Steve Jobs and the art of the swordsman
August 09, 2007
Much has been written about the approach to presentations taken by Steve Jobs. His slides, for example, are always simple, stunning and highly visual and he uses them smoothly and seamlessly, advancing all slides and effects himself without ever drawing attention to the fact that he is the one advancing slides. His style is conversational and his visuals are in perfect sync with his words. His presentations are built on a solid structure which gives them an easy feeling of flow as if he were taking us on a small journey. He is friendly, comfortable and confident (which makes others feel relaxed), and he exudes a level of passion and enthusiasm that is engaging without going over the top.
It all seems so automatic and natural. It all seems so easy, so you’d be tempted to think that it just comes naturally to Steve, that it’s a pretty easy task for him to use his natural charisma to woo a crowd. But you’d be wrong. While it is true that Steve Jobs is a charismatic figure, I’m not sure giving presentations with multimedia support, and even giving live demos (how many CEOs do that?), is something that comes naturally to anyone. No, the reason Steve Jobs’ presentations go so well and are so engaging is because he and his team prepare and practice like mad to make sure it looks “easy.”
The waters are in motion but the moon retains its serenity
When Steve is on stage he is in a sense an artist. And like any artist, through practice and experience, he has perfected his “technique” and “form.” Yet also like the trained artist, there is no thought of technique or of form, or even of failure or success while performing the art. Once we think of failure or success we are like the swordsman whose mind stops, ever so briefly, to ponder his technique or the outcome of the fight. The moment he does that he has lost. This sounds paradoxical, of course, but once we allow our mind to drift to thoughts of success and failure or of outcomes and technique while performing our art we have at that moment begun our sure descent.
Mushin no shin (The mind that is no mind)
When a swordsman is in the moment and his mind is empty (or the “mind that is no mind”) there are no emotions stemming from fear, there are no thoughts of winning or of losing or even of using the sword. In this way, says Daisetz Suzuki in Zen and Japanese Culture, “both man and sword turn into instruments in the hands of the unconscious, and it is the unconscious that achieves wonders of creativity. It is here that swordplay becomes an art.” Beyond mastering technique, the secret to swordsmanship rests in obtaining a proper mental state of “no mind” where the mind is “abandoned and yet not abandoned.” Frankly, if you are engaged in any art or even a sporting match, you must get rid of the obtruding self-consciousness or ego-consciousness and apply yourself completely, but also, as Suzuki says, “…as if nothing particular were taking place at the moment.” When you perform in a state of “no mind” you are free from the burdens of inhibitions and doubt and can contribute fully and fluidly in the moment. Artists know this state of mind, as do musicians and highly trained athletes.
These highly anticipated presentations that Steve does come with a lot of pressure to get it right. A lot is riding on each presentation and expectations are high inside and outside Apple. Yet what makes Steve so effective in these situations is that he is able to seemingly forget the seriousness of the situation and "just perform.” In this way he is like the artful swordsman who through his “immovable mind” has no thought of life or death. The mind has been quieted and the man is free to be fully present. As Suzuki puts it:
“The waters are in motion all the time but the moon retains its serenity. The mind moves in response to ten thousand situations but remains ever the same.”
We need technique and proper form and we need to know “the rules.” We need to practice and practice some more. By putting in the hard work in the preparation phase and internalizing the material we can perform our art — the art of presentation — in a way that is more natural by obtaining the proper sate of mind, that is, “no mind.”
Keynote ’08 now available
Steve had another nice presentation today in Cupertino in Apple’s Town Hall. One of my more memorable presentations was on that same stage; it’s a very nice little theatre. The new Keynote is something that I am pretty excited about. It is the built-in voiceover capabilities that you can put in sync with the cinematic transitions that I can’t wait to try. If someone knows of some samples (already) please let us know. Below are a few stills from today’s presentation. Go watch it here in a beautiful 640x360 (26.8 FPS) QuickTime display. (Update: Here's a link to a test video I made of the recording feature, or just scroll down to see the YouTube video.)
I’m not a fan of 3-D displays for 2-D data, but I admit that this does not look bad.
Steve seldom uses bullets, but when he does they appear one at a time as he reviews what he has said about the product. Notice there are no actual bullets, they are not needed as these are clearly four separate text elements.
"Look at this!....We think there is a much better way..."
“Put everything all in one and clean up the mess.”
The empty screen creates tension and anticipation…
Keynote 08...looks good.
OK, I have Keynote 08 and have been using it for about an hour or so. Love it. Here I quickly (very quickly) recorded my voice in sync with some slides. On the Mac the export looks perfect. When it is uploaded to YouTube some transitions are degraded quite a bit. Especially for YouTube you will want to keep transitions simple (perhaps no transitions and the occasional fade). I also have to experiment and see which is the best way to compress the movie for uploading to YouTube.
Steve really puts most CEOs to shame. As you say, he might be a true swordsman, so powerful, that is even able to create a Reality Distortion Field(r) by himself.
A very interesting blog and a good read.
Posted by: Julio Gorgé | August 09, 2007 at 01:18 AM
I know I'm excited about the voiceovers and the Smart Builds, the latter of which (like reflections) I'm going to have to be careful not to overuse!
Posted by: Robert Smelser | August 09, 2007 at 01:55 AM
When talking about "the mind that is no mind", I thought of the movie "The Legend of Bagger Vance". In it, they speak of being in the "field". It applies to so many parts of life! Steve Jobs is in the "field". This posting is right on....
Posted by: Mike Sporer | August 09, 2007 at 04:28 AM
@Garr: What I have always wanted to ask you: do you practice Zen? I ask this question not only because of posts like this one and the name of your blog but also because of personal interest.
Posted by: Kutti | August 09, 2007 at 06:01 AM
Garr, can you protect it; a Keynote 8 presentation? That is always the one challenge with PowerPoint is not being able to protect it from editing.
Posted by: Viv Ilo | August 09, 2007 at 03:02 PM
I love that you zeroed in on my two most favourite slides of the whole presentation. The Dell mess of cables vs the iMac all-in-one just paints the whole Apple simplicity strategy so emphatically.
Sounds like voiceover recording in Keynote could replace Garageband as many people's favourite podcasting tool. Also love the instant alpha channel function. That's gotta be a real timesaver.
Posted by: Jason | August 09, 2007 at 03:41 PM
hello garr - wow and thanks. must get the new keynote asap. i have spent hours fumbling with screen capture, imovie and other helpouts to make short movies showing how things can be done. now keynote will be the software to do just this. amazing the section where a movie is played and your voiceover still works.
and of course your zen connotations are perfect. your post and the video can be found on my blog this afternoon. and it would be great to meet you - whenever you happen to be in europe, switzerland maybe?
Posted by: marcel bernet | August 09, 2007 at 06:03 PM
Steve Jobs' presentation is undoubtfully fantastic and I thought nobody will disagree. The most powerful part is he could present all he wants to speak and without looking back to the screen. If we want to make fantastic and powerful presentation, we must act the same as him. Don't look back. However, I don't know what method he could do this because even keynote has "one advance" function, he still needs to look into the mac but he does not. Therefore, if anyone could tell how he could remember all the presentation materials it would be fantastic.
Posted by: Paul | August 10, 2007 at 12:52 AM
@Paul: there probably is a second display in front of the stage that Steve is looking at while talking.
Posted by: Thomas | August 10, 2007 at 01:14 AM
The Kendo master, the prima ballerina, the swan, the great presenter ... they all have one thing in common.
They make what they do look effortless.
The vast majority of people I work with on presentation skills understand the level of thought, prep and sweat that is involved in producing and delivering a top-end presentation; but very few of them have the humility to actually put the hours in.
Every one of the top-class presenters I have worked with will religiously set aside huge chunks of time to rehearse. These are urbane, knowledgeable, confident people; absolute masters of their topic; who will still spend 50 hours honing a one-hour delivery. And they do this every time they have to present new material. (Damian Conway's thoughts on this are always worth noting.)
Steve has become one of the greats because he surrounds himself with top-end techies, graphics people and uses the best presentation software that's out there. And he obviously blocks out huge chunks of time in advance of his major presentations for rehearsal. But I would bet that among that team, he has one person he REALLY listens to.
U2 bring an old school friend called Gavin Friday (a great artist in his own right) on tour with them. For the early shows, Gavin sits in the audience with a notebook and jots down what's working and what's not. And because he has known all of the band since they were kids, when he gives them unvarnished feedback, they REALLY listen to him.
I wonder who Steve's 'unvarnished truth' person is?
Posted by: Rowan Manahan | August 10, 2007 at 01:54 AM