There are different answers for different people. In business, that question is easy to answer: You really can prepare documents much faster and at a higher quality level, and you can do many things to increase office productivity. A computer frees people from much of the menial work. Besides that, you are giving them a tool that encourages them to be creative. Remember, computers are tools. Tools help us do our work better.

Still not there, and as you can see, reporters are always going for the pithy answers that even a 12 year old will understand. But, then in a later interview (video after quote), Jobs gives a far more succinct metaphor to evoke the possibilities of a computer.

One of the things that separates us from primates is that we’re tool builders. I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And, humans came in a third of the way down the list. But, Scientific American tested the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle.

And, a man on the bicycle blew the condor away; it was completely off the top of the charts. And, that’s what a computer is to me. It is the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.

To me this is one of the early stages where you can see the power of the evocative metaphor being used by Jobs. Fast forward to 2008 where Jobs, yet again, takes a stab at explaining a new product that Apple’s betting on big – the iPad.

I’m trying to think of a good analogy. When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks cos that’s what you needed on the farm. But, as vehicles started to be used in the urban centers, and America started to move towards them. Cars got more popular and innovations like power steering, etc. happened.

And, now, maybe 1 in every 25 vehicles is a truck where it used to be like 100%.

PCs are gonna be like trucks.

As you can see, no technicalities on what an iPad does well, no reference to a study by Scientific American, nothing. Just a nuanced metaphor on trucks and cars that everyone in America and the world will understand.

Read the rest of the article here.

Hope you’re having a great Sunday. Say Hi on Twitter!

I’ll leave you behind with a behind the scenes video of a young 23 year old Steve Jobs prepping for a TV interview. Young Luke Skywalker.

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

2 Responses

  1. [...] with creating great products, figuring out what works best for you on stage in your own unique way (it takes a while) and don’t let your handlers play you [...]

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  2. [...] written about great communicators like Steve Jobs, I’ve called out lame attempts by Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos who tried copying the [...]

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