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I was fortunate when I graduated from college because the guest speaker at our ceremony was none other than Maya Angelou.
Even to this day I remember the warm, thoughtful cadence in her voice and the larger message she shared about how we must go through life as composers. Though we had a prominent music program at our school, her point was for all of us to pursue life with a relentless need to compose regardless of whether we write music or not.
And hey, it was Maya Angelou. It was exactly the kind of speech you think it was.
Years later I watched Steve Jobs’ famous speech that he gave at the 2005 commencement ceremony at Stanford University.
Stanford is a more highly regarded school than my alma mater.
Stanford’s formidable history in computer science meant that his words were arguably as relevant to the students as any speaker’s could be.
However, if he had given the speech at my own graduation, I would have felt one thing.
Sheer and utter disappointment.
That’s because in giving that commencement address, the venerated and legendary Steve Jobs gave what may be the most overrated speech of all time.
The pressure we face in giving a speech
You may remember Say Anything, a film that tells the story of what happens when a nervous, aimless teen played by John Cusack pursues his class’s valedictorian played by Ione Skye.
Early on in the film Skye’s character gives her valedictorian speech at graduation and delivers a line after revealing that she’s glimpsed their future: “Go back.” This is meant to be a joke, and when she delivers it to her doting father on the car ride to the ceremony he delights in how funny it is. When she delivers it in her speech, he laughs appreciatively.
But he’s the only one who does.
Indeed, her joke is considered to be decidedly unfunny and the crickets she hears reinforces that.
I refer to this old flick to underline how difficult it can be to qualify a speech as being good or bad, given how subjective communication practices can be.
One person can be moved, inspired, and even catapulted into a new possibility by a speech, while another person can see the same speech and have to cover their ears because they find it laced with flaws.
One person can laugh at a line, while many others do not.
My ultimate point, though, is not to highlight the presumption made by me or anyone else in claiming that any given speech is good or bad.
My point is that if you are to step up and put yourself out on a stage in front of hundreds or thousands of people, it’s in your best interest to present in a way that leaves as little room for negative reactions as possible.
It’s in your best interest to be unforgettable.
But with there being as much noise out in the world as there is, you run the risk of your words being forgotten as soon as you say them.
This isn’t, however, an inevitable outcome for you.
I’d like you to imagine that you’ve written a speech that has tremendous potential for resonating with an audience. A case can be made that this is true for much of Steve Jobs’ Stanford speech, for it not only is driven by storytelling but it features some vulnerable shares about being fired from Apple and being diagnosed with cancer.
But what if the speech has value on the page but falls short when the speaker attempts to deliver it? There are many TED talks that present rather profound ideas and flesh their talks out with content that’s significant to many people on this planet – but the speaker themselves stumbles their way through the presentation and they undermine the staying power of the talk over time.
Speaking sets itself apart from writing for the simple reason that the speaker is a personality in front of the audience. In his book Fanocracy, author David Meerman Scott speaks to the significance of proximity. He explains how “the closer you get, the more powerful the shared emotions are.” Being in the same room with a speaker holds a great deal more weight than reading their content on the page. What a speaker does with their personality will define how the audience receives them because it holds greater emotional significance than their being in different places.
The more the speaker’s personality is utilized as an asset in impacting the audience, the greater that impact will be.
Given this, Steve Jobs’ Stanford speech is overrated because of how much more the icon could have featured his personality.
AI is good for getting the weather, but not public speaking
A little more than four minutes into his speech, Jobs describes his unconventional education and states that “If I had never dropped in on that single (calligraphy) course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionately spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.”
This was a pretty intense burn, and there was indeed a reaction from the crowd. But in saying this as he did, he offered no inflection nor any sort of tone that was commensurate with the acerbic nature of the statement.
Even two-thirds of the way into the speech when Jobs speaks of his pancreatic cancer, he’s still monotone – and yet he’s talking about fighting his way back from cancer.
Throughout this speech, he’s essentially just reading something from a page as if it was being read by Siri on an iPhone – monotonous both in his inflection as well as his face.
But why should this even be an issue? What’s wrong with someone not revealing their personality through any kind of vocal or facial expression?
George S. Thompson, M.D., a psychiatrist and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, says that “we’re sending signals to each other constantly demonstrating whether we’re safe or we’re in danger.” He then goes on to say that being in a state of fight or flight is of particular social significance.
“Fight or flight has a signaling function,” Thompson says, “because in that state the face becomes less animated. The tone of voice becomes flatter as well. If you encounter a face that looks like that, you’ll receive it as a signal of danger to you. So if a speaker doesn’t have an animated voice, they’re actually sending a signal of danger to their audience. In contrast, an animated voice sends a signal of safety. When the brain registers safety, it prepares the body’s physiology to engage in collaborative creativity, which is what is needed when listening to a talk.”
Anyone can go up on stage and read a script. But it will be both less inspiring, and according to Thompson, more fundamentally off-putting. If we sound more like an AI voice reading a text and less like a person, we’re undermining the impact we wish to have with our speech.
This prompts the question of how we can actually reform – how can we actually be more of a person and less of a robot?
This is a question that can be answered by drawing upon some of the most impactful presentation practices our culture has ever known. We can learn from a master who is famous for driving interest to a topic.
I am talking, of course, about Steve Jobs.
Perhaps what breaks my heart the most about the Stanford speech is that Steve Jobs really did have a powerful deftness for presenting. His presentations for Apple were almost as famous as the products they introduced. They have collectively earned tens of millions of views on YouTube and Aaron Sorkin made those presentations the context of his award-winning film Steve Jobs.
Of course, there’s lots of nuance and even internal work we can do to be a fully expressed presence on stage. Also, it helps if the thought of public speaking doesn’t completely terrify us. But what is likely of greater use to us here and now is something a bit more straightforward.
To solve the personality problem – to consciously affect our delivery so to help the audience to feel that the living, breathing person in front of them is a safe presence worth listening to – we can look at Jobs’ Apple presentations as inspiration for what is actually a very simple concept.
If you were to tabulate the number of words in the commencement speech (2,246) and divide it by the 14 minutes it takes for him to deliver it, you would get 160.4 words per minute.
However, if you were to tabulate the number of words in the first 10 minutes of his 2007 presentation on the iPhone (1,185) and divide it by those 10 minutes, you would get 118.5 words per minute.
When put another way, he delivered 35% more words per minute in his Stanford speech than he did in the first 10 minutes of his iPhone presentation.
But this didn’t amount to Jobs saying each word slower in the iPhone presentation, thereby turning 3-second sentences into 4-second sentences.
This disparity in his pace of speech was because of an incredibly powerful thing he did do in his Apple presentations but didn’t do in his commencement speech.
Indeed, the simplest way to draw your personality out and draw your audience in is based not on how you say things, but how you don’t say them.
Jobs’ other presentations, including the one in which he introduces the iPod in 2001 and the one in which he introduces the Macintosh in 1984, stand out as famous examples of his artful pauses. He reveals the name of the iPod and follows it with a brief pause before then slowly saying “iMac, iBook, iPod.” And his reveal of the Macintosh that had been covered by a bag is famously absent of speech – though it is scored to the Chariots of Fire theme song.
But the 2007 iPhone presentation stands out in particular as the best example of what we can learn about pausing in our delivery – and there are three specific ways we can utilize the pause as inspired by this content.
Pauses add weight to important sentences
We don’t have to look past the first six seconds of the presentation to see how he utilizes a pause, for he takes those six seconds to say that “This is the day I’ve been looking forward to for two and a half years.”
Then he takes a pause that also lasts six seconds.
Less than a minute later, he mentions how in 1984 the Macintosh didn’t just change Apple but it changed the whole computer industry.
Right after that he says that in inventing the iPod they didn’t just change the way we listened to music but changed the whole music industry.
Then, almost nine minutes in, he discusses the iPhone’s software and reveals how “iPhone runs OS X.”
And some hooting and hollering.
What he’s very simply doing in all of those examples is pausing after a sentence. And a common theme around all of the sentences he’s pausing after is that they all hold with them greater significance than other aspects of the content.
The pauses help the most significant moments to sink in.
This is an important point to make not just in terms of pausing after sentences but playing with the pace in general. If we paused after every sentence, that would become its own form of robotic monotony. But varying the pace makes it dynamic.
Pauses create anticipation
Further in, Jobs describes how the tech he’s there to introduce is a series of three revolutionary products. But he doesn’t say “we’re introducing three revolutionary products.”
He says “we’re introducing…three…revolutionary products.
Shortly after he states that these products include a new iPod, a phone, and an Internet communication device. After he reveals that they’re all one device, he says that “we are calling it iPhone.”
Except, he actually says “we are calling it…iPhone.”
And further in still, at about 4:30, he caps off the “we’re going to reinvent the phone” section of the presentation and transitions into a new section.
The transcript says, “Now, we’re going to start with a revolutionary user interface.”
But in actuality, he says, “Now, we’re going to start…
(Takes a swig of water…)
“With a revolutionary user interface.”
Like the sentences that end with a pause, these examples all follow a similar pattern as well. In delivering them, he pauses not at the end of the sentence but in the middle of it.
Though this device may seem obvious, when used strategically it can do something very important.
It can create anticipation.
And when there’s a particular word or phrase that doesn’t just carry weight but is something you want to really stick with your audience – like the title of your product – it can be very powerful to start a sentence…
…and then complete it after waiting a second or two.
The moment when Jobs takes a swig of water is particularly significant, for he could have easily taken the swig before he started the sentence, and then he actually would have risked losing a tiny bit of momentum. But in starting the sentence and then drinking the water, he forced his audience to wait those couple of seconds before he revealed whatever was next.
Pausing mid-sentence becomes a simple but powerful way to keep your audience on the edge of their seats.
Pauses fuel misdirection
A while back I created a quiz for public speakers that would help them to be more compelling on stage. It organized participants into one of five personality types expressed in the form of an animal. Owls are more cerebral types, Elephants are vulnerable empaths, and so on. Of the tens of thousands of people who took the quiz, there was a relatively even distribution among all five animal types.
With one exception.
The one personality that rarely showed up in the results was that of the Monkey – the mischievous prankster who keeps their audience on their toes by messing with them.
In other words, the Monkey misdirects. This speaker type somehow misleads the audience in the spirit of keeping them engaged.
This is significant for several reasons, the first being that this is an untapped opportunity for speakers given how the data teaches us that folks are rarely prone to exhibiting these types of naughty behaviors.
The second reason, however, is that it is a super simple way to convey a great deal of personality on stage. There are a variety of examples of speakers misdirecting their audience, including TED speakers like Tim Urban who fooled his audience into thinking that something happened that really didn’t, and Apollo Robbins who is a pickpocket and actually gives a talk on the act of misdirection itself.
But Jobs does it in the iPhone presentation as well, such as when he tells the audience that he’s revealing three devices when in fact he’s only revealing one. As already suggested above, he lays out the fact that he’s presenting them with an iPod, a phone, and an Internet communication device and then emphasizes this fact by repeating it with pauses:
“An iPod…a phone…and an Internet communicator.”
Then, right after that, he says that “Today Apple is going to reinvent the phone.”
After he pauses, he says, “And here it is.”
But what’s on the screen is an old iPod with a rotary dial affixed to the front.
Clearly this is just a visual gag, and it makes sense that he would want to do this because he isn’t yet ready to reveal the phone itself. But for our purposes, it is a prime example of a misdirection because he suggested that he’s about to reveal it but presents the gag instead.
He surrounds these bits with pauses because in wanting to misdirect their attention he has to be sure that he actually has it first. The pauses provide just enough attention to ensure that the audience is with him so that he can play out his joke.
The simplest way to own your personality
Even if you don’t have a hyperactive, theatrical presence, by simply inserting strategic pauses into your speech you have the opportunity to keep them entranced.
Additionally, the mysteries born from silence will fill you with a presence people won’t forget.
I recognize that talking about revolutionary electronic devices is a different bag than sharing one’s own personal journey, and it’s possible that part of the issue with Jobs’ Stanford speech might have been that he didn’t spend nearly as much time and energy preparing. Or perhaps he didn’t care as much about inspirational stories as he did about revolutionary user interfaces.
But regardless of the reason for this disparity in words-per-minute and personality, he could have taken the same 14 minutes at Stanford and simply said fewer things. He could have paused after he declared that he had cancer to really land the gravity of that statement (About a year ago, I was diagnosed with cancer…”). He could have changed “and since Windows just copied the Mac” to “And since Windows…just copied the Mac…” so as to make sure the whole audience got on board with the burn.
He could have made sure they were there with him and felt the things he was about to express right before he expressed them.
However, the larger point to be made here is that if you would like to present in a way that’s unforgettable, be an actual person who’s talking to your audience.
And while there are many ways to be more person than robot, it can begin not with what you say but what you don’t say.
Twenty-two years later
Right after Maya Angelou spoke at my college’s commencement, the senior class president got up and gave a speech.
And right after he started, he said, “When I found out I was going to be following Maya Angelou I thought to myself, ‘sure no pressure.’”
Except, he didn’t say that.
What he actually said was, “When I found out I was going to be following Maya Angelou (pause as he looked out at us), I thought to myself, ‘sure (mini-pause) NO PRESSURE.’”
He gave a speech that was rich with strategic pauses, and therefore it was rich with personality.
But like I said at the beginning of this article, speaking and communication are highly subjective, and as such I ask you to consider why I might be so absolute in my assessment of his speech.
Simply put, it is because I remember what he said 22 years later.
It is because his speech was unforgettable.