Thomas Edison was an inventor and a showman. In 1877, Edison invented the phonograph for recording and replaying sound. The invention changed the world. Edison also invented the lightbulb, but he considered the phonograph his crowning achievement.
Nothing like it had ever been invented in human history. No one believed that it was possible to store the human voice and reproduce it at will. Some thought that, if true, the young engineer had to be dabbling in the occult.
According to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edmund Morris in the new book Edison, the invention failed to make news because it was simply too hard to believe. So in December of 1877, Edison put on a show.
Edison walked into the New York City office of Scientific American magazine. The staff gathered around. With a flair for the dramatic, Edison decided to "let the machine announce itself." Here's how Scientific American described what happened next:
"Edison placed a little machine on our desk, turned a crank, and the machine enquired as to our health, asked how we liked the phonograph, informed us that it was very well, and bid us a cordial good night."
The implications were mind-boggling. Soon after the presentation, Edison was hailed the Wizard of Menlo Park. Edison "loved the publicity and cultivated more of it."
The world would never be the same.
The communication tactic that Edison used to turn skeptics into believers has remained relevant over time, and has been adopted by other innovators -- most notably Steve Jobs.
The Macintosh Speaks for Itself
In 1984, Steve Jobs took to the stage to introduce another invention that would change the world--the first Macintosh. Other than the team working on the personal computer, few people had ever seen anything like it. Rather than simply describe it or show photos of it, Jobs pulled an Edison and let Macintosh speak for itself.
According to Walter Isaacson in his biography of Jobs, "With a flair for the dramatic, Jobs walked across the dark stage to a small table with a cloth bag on it." Jobs took out the computer, keyboard, and mouse and then connected them. He did so without saying a word. Like a magician revealing one surprise after another, Jobs pulled a floppy disk from his shirt pocket. As the theme from Chariots of Fire began to play, the word "MACINTOSH" scrolled on the screen.
"Not used to such beautiful graphic displays, the audience quieted for a moment. A few gasps could be heard," writes Isaacson.
Then, Jobs took a page directly from the Edison presentation playbook. "Today, for the first time ever, I'd like to let Macintosh speak for itself," Jobs said. And with that, the Macintosh introduced itself with these words: Hello. I'm Macintosh. It sure is great to get out of that bag.
"The only thing it didn't know how to do was wait for the wild cheering and shrieks that erupted," writes Isaacson. "Pandemonium erupted."
Jobs was an avid reader and a scholar of the inventors who came before him. I wouldn't be surprised if Jobs was inspired by Edison's launch of the phonograph. Long before slides were invented and the business world came to rely on PowerPoint to get its messages across, communicators had to get creative.
Let the Product Speak for Itself
I confess that I copied this presentation trick myself to help a tech company launch a successful IPO.
I was sitting in a Silicon Valley conference room with the company founder, investment bankers, and marketers. The company's first big product was a computer chip that amplifies sound.
"What's the one thing that will wow the audience?" I asked.
"They'll be surprised at how much sound comes from this tiny chip," the founder said.
"In that case, let the chip speak for itself," I suggested.
And it did.
The IPO road show that followed was a blockbuster success. The company's stock has risen 1,500 percent in the ten years following its IPO.
Slides are fine and can be used effectively as a visual backdrop that reinforces the message. But if you really want to wow your audience, give them something to remember. Let the product speak for itself.