For 15 years, Ken Kocienda was on the ground floor at Apple as a principal software engineer on the original iPhone, iPad, and the first Safari Web browser. Working side-by-side with Steve Jobs gave Kocienda a rare insider's view into the most creative business communicator of our time.
After reading Kocienda's book, Creative Selection, I had an email exchange with the author to discuss Jobs's exact process for preparing and rehearsing his awe-inspiring presentations. Steve Jobs approached keynote presentations as an actor in a theatrical production. You should, too. These six steps are critical for anyone who has to give a business presentation.
1. Start rehearsing early.
Kocienda noticed that Steve Jobs wouldn't wait for the final presentation to be finished before he began to rehearse. Three weeks or even a month ahead of a product launch, Jobs would go the auditorium on the Apple campus and rehearse whatever portions of the presentation had already been built out. He would build the show step by step.
"This was one of Steve's great secrets of success as a presenter," Kocienda told me. "He practiced. A lot. He went over and over the material until he had the presentation honed and he knew it cold."
2. Refine every slide, every line, and every gesture.
Jobs methodically internalized the material on every slide, and in every demo. According to Kocienda, "Steve thought about what each line meant to him and what those lines could mean to an audience. He worked on pace, on using his voice, his body, and his gestures to supplement his words."
Remember, an Apple presentation is unlike most typical, text-heavy slides you see in nearly every business presentation. There were no bullet points in a Steve Jobs presentation (there still aren't in Apple keynote slides). The slides were mostly images, photos, or phrases of only a few words that complemented the message. For the audience, minimalism is great. For the speaker, it takes hours of practice to make sure you know what you're going to say and how you're going to say it.
3. Rehearse out loud like it's the real thing.
Jobs practiced in full presentation mode. He raised his volume and changed the tone of his voice and the energy he gave. He used expansive gestures like he was speaking to thousands, even if he was rehearsing in front of a handful of executives. In other words, "everything was exactly as if he were presenting to a packed house," Kocienda says.
Practicing out loud even if there's nobody around to hear is a highly effective technique. I've been doing it for years. My colleagues can see me through my office window. They sometimes poke good-natured fun at me when I'm walking around my office with the door closed, talking out loud as if I'm addressing an auditorium of people. It feels awkward, but it works.
4. Ask for feedback during each step of the performance.
Steve Jobs asked his executive team for constructive feedback that would help to make every slide and every phrase even better. Listen to an observation that Kocienda makes in his book: "As needed, [Jobs] stopped, stepped out of character, reduced the volume of his voice, and asked executives seated in the front row what they thought of some turn of phrase or whether they believed the ideas flowed together smoothly."
After listening to the feedback, Jobs would pause, get back into character, and continue his practice. Steve Jobs was like an actor on a movie set, practicing take after take until he got it just right.
5. Schedule dress rehearsals in real-world conditions.
On the Saturday and Sunday preceding the week of the first keynote Kocienda participated in, he watched Jobs run through the presentation on stage at San Francisco's Moscone Center, the location of the event. He rehearsed the entire presentation twice each day. These were "dress rehearsals," says Kocienda because Jobs showed up in his presentation uniform--black mock turtleneck and jeans.
6. Keep the mood light.
Jobs knew when to break up the tension with humor. At the end of one run-through, Jobs got to the last slide and the executives thought he had finished. Instead, Jobs said, "Here's what I have to say to those people who said our stores would most certainly fail." He clicked to a new slide that had a phrase I can't write in this article. He played it straight and brought down the house. Kocienda says, "It's well known that Steve could be feisty, but he could also be genuinely funny."
To sum it up, Kocienda told me that Jobs "recognized the power of public speaking." By treating keynote presentations like theatrical performances--and by rehearsing like stage performers do--Jobs elevated the business presentation to an art form.