Ten Public Speaking Lessons from Steve Jobs

Much has been written about Steve Jobs. He was, without question, one of the greatest and most inspirational businessmen of his generation. He made Apple into one of the most recognizable and iconic brands in the world. His death at the age of 56 came far too early and he is missed.

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs

Much has also been written about Steve Jobs’ presentation style. Jobs was famous for the preparation that he put into his MacWorld and other presentations, and for his delivery style when launching a new product. 

In today’s post, I don’t want to focus on Jobs’ presentation skills per se; instead, I wanted to draw upon his wisdom and insights into business and life and see what lessons can be applied when it comes to presentations and public speaking. As part of his legacy, Jobs left a small trove of memorable quotes. Sometimes humorous, frequently trenchant, always thought-provoking, they make for good reading. Here are ten of my favourites.

1. “Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works. The design of the Mac wasn’t what it looked like, although that was part of it. Primarily, it was how it worked. To design something really well, you have to get it. You have to really grok [understand intuitively] what it’s all about. It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something, chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that.”

Giving a good presentationa truly good presentationtakes time and effort. You must understand the material, how it relates to your audience and what is most important and why. And then you have to design the presentationwith or without slidesso that it hangs together and conveys the message with impact.

2. “This is what customers pay us for—to sweat all these details so it’s easy and pleasant for them to use our computers. We’re supposed to be really good at this.”

You have to sweat all of the details so that it is easy for your audience to follow your presentation (and enjoy it).

3. “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

Too many presentations become bogged down when speakers try to do too much. You have a limited amount of time and your audience has a limited amount of attention. Choose your key points carefully and ruthlessly cut out everything else. If the subject matter is vast and there is more for your audience to know, prepare a detailed handout or direct people to where they can go for more information. War and Peace makes for a good read but a lousy presentation.

4. “That’s been one of my mantras: Focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

This quote is really just a variation of No. 3 above. As a presenter you must cut through the details and complexity and distill your message to its essence. Taking the time to think carefully about your subject and your audience beforehand will help you design a simple, effective presentation. For more inspiration on simplicity, see these quotes from Charles Mingus, George Eliot, Bruce Lee and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

5. “I would trade all of my technology for an afternoon with Socrates.”

Technology is great but it is not the most important thing. Far more important is being able to think clearly, strategically, creatively. Whatever your field, expand your horizons. Read widely and extensively. Read the classics, read modern fiction, read non-fiction, read industry periodicals that are not related to your industry. You will become a better thinker and you will be more well rounded. And that can only help when it comes to communicating ideas to others.

6. “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”

Steve Jobs was very fond of this quote which, in fact, he got from Pablo Picasso. Good speakers never try to copy other speakers. Good speakers know that they can only be themselves. However, good speakers are willing to “steal” from others. And here, I am talking about trying out something that they have learned from another speaker, or read in a book, or learned in a course on public speaking. Nobody knows everything and we should be open to learning from others. But we should never try to be like others.

7. “I think if you do something and it turns out pretty good, then you should go do something else wonderful, not dwell on it for too long. Just figure out what’s next.”

When a presentation goes well, don’t waste the opportunity to deconstruct it soon afterwards. Make notes. What worked well? Why? What could be improved? How? Take what you have learned and build on it for your next presentation. Don’t rest on your laurels, especially if you have to give the same presentation over and over. There is always room for improvement: better images; a better story; an exercise for the audience; cutting material; adding material. Figure out what’s next.

8. “I’m the only person I know who’s lost a quarter of a billion dollars in one year. It’s very character building.”

Things don’t always go well. Mistakes happen and if you give enough presentations or speeches, the odds are that you will stumble at some point. Don’t let the stumbles get you down. They are part of the process of all public speakers and very few of them are fatal. Learn from them and move on.

9. “We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why even be here?”

When you finish a speech or presentation, your audience should be changed in some way, even if that change is simply learning something new. If you do not change your audience, why bother speaking at all?

10. “Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”

Many presentations are still, unfortunately, mediocre or worse. You might even be able to get away with a mediocre presentation yourself. Don’t. Hold yourself to a higher standard like Steve Jobs did; your audience deserves it and the benefits that will come your waypersonal and professionalwill be well worth the effort.

Oh, and there’s just “one more thing”

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that’s as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. … Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

The message is clear. How it applies to your life is for you to decide.

Photo courtesy of Ben Stanfield

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  1. Hi John – Just finished reading this post – well written, well said – enjoyed – I actually received the bio book from my wife on Steve Jobs at Christmas (at my request). It’s a great read & I couldn’t put it down until it was done. Tons of material there. Worth every penny. Highly recommend. With much perserverance, it must be very motivating, gratifying and inspiring working with such teams (as long as you don’t take things personally – things said in the “heat of the moment”).

    1. Thanks for the comment, Terry. Glad you enjoyed the post. In fact, I got the Walter Isaacson biography of Jobs for Christmas in 2011. Like you, I found it fascinating. It’s a thick book but a fast read. Around a third of the way through the book, it occurred to me that many of the events described in the book would be on YouTube. And so when I finished reading a section about a major event, I would watch the video. A very interesting way to read a book.

  2. Very insightful way to look at speaking…and an approach to life. I like that you did not focus on Jobs himself but on the inspiration and revelation that he left AND encouraged us to do the same.

    1. Thank you, Alisa. I appreciate the comment and am glad that you liked the post. Jobs certainly was unique and his quotes are certainly insightful, if we take the time reflect on them.

    1. Thank you for the comment, David. You are right, of course. The wisdom goes much deeper than public speaking, but as that is the theme of this blog, that is the way I went. Thanks also for sharing the post.

  3. Thank you, John. This is just what I needed this morning to hear the essence of Steve Jobs, his humility and understanding of his great gift which will resonate for generations. A great inspiration for the day. Thank you for sharing.

  4. A very nice piece. I just discovered your blog today. I will be reading some stuff for when I need to give a presentation at an excellent level.

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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

Karsta Goetze

TA Leader, Gore and Associates

I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

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CEO, Proton Technologies

John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

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Senior Data Scientist, Expedia Group

After a morning of team building activities using improvisation as the conduit, John came on stage to close the staff event which was organised in Chamonix, France. His energy and presence were immediately felt by all the members of staff. The work put into the preparation of his speech was evident and by sharing some his own stories, he was able to conduct a closing inspirational speech which was relevant, powerful and impactful for all at IRU. The whole team left feeling engaged and motivated to tackle the 2019 objectives ahead. Thank you, John.

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Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

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World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

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HR Specialist, World Health Organization

John is a genuine communication innovator. His seminars on gamification of public speaking learning and his interactive Rhetoric game at our conference set the tone for change and improvement in our organisation. The quality of his input, the impact he made with his audience and his effortlessly engaging style made it easy to get on board with his core messages and won over some delegates who were extremely skeptical as to the efficacy of games for learning. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.

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CFO European Dairy Supply Chain & Operations, Danone

Thanks to John’s excellent workshop, I have learned many important tips and techniques to become an effective public speaker. John is a fantastic speaker and teacher, with extensive knowledge of the field. His workshop was a great experience and has proven extremely useful for me in my professional and personal life.

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Senior Sales Manager, Sunrise Communications

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Director of the Jura Region, BKW Energie AG

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