How to sell like Steve Jobs

What made Steve Jobs a genius? Paul Clapham argues that the magic was never in the products themselves, but in the carefully crafted sales pitch

Plenty of people in the technology world regard Steve Jobs as a lost genius. He was certainly instrumental in creating and bringing to market many ground-breaking products. But what Jobs is probably most famous for in the business is his hugely successful, electrifying presentations.

But this was not rocket science. Rather it was a technique which he used and re-used, honed and improved – just like all the best salesmen. You can copy it. 

Tell a story. Even to the most technologically aware audience, a list of product features becomes brain-numbing very quickly. IT and engineering people are particularly prone to this error. Instead you should sell benefits. When Jobs launched the i-pod in 2001 his pitch was “1000 songs in your pocket.”. Then he put the device in his pocket – simple theatre. 

There’s a classic sales technique involved there. First he gave them the product. Then he took it away. That made them want it all the more.

When Jobs launched the iPhone he refused to call it a smart phone. Instead he called it a phone that understands its user. Only after giving the product that personality did he sell the features.

Simple slides are the most powerful. One two or three words (or numbers) with you talking about them are far more effective than a series of six bullet points with attaching screed. The person reading is not listening to your presentation.

Jobs knew that you can’t absorb a complex message by reading about it and hearing about it at the same time. Our brains do that poorly. Instead he showed a powerful image(s) gave a few seconds to let it sink in and then talked about it.

The rule of three has been proven over time. Ideas presented in threes are absorbed better than other variants (nobody is quite clear why, incidentally). Jobs used this all the time. That would translate into, “ this new product has three key benefits, x, y and z. x is delivered by three key features, a, b and c etc etc” I know it works – I do it and it’s an easy, good discipline to learn and use. It also gives your presentation a tight structure. I can guarantee that if anyone ever says “and sixthly” they have lost their audience.

Statistics! Hah! Many presentations by technical experts get buried in stats. Especially if part of your audience lacks technical expertise you need to make those numbers human.Hah!H

 When describing the number of songs downloaded from iTunes, Jobs gave a simple fact: 2 billion songs have been downloaded, equal to 5 million per day. That means 58 songs purchased every second. Instant understanding that 2 billion wouldn’t have achieved.

Is there a potential magic moment of surprise in your presentation? Jobs always had one. You don’t have the Jobs advantage but can you find something special? A wow moment for your audience might look everyday to you.

Practice makes perfect. In that respect Jobs was a true perfectionist. OK he was aiming for billion dollar sales and your target (I imagine) is lower. But he put together his presentations himself: every slide, the timing, how the lighting would be used – all the detail. Then he practised for hours, fine-tuning everything from the opening sentence onwards. He would practise as many as a dozen times.

Put all that together and you can see why he always looked utterly relaxed on stage – he knew his presentation backwards. Like all the best actors he knew his lines. A great presentation is eight parts preparation, one part inspiration and, yes, one part perspiration. That underlined the Jobs technique. So many people who saw him in action say he made it look so easy, but a lot of hard work went that easiness.

All that preparation made him relaxed. That in turn relaxed his audience and enabled everybody to enjoy the experience. He was happy to throw in a bit of humour, to be an entertainer. Not everyone can ad lib like that, but if you can, then do so.

Let the passion show through. Never forget that enthusiasm is contagious. If you are confident, motivated and passionate that will communicate to your audience as much as the words and pictures you are using. The converse will apply even more. If you are dull or uncertain you will lose your audience and you then have a mountain to climb.

Jobs always showed that passion. He did it with words, gestures, body language, varying his tone of voice and, of course, product demos he could do with his eyes shut. Without passion a presentation lacks character or savour and makes your audience wish they were somewhere else.

Aah but it’s the words you use that will really have impact. I have seen a classic error perpetrated a number of times: the speaker wants to look clever and so uses long words, jargon and business-speak. Any of these can put an audience’s back up. Needless to say Jobs avoided this trap like the plague.

Instead of the above sins, copy Jobs. To communicate a complex, new idea use simple words that are powerful but easy to understand. Most of the key motivating words are short in any case: love, hate, fast, easy, stylish, sexy and so on.

Don’t be scared to repeat a central message – several times if appropriate. Jobs used this technique regularly. He was determined that everyone in the audience would take away that central message if nothing else.

As a case, when he launched the iPhone he said, “Today Apple is going to reinvent the phone”. I defy anyone not to be grabbed by that message. He also repeated that phrase several times with subtle variations during his presentation.

Another of his favourite tricks was to use rhetorical questions that showed his enthusiasm. “Isn’t that amazing?”, “Don’t you just love that?” Can you imagine how popular that’s going to be?” “Can you imagine how cool it is to carry all your music around in one pocket?”

Clearly everyone in your audience needs to be answering those questions with an unequivocal mental ‘yes’. If there’s any doubt of that, don’t ask the question.

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