Book reviews - Persuasive communication

Steve Jobs: World’s Worst Persuader, or World’s Best?

I’ve just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, but this is not a traditional book review. Here’s the review part: the book is fascinating; read it.

What I found most fascinating about Jobs was how one person could simultaneously serve as a terrible and a great example for others. Steve Jobs was one of the great persuaders of the business world, which is all the more remarkable considering he consistently violated some of the most fundamental principles of influence and persuasion.

Regular readers of my blog will know that I strongly urge you to use outside-in thinking: the most effective way to persuade is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to see how you can help them get what they want. Well, Jobs didn’t do much of that. He could be incredibly self-centered and egotistical. When presented with a new idea, his default mode was to say, “That’s stupid.”

He did not believe that the customer was right. In his own words: “Some people say, ‘Give customers what they want.’ But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do… Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”

He often let his personal needs override good business sense. In fact, a lot of what he did in business was actually against the customer’s interest. When he designed the Macintosh, he directed that the interior of the case be finished as beautifully as the exterior, even though no one except a technician would ever see it. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and held up production of NeXT computers because he insisted that the machines in the factory be painted and repainted in the colors he chose. Why is that against the customer’s interest? Because anything that adds costs but does not benefit the customer is waste.

He could be exquisitely sensitive to what made others tick, which is a wonderful talent for communication, except that Jobs would often use this ability to hurt people. As Isaacson said, he could deliver a “towel snap” at people and say just the right thing that would get under their skin.

He cared little for making others feel good. He fought his iPod team for months as they tried to convince him to license iTunes to Windows. When he finally agreed, instead of graciously conceding that they were right, his words were: “Screw it, I’m sick of listening to you assholes. Go do whatever the hell you want.”

He lied. He would often tell someone their idea was stupid, only to turn around a week later and claim it as his own.

How did he become so persuasive with all these faults?

The only reason Jobs could break all the rules of persuasive communication and succeed so spectacularly was because his faults were more than offset by towering strengths.

The reason Jobs could ignore market research and yet change entire industries was that he had the artistic sense and the taste to pull it off. Bill Gates said in a joint interview that he wished he had Steve’s taste.

The central principle of his taste was simplicity. Jobs was always looking for ways to simplify the look and the user experience of his products. Simplicity focuses your mind; it forces you to drill down to the essence of what you’re trying to communicate, and that adds power to messages just as it does to products. It’s not just “less is more”—I love the line in the book which quotes Dieter Rams, the designer for Braun: “Less but better.”

His vision of what he wanted was harnessed to a passion for perfection that drove the invention of beautiful, elegant products that are more than mere devices, that inspire love and loyalty from their owners. His quest for perfection would sometimes cause him to scrap months and millions of dollars worth of work because he did not see it going the right way, as he did with Pixar’s first cut of Toy Story.

His pure passion could be virulently contagious and inspire others to drop their reservations and follow his lead. When he was trying to court musicians to the iTunes model, he brought over Wynton Marsalis to his house to show off iTunes. Marsalis later said, “I don’t care much about computers, and kept telling him so, but he goes on for two hours. He was a man possessed. After a while, I started looking at him and not the computer, because I was so fascinated with his passion.”

His passion for perfection drove him to obsessively rehearse and refine his presentations so that they became hugely anticipated events. Although they looked effortless and natural, every detail was meticulously planned, staged, and practiced over and over.

His sensitivity that he often used to hurt people could also be turned to get people to do things they did not want to do. He knew how to get the best out of people by appealing to what mattered to them most. When John Sculley wavered in his decision about whether to leave Pepsi to run Apple, Jobs said, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?”

Extraordinary taste, simplicity, passion, preparation and sensitivity helped Jobs got away with all of his bad behavior. Except for taste, each of those is a skill that can be improved with awareness and practice. Pay attention to his faults as well, and stay as far away from them as possible. He never put a license plate on his car, either, but that doesn’t mean you can get away with it.

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