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September 2016

Steve Jobs on communicating your core values

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Shortly after he returned to Apple in 1997, Steve Jobs gave an internal presentation to employees from the Town Hall building on the Apple campus (YouTube link below). This was an important presentation to let employees know where the company stood and where it was heading. A typical CEO may have put together a slide deck and run through a kind of SWOT analysis. But in this presentation, Jobs —dressed in shorts, sandles and a black turtleneck— stood before the audience and took them on a journey, without notes or slides, where he did touch on Apple’s Strong & Weak points, and also on the Opportunities and Threats, but in a way that was conversational with clear examples. Jobs starts the talk by stating the problem (the “ideal world” is implied):

“This is a very complicated world, it's a very noisy world. And we're not going to get the chance to get people to remember much about us. No company is. So we have to be really clear on what we want them to know about us."

Jobs then reminds people that Apple is one of the world’s top brands, right up there with Disney, Nike, SONY, etc. But even great brands need care. And that care had been lacking.

In the presentation, Jobs said that marketing is not about touting features and speeds and megabytes or comparing yourself to the other guys, it's about identifying your own story, your own core, and being very, very clear about what you are all about and what you stand for...and then being able to communicate that clearly, simply, and consistently. As Steve says, people want to know who you are and what you stand for. The problem was, Apple had for a long time before Jobs came back got away from communicating its core values, and in fact the employees may have even forgotten what they were.

Jobs used the example of Nike as a brand that did a great job of letting customers know what their brand stood for, not by focusing on the product, but by communicating its values:

“Nike sells a commodity, they sell shoes. And yet when you think of Nike you feel something different than a shoe company. In their ads, as you know, they don't ever talk about the product, they don't ever talk about their air soles, how they're better than Reebok's air soles. What's Nike do in their advertising? They honor great athletes and they honor great athletics. That is what they are about.”

In the case of Apple, the brand's core value, as Jobs says in the presentation, is not about technology or "making boxes for people to get their jobs done." Apple's core value, said Jobs, is this:

"We believe people with passion can change the world for the better....and that those people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who actually do. The things Apple believes in at its core are the same things that Apple really stands for today, and so we wanted to find a way to communicate this."

In the end Jobs introduces the now famous Think different TV ad that was about two months in the making. This campaign was an attempt, said Jobs, to get Apple back to its core values. It was only one of many first steps of the new branding campaign and Apple’s revival, but it worked.

Clarity & Simplicity key
The lessons in this talk obviously can be applied directly to the art of presentation, something Steve did very well in all his presentations, big or small. Good presentation is about story, just as good branding is about story. Clarity and simplicity are key, and the way to achieve these is by being relentless in abandoning the superfluous and identifying the absolute core of your message. Clarity and simplicity are not easy—they are hard. If it were easy to be simple and clear then everyone would do it, but few actually do. It is indeed a very noisy world, and it's getting noisier seemingly by the day. It is those people—and those organizations—who do the hard work to clarify and simplify that will be the ones who are able to rise above the noise, get their messages heard, and make a difference in this world in their own way.

Simple Story Structure

If you look at what Jobs said in this 1997 talk, the essence of it fits well into to the simple story structure.

• Ideal world: Apple would be growing and its marketing/branding message would be clear and powerful.

• Reality: Although the brand is super famous, it has lost its shine (and the company is in a weak position). Apple is in danger.

•Cause: Apple had too many messages and got away from its core values so customers were confused. Also, it is a more complicated and noisy world and more difficult for any brand to communicate its message. Apple has too many products, too many messages.

• Solution: Returning to old ad agency from the Apple glory days, and deciding to communicate in its brand only Apple’s core values through their “Think Different” campaign. (What we know now is that this was a winning strategy, first delivered to employees in a simple, clear narrative structure that resonated with the audience.)


Using storytelling to make a case for social change

I asked TEDxKyoto founder Jay Klaphake which of the many good talks at TEDxKyoto was a great example of storytelling, he replied immediately that it was the 2014 talk by Sahel Rosa. Sahel’s presentation is a wonderful example of a presenter using their personal story to (1) shine a spotlight on a social issue, and (2) to make a pitch for people to support her cause. Sahel takes us on a journey that begins with her own harsh childhood spent in an orphanage in Iran. She overcame impossible odds thanks to the love of a nurse who adopted her and moved to Japan. She also received help from a Japanese lunch lady from her school who rescued her and her adoptive mother who were living in a park at the time. Her presentation ends by building on the remarkable love and support from her mother and others in Japan to ask all of us to remember the thousands of orphans in Japan, many of whom are waiting for adoption. And she asks us to get involved in orphanages as much as we can to help improve the lives of the children there. She also mentions that her dream is to start a home for Orphans called “Sahel’s House.”

The aim of good storytelling is to make people feel deeply and empathize with your situation. Many times while analyzing this talk I had tears in my eyes. Some of the things Sahel recalled will make anyone feel deeply moved, moved even to tears. Such as when Sahel recalled a time when she was bullied in school in Japan for being an orphan and another child said “You kids are living off our tax money!” That’s such a hurtful thing for a child to hear. Any audience member would feel great empathy for her. Or the time Sahel returned after twenty years to her orphanage in Iran. Children were so happy to see her success and hear her story, but when she asked a child what his dream was, his reply was “Ummm...I don’t know. I just want a mom.” This speaks to the helpless children often feel in orphanages, not in an abstract way, but in a concrete way that tugs at the heart.

For the personal stories like this — “Telling Your Story”—there is another simple way to visualize the arc of the story. Most classic stories start in what’s called the “World of Perfection.” Then because of some incident, there is a descent into the “World of Imperfection.” In this latter world—which is often the biggest part of the story—our character struggles to overcome obstacles. If we put this on an X/Y axis, we can think of anything above the horizontal axis as Good Fortune (Positive, happy, normal life, etc.), and anything below the horizontal axis we can think of as Ill fortune (negative, unhappy, difficult, etc.). It is a simplification, but almost all storytelling arcs start near or above the horizontal axis, descend below, and eventually rise back to the “World of Perfection.” In Sahel’s case, you can see clearly how she starts positively in the current world and then descends into a world where there was some difficult to hear things about her personal story and the state of orphans and orphanages in Japan. By the end she ascends back up to a more positive world where there is hope for a solution and asks for three specific things from the audience.


Storytelling advice from Akira Kurosawa

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Akira Kurosawa
was one of the masters of cinema. Below is a six-minute interview where Kurosawa offers advice to aspiring filmmakers, but the advice can be applied more widely to other creative disciplines as well.

If you want to make a film today, you don't need expensive equipment necessarily. Even a smartphone and a good microphone will do the trick. But before equipment and camera techniques comes knowing how to create a story. If you want to be a director, says Kurosawa, learn to write screen plays first. For a story, all you need is a pen and paper (or a cheap computer). When Kurosawa laments in the interview that most aspiring filmmakers want to get immediately to directing without first spending a lot of time learning the craft of story through the difficult task of writing, this is something that could be applied to other professional endeavors. Learning an art — any art — is not glamorous; it's tedious and difficult. Writing is hard and can be lonely. The most important quality to have, says Kurosawa, is to have "the forbearance to face the dull task of writing one word at a time." To have the patience to write one word at a time is key. Most people lack the patience to do this for very long, so they quit. But if you stick with it, Kurosawa says, over time the writing process will become second nature to you.

Patience
Kurosawa says the many younger people want to get to the end quickly rather than spending the long, tedious time in first preparing. Creating a film is an enormous task Kursosawa says, but the important thing is to not let yourself get overwhelmed by the size of the task. His advice is not just for filmmakers but for writers or anyone else who has a big, creative job to do in front of them. As he says, when you climb a high mountain you must not look up to the peak so often but instead focus on the ground just a head of you. Step by step you make progress. But if you keep looking up at how far you have to go to finish it will be discouraging and also distracts you from the moment at hand. When I got my first book contract ten years ago, I wondered how I could finish the book in time. Dan Pink recommended I read the book Bird by Bird, a book about how to get through large tasks by taking one step at a time, as the author's father once advised her 10-year-old brother, who was worried sick over the scale of a book report on birds. His advice: "Just take it bird by bird." Kurosawa here is giving similar advice.

"Don't ever quit."
Kurosawa says that he encouraged his Assistant Directors to never give up on the script halfway through, but to go all the way through and finish it. Even if it is not the best (yet) it's important to develop the habit of perseverance and fighting through until the end. Otherwise, Kurosawa suggests, people will get in the habit of quitting when things get difficult or do not go well. Kurosawa also talks about the importance of reading books in order to become a better writer and a better storyteller. Reading a wide array of subjects over a lifetime gives one knowledge and perspectives in a kind of reserve which they may use in unforeseen ways in future. "Unless you have a rich reserve within, you can't create anything," Kurosawa says. "That's why I often say creating comes from memory. Memory is the source of your creation. You can't create something from nothing." As Kurosawa says, whether it is from reading or your real-life experience, "you can't create unless you have something inside yourself."

I highly suggest you read this great book by Akira Kurosawa: Something Like an Autobiography