Archive for September, 2011
Steve Jobs offers so many classic story angles, not the least being the prodigal son banished only to return the “homeland” to glory.
As discussed last week, he knew how to cultivate Apple’s story in a way that had little to do with words.
But what about the third-party storytelling on Mr. Jobs?
I’ve culled through the archives to capture what I consider to be the best stories on Steve Jobs.
The first one comes from master storyteller Malcom Gladwell whose fresh take on David versus Goliath was highlighted in this forum.
His story on Steve Jobs in The New Yorker, “Creation Myth: Xerox PARC, Apple and the Truth About Innovation,” appeared only a few months ago.
An Ikea-ish lead starts the piece:
In late 1979, a twenty-four-year-old entrepreneur paid a visit to a research center in Silicon Valley called Xerox PARC. He was the co-founder of a small computer startup down the road, in Cupertino. His name was Steve Jobs.
While the “Jobs ‘borrows’ from XEROX PARC” tale has been told a zillion times, Gladwell manages to uncover fresh fodder as only Gladwell can.
He tracks down Dean Hovey, the man hired by Jobs to design Apple’s computer mouse. Described as “lean and healthy in a Northern California yoga-and-yogurt sort of way,” Hovey recounts how this project went down:
‘What’s a mouse?’ I didn’t have a clue. So he explains it, and he says, ‘You know, [the Xerox mouse] is a mouse that cost three hundred dollars to build and it breaks within two weeks. Here’s your design spec: Our mouse needs to be manufacturable for less than fifteen bucks. It needs to not fail for a couple of years, and I want to be able to use it on Formica and my bluejeans.’ From that meeting, I went to Walgreens, which is still there, at the corner of Grant and El Camino in Mountain View, and I wandered around and bought all the underarm deodorants that I could find, because they had that ball in them. I bought a butter dish. That was the beginnings of the mouse.”
If you think about it, the mouse does have that deodorant ball feel to it.
Hovey tried to negotiate a royalty deal on the mouse but Jobs was having none of it and paid out a flat fee of roughly $100K.
After the stage-setting, Gladwell brings out the wrinkle.
As illustrated by his instruction to Hovey, Jobs didn’t want to reproduce what he saw at Xerox PARC. He wanted to build upon and improve on their innovations.
The narrative continues with the introduction of the final character in the story, an optical engineer named Gary Starkweather, the brains behind the laser printer.
Gladwell captures Starkweather’s persona with a wonderful sentence that breaks the word-count rule handed down in high school English:
He is a solid and irrepressibly cheerful man, with large, practical hands and the engineer’s gift of pretending that what is impossibly difficult is actually pretty easy, once you shave off a bit here, and remember some of your high-school calculus, and realize that the thing that you thought should go in left to right should actually go in right to left.
Gladwell often allows himself one word per essay that prompts a visit to the dictionary. In this piece, it’s “fecundity,” the intellectual productivity of a creative imagination.
So now you know.
Anyway, the piece goes on to capture Starkweather’s never-ending battles with the Xerox brass and other naysayers during his quest to translate the laser printer technology into a real consumer product.
Who does this sound like?
Somehow, Gladwell even makes a plausible comparison to Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones’ album “Exile on Main Street” producing this quip:
Only in a rock-and-roll band, by the way, can someone like Keith Richards perceive himself as the responsible one.
I won’t tell you how the story ends.
But rest assured there’s a surprise waiting for you at the finish line.
I got hooked on European soccer when I lived in the UK for a couple years.
Taking the train from Redding to Liverpool for a match at Anfield where I was hugged after a Michael Owen goal – Who says the Brits don’t have emotion? – was quite an experience.
So when I stumbled across the following video of Michael Bradley who had just landed with Chievo in Italy’s Seria A league, I thought “What a great way to help fans get to know Bradley.”
Of course, this assumes that Bradley shares his personality.
Which he doesn’t.
Let’s look at the opener:
“My name is Michael Bradley. I was born in Princeton, New Jersey. I’m 24 years old and I’m a midfielder.”
Geez, it sounds like roll call for a 7 a.m. highway clean-up crew.
What’s the value in repeating information in any standard bio?
Three times Bradley uttered the words, “I’m very excited to be here” and one time he went for the minimalistic version, “I’m excited to be here.”
The blank-face delivery doesn’t exactly match the words.
Look, I appreciate he’s an athlete, not an actor.
I also recognize it doesn’t all fall on Bradley to produce compelling video.
The interview also comes into play.
Ask him about his favorite moment playing for the U.S. national team?
Was there ever a moment when he questioned whether he would become a professional soccer player?
Where does he live in Italy? Has he met his neighbors? Does he already have a favorite restaurant? Has he ever downed a bottle of Chianti by himself?
In short, find Bradley’s passion points.
That’s how you liven up the video and bring out the personality.
Everyone refers to Steve Jobs as the consummate showman.
He is the consummate storyteller with “showmanship” just one way to accentuate a given story.
Paul Theroux, in the recent issue of Newsweek, noted:
“… while the computer world gained a supergeek, the literary world might have lost a powerful storyteller.”
I don’t know about “the literary world” but his business storytelling will be missed.
So how important was “the story” in Apple’s 14-year run since Mr. Jobs retook the CEO reins?
Ironically, he was just getting on a roll with the 1984 launch of the Mac and the Super Bowl commercial that screamed “nana nana nana” to IBM (I think they said it three times, but don’t quote me on this) before the board showed him the door.
If you believe the Apple brand represents one of the company’s greatest assets — and how can you not with one study putting its value at $153B — then logic would hold that Mr. Jobs’s storytelling played a critical role in building equity in the brand and the company’s overall success.
While “insanely great” is a nice of turn of a phrase, his power in storytelling wasn’t about the words.
Like many things at Apple, both classic techniques and deviations from the norm underpin the storytelling.
For starters, Mr. Jobs and his kingmakers positioned Apple as an alternative to the establishment. This point got hammered home during the Super Bowl commercial mentioned earlier.
OK, nothing terribly original about this. Shoot, the “Cool Hand Luke” DVD still sells 40+ years later.
And it’s fair to say that Mr. Jobs was one of the few CEOs to embrace visual storytelling. You could develop a semester’s curriculum around the images that launched the iPhone.
But here’s where the script starts four-wheeling.
Apple created scarcity in its communications before Julian Assange got the religion.
Steve rarely spoke with journalists and when he did, he traded access for control of the story.
His fellow executives also stayed out of the public spotlight for the most part.
New product details were guarded with the fervor of the guy in charge of answers for Johnny Carson’s Carnac shtick.
What happens when you want something and can’t have it?
You think about it. You fixate on it. You try to figure out how to get it.
Scarcity created this very dynamic with journalists and customers.
Such a backdrop enabled Mr. Jobs to create anticipation and ultimately drama for Apple’s product introductions.
There was almost a heroic quality to Apple’s new products, short of stepping into a phone booth and slipping on a cape.
All of these qualities marinated over time to make for storytelling that was distinctly Steve Jobs.
I defy you to find another CEO who brought all these qualities together under the big top.
The countless articles on Tim Cook point out that the Great One himself has already blessed Apple’s product roadmap that extends out a good two to three years.
So the thinking goes, it will take this long before Mr. Cook’s first true test will come, when he alone must divine the desires of the people and align Apple’s product direction accordingly.
His first challenge will come during Apple’s second major product introduction in the post-Jobs era.
For the first one, the mere fact that Steve won’t be there guarantees rich storytelling.
It’s the second product intro when we’ll get a sense of how Tim Cook intends to shape the Apple narrative going forward.
That should make for an interesting story indeed.
Given Mr. Jobs’s communications acuity, it’s no surprise his resignation letter tells a crisp and understated story.
Here’s the text of the letter in its entirety:
To the Apple Board of Directors and the Apple Community:
I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come.
I hereby resign as CEO of Apple. I would like to serve, if the Board sees fit, as Chairman of the Board, director and Apple employee.
As far as my successor goes, I strongly recommend that we execute our succession plan and name Tim Cook as CEO of Apple.
I believe Apple’s brightest and most innovative days are ahead of it. And I look forward to watching and contributing to its success in a new role.
I have made some of the best friends of my life at Apple, and I thank you all for the many years of being able to work alongside you.
Unlike those horrid Toyota letters, you can tell Steve wrote this letter without lawyers at his side.
Like the way he closes on the topic of friendship.
No doubt, he anticipated that the words would make their way to the masses.
If I was going to quibble, it would be that the word ”hereby” seems out of place.
But all in all, it’s a well-crafted letter that illustrates the power of ”less is more.”
“Friday Levity” returns on Thursday (not necessarily back by popular demand).
Check out the following photo from a Chinese website selling English language lessons.
Always good for models in an advertisement to exude friendliness.
The fellow waving “hi” to the reader looks fine.
But the girl’s wave is so close to her face it looks like she’s thumbing her nose at the reader (missing the old nose by an inch or so.)
This prompted me to pull up the definition of:
“thumb one’s nose at someone or something”
Whether you prefer the literal or figurative definition, I suspect this isn’t what the company had in mind.
Note: If you enjoyed this, you might enjoy “I Think They Missed the Picture … Literally” (powered by my hit-and-miss memory)