The clues were all there in recent months that big shifts were being put in place with respect to Apple and Macworld. Hindsight being the wonderful thing it is, one can see Hansel-and-Gretel like clues being dropped along the way leading to certain conclusions being made.
Apple has been going from strength to strength, continuing its domination in the digitial music and player domain, and continuing to challenge incumbents in the cellphone territory, much to the surprise of pundits and competitors like.
But in recent months there has been a deafening silence with respect to Steve Jobs’ keynote rumours. Maybe an “iPhone Nano”, maybe a netbook, maybe bringing Snow Leopard’s release forward, and so on. But compared to previous years, this has been a particularly quiet pre-Macworld lead up.
The pullout of Adobe and Belkin from the Expo floor was also a “tell” that things were changing with respect to well-known companies having to be attend Macworld. And the announcement we had all laughed at each year – “Apple announces Steve Jobs will deliver the keynote at this year’s Macworld” – never came in what seemed like a game of PR chicken.
Intead we got the old boxer’s one-two combo: No Stevenote, and the last Apple attendance at Macworld. I’m sure many observers felt like they’d been punched in the gut.
For myself, who in years past had attended Boston-based Expos and a few San Francisco-based shows, the news was very mixed. This year, IDG MD Paul Kent had invited me to attend for the User Conference US 915 called Presentation Magic. (In 2009, I’m scheduled to do a two day Powertool conference on the same subject focussing on Apple’s Keynote. US 914 will feature Nancy Duarte discussing Visual Thinking in slide presentation for 75″).
It was on this occasion as faculty I attended my first and what may be my only Stevenote. It was an OK experience, but nothing like it must have been to be in the audience in 2007 for the iPhone release, or in 2003 for the release of two new Powerbooks (as the one more things, would you believe), Final Cut Express, Airport Extreme, Keynote, and Safari.
What we have seen as further clues in recent times has been the increasing use of other venues and times for Apple to release new products and chart its future course. This year, in March, we saw a number of Apple senior management, Steve’s inner circle as it were, participate in the unveiling of Apple’s iPhone roadmap, performing as Steve himself put it, the “heavy lifting” needed to describe the technical aspects of the iPhone SDK properties.
I carefully watched this “Town Hall” unveiling, initially to gather any new intelligence on Keynote updates which might be around the corner, usually leaked by Steve showing new transitions, or textual effects. Later in October at the release of the new Macbooks we saw more Apple staffers in action. I was intrigued overall to see the performances of the Four Horseman: Phil Schiller, Jonathan Ive, Scot Forstall and Tim Cook, all of whom have been touted within the press and Apple blogosphere as potential Apple CEOs, upon the retirement of Steve Jobs.
Now few of us will ever know what each of these men bring to Apple on a day to day basis, perhaps happy to be delighted with the wares they bring to us. But in the recent past, Steve has given us the opportunity to review each of them in the role of keynote giver, one of the very public ways we have to come to understand Steve, apart from the books written about him.
Jobs’ keynotes are legendary, not just because they so often have been the means by which Apple announces new products, but also because of the style by which Steve presents, eschewing the cognitive style of Powerpoint, and preferring the heavily graphical style which better accords with how our brains function.
(I’ll speak more of this in my Powertools conference, but essentially the brain starts as an outcropping of the eye, and the visual system occupies about 30% of brain real estate. Language, particularly the visual expression of language in the written word, came much later in our evolution.)
But you would short-change yourself if you only thought of Jobs’ style as being centred on his slides. What I saw in the two Town Hall meetings, is that few of Apple’s senior management have the ease and comfort standing before an audience on their own, and using Steve’s technology to offer passionate and persuasive stories about the technologies they are demonstrating.
To this extent, Phil Schiller for all his cuddliness and good humour, plays a great Lou Costello to Steve’s Bud Abbott, or Steve is to Dean Martin as Phil is to Jerry Lewis. Each of the latter performers, after the breakup of the duo, went on to successful solo careers (Lewis was just here in Melbourne, and I had the good fortune to see him in London some years back in Damn Yankees). I single out Phil because of the undoubted comparisons he will receive when compared to Steve’s Macworld keynotes. It’s a tough gig he’s been asked to do.
That said, in reviewing the iPhone SDK demo, I have a problem with Phil alone on stage doing the heavy lifting. And that is that while his words contain elements of passion and exuberance, his body language and prosody are incongruent with what he’s saying. In other words, to my eyes and ears, there’s an emotional monotone to his delivery which sounds, well, inauthentic. As if he’s walking through the prepared speech but not truly letting us know how he really feels. Now that could be stage anxiety, or there’s perhaps other explanations.
What doesn’t help either is that when he’s up there on his own he hardly ever smiles – I mean a genuine smile. Even when he says he’s excited or a product is “incredible”. Too much smiling in a speaker is also inauthentic because it’s inappropriate, something we human beings develop an awareness of very early in our lives. But too little smiling especially when you say you’re excited, just says you’re nervous or too focussed on the words and afraid to really connect to your audience. So while Phil is fun, especially with Steve playing straight man, on his own Phil lacks warmth.
Back when I saw the iPhone roadmap keynote, and began like others to wonder of Steve was trialling the Horseman for their ability to stand and deliver, I looked closely at something I wanted to blog about. That is the use of remote slide switching equipment, and the use of presenter displays.
If you watch a Steve Jobs keynote, every so often you’ll see him glance down. This is where he’s looking at his presenter display to see the next slide or build to remind him of his story. I advocate the same, and never use written notes, preferring to walk the tightrope of live performing and the spontaneous telling of stories, albeit well-rehearsed stories.
(If you see me driving in my car and looking like I’m talking hands-free on the cellphone, it might really be the case that I’m on the way to give a presentation or a radio interview and I’m practising my lines. You must actually speak out what you want to say rather than simply read it on a sheet of paper or index card, or simply “think” the lines. If, for instance, you easily trip over the word “epidemiology”, don’t read it silently, but get your voice muscles (lips, tongue, face) to develop muscle memory.)
Using the presenter display, your remote, and your body to communicate with your audience (while remembering all your stories) is incredibly difficult to do well, consistently. Steve seems able to do it, never letting us see when he’s pressing the remote advance (look carefully next time), while looking down occasionally at the presenter display to keep on track. But also notice when you have the chance how Steve also looks at the screen behind him and uses it almost like a flip chart or white board, directing the audience’s attention to it, at will.
If there’s a lot of detail on the screen, especially words, he won’t walk in front of it; if it’s just one big uncomplicated photoimage, such as an application’s icon, he’ll let you see it, take it in, then superimpose himself upon it, making a connection in your mind. These are quite subtle stage performance techniques, and not at all easy to emulate without much study and practice.
Look at the picture below to see Scott Forstall pointing his wireless clicker (the same one Jobs uses) at the presenter display he’s looking at (from the March iPhone SDK event). The audience gets a mixed message here. Should we follow what Scott’s hand is doing (jabbing at the screen to bring up the next slide for our attention, cueing us in to look at the main screen not Scott) or should we be looking at what Scott’s looking at (which we can’t since that screen faces the stage, not us). This is only one element of stagecraft, but watching an hour of this kind of incongruity from different presenters will wear an audience down, and interfere with your message delivery. In other words, there is more to public presenting than just the design of slides or telling of stories. This is hard stuff!
UPDATE (December 20): Reader John in the comments section, below, adds some words of wisdom, and brings me to write that I omitted my remarks about Jonathan Ive in my haste to publish. He’s correct in my view in referring to Ive’s apparent passion, enthusiasm and specialist expert knowledge as it comes across in videod segments, as well as the October release of the Macbooks. Occasionally, his passion feels a little cloying, but there is no doubt he knows his stuff and lives and breathes industrial design. What’s curious is that while there has been much recent discussion about Jobs’ successor waiting in the wings, there has been little offered up if Ive was ever poached by the likes of Microsoft or RIM. Clearly, Ive feel on his feet when he first joined Apple pre-Jobs’ return, and he and Jobs fell into lockstep in terms of design philosophy. We’ve heard little about who’s in the wings should Ive suddenly leave his post, and one can speculate what effect this would have on Apple’s share price (throws salt over shoulder for possessing such thoughts!)
Let me return to Macworld thoughts to conclude this blog entry. I expect we’ll hear all kinds of new rumours about what Apple may or may not deliver this January at Macworld, and I’m guessing expectations are low at the moment. Only when Steve has been ill have others been allowed to be the first to show new Apple products (Think iMac G5 in Paris). So can we really expect Phil to do much more than orchestrate the Snow Leopard demo, and some minor hardware variation, perhaps calling on other Apple staff to do their fair share of heavy lifting once more?
Will Steve even attend any part of Macworld (given he was accosted on the Expo show floor after last year’s keynote may have left a bad taste in his mouth)? And will attendees really be all fuzzy and warm with each other (despite the bleak financial outlook) with the prospect that we are attending possibly the final campfire vacation together? (Cue violins).
I’m hoping Paul Kent and his team can pull a Macworld Expo together in 2010, and I’ll work hard to get an invite back in one form or other to be faculty then, based in my 2009 performance. But I can’t help but think one era has finished and another is about to start. A fresh broom is sweeping through many halls of power and influence, old and tired ideas about “how things should happen” are being forcefully challenged, and much change abounds. Steve knows how to manage change better than most (head to my blog entry about his capacity here), and hopefully Apple’s ability to even more tightly control its message delivery, while leaving some unhappy, will lead to better product development and quality assurance.