How great leaders communicate – juicy bites from the Apple Founder

I know it’s hardly news now, but one particular individual can still teach us so much about business storytelling and how to connect with people. When Steve Jobs gave his commencement address at Stanford University in 2005, he’d been given the all-clear by the cancer specialists, and knowing what happened to him subsequently gives added poignancy to his words.
I watched the speech again last night and was struck by how inspiring and touching it was. But then I wondered “why?” What was it that connected with the audience, and how did it convey his own distinct personality?
Keep it simple
There were some simple, profound messages in his speech which were easy to follow and spoke to us on a human level. It’s a lesson for presenters – don’t over-complicate things; people can only take in so much.
Rule of 3
Time and again you see this in great talks and in speech patterns. Beginning, middle and end…Holy Trinity…Education, Education, Education. Jobs related 3 key messages and human beings like things delivered in 3′s.
Make it Personal
When you talk about things you’ve personally experienced, it’s more authentic and (by definition) unique. This is your own personal real estate – no one can lay claim to these things or question your right to talk about them. The key is to make them relevant to the audience and outline what you learned from it – and what that might mean for others.
Vulnerability = Strength
We like our leaders to be strong, but we also like them to show their humanity. When Jobs talks about his adoption, dropping out of college and getting fired from the company he formed, he opens himself up. He peels away the layers and shows us the raw Jobs – that’s how leaders truly connect with people. They display their vulnerable side, admit to mistakes and show a willingness to learn from others. This makes them stronger. Handled with skill, vulnerability goes a long way to establishing a true connection with your audience.
Raising Eyebrows
There’s some controversy in his speech, something to make people sit up and take notice. There’s the conflict between good and evil (a feature of most Jobs presentations) – in this case a reference to Microsoft! There’s the irony that at a Stanford University Address he talks about dropping out of college to pursue something that stimulated him more. And there’s that extraordinary statement that death was perhaps the best invention for the living – that it gets rid of the old to make way for the new.
Getting Curious
Leaders tend to be curious people – not in the sense of being odd but being interested in things. Jobs was intrigued by calligraphy at college and signed up for that course. He didn’t know where it might lead – he just pursued something that intrigued and captivated him. It was this introduction to beautiful typefaces that led to many of the unique features of the Macintosh computer.
A parting thought
Like all great speeches he rounds things off with a final message for his audience – “Stay hungry. Stay foolish”. It’s something he leaves ringing in their ears as he signs off, and gives what’s preceded it more impact. It’s a kind of closure, and allows us to move on and hopefully implement some of the insights he’s delivered.
Public speaking and effective presenting are key tools in the armoury of any leader – few did it as well as Steve Jobs, but perhaps we can adopt at least some of those traits that made him such a great connector.

Bread time stories – pull marketing & corporate storytelling

On a recent visit to London I happened upon the wonderful Le Pain Quotidien (PQ) café/restaurant. It’s a memorable experience – something worth talking about (evidently!).

The food is superb, the service excellent and the environment simply draws you in. Wooden tables exude warmth and naturalness, cakes, pastries and bread are displayed to make the mouth water and the open kitchen shows chefs at work and having fun.

But the thing that intrigued me most was the PQ story. On each table is a fold-out card with a cartoon strip charting the origins of this international phenomenon. Like many entrepreneurial tales it was borne of an experience – in this case the founder Alain Coumont’s frustration at not being able to find decent bread for the restaurant he worked at in Brussels. Quite by chance, he found suitable premises, opened his own bakery and started supplying the most magnificent bread and pastries to his former employer (and other restaurants too). PQ now has branches around the world and, having sampled 2 of them in London, I can vouch for their quality. They are remark-able and Coumont’s story is a great piece of pull marketing.

There was one disappointment though – a salutary tale for anyone looking to develop their own corporate story. We were served by a charming young woman and when I mentioned the cartoon story she confessed she wasn’t really familiar with it. This surprised me. I assumed this would form a fundamental part of her induction, but perhaps like so many inductions it focused on the practicalities – in this case, how the till works, what’s on the menu and how to clock in and off.

Your corporate story is only as good as the people living it and delivering it. This includes your staff and your clients (I’m an example here – spreading the word about PQ). The philosophy of a strong business is the very foundation of its success, but every member of staff should be able to articulate it (and believe in it)…from the inside.