A Rhetorical Examination of the Product Keynotes of Steve Jobs

By Alexander E. Hopkins
2012, Vol. 4 No. 09 | pg. 2/9 |

In general, the keynote addresses of Steve Jobs fall into two categories: introducing a new product or updating a product. Neither of these categories are mutually-exclusive because the keynote itinerary can often update an existing product as well as introducing a completely- new product. For example, Steve Jobs gave a keynote on January 15, 2008 where he announced software updates for the iPhone and iPod touch. However, two completely-new products were the Time Capsule wireless-hard drive and the MacBook Air.

When introducing a brand-new product, the mindset of Steve Jobs can be compared to that of a magician. One of the most renowned magicians, David Blaine, summed-up Jobs as “…the ultimate showman who keeps the audience excited the whole way leading up to the reveal” (Gallo, 199). One of the best ways to put-on a show, according to Steve Jobs, was to break the status-quo. To accomplish this, Jobs would often make comparisons between existing and familiar Apple products. A great example of this was when Jobs introduced the MacBook Pro on January 10, 2006: “Today we are introducing a new notebook computer we are calling the MacBook Pro. It has an Intel Core Duo chip in it, the same as we’re putting in the new iMac, which means there will be dual processors in every MacBook Pro. What does this yield? It's four to five times faster than the PowerBook G4. These things are screamers…The new MacBook Pro is the fastest Mac notebook ever. It's also the thinnest. It's got some amazing new features. It has a 15.4-inch wide-screen display that is as bright as our cinema displays. It's a gorgeous display. It's got an iSight camera built in. Now you can have videoconferencing right out of the box on the go. It's great. Videoconferencing to go. This is heaven” (Gallo, 81)

Jobs helped the audience grasp the tenets of the new MacBook Pro in three ways. First, Jobs preferred to use rhetorical signposts to describe the most exciting features of a new product. In essence, Jobs explained the features that would make a useful addition to the lives of consumers. Second, he referenced a product that was just introduced a few minutes prior in his keynote, the iMac desktop. Third, he mentioned the MacBook Pro’s predecessor, the PowerBook G4. In the latter case, since people were already intimately familiar with the G4 (as opposed to knowing the new iMac for a few minutes), he could show-off how precisely how the MacBook Pro was a quantum leap from the G4.

Jobs favored viewing his products in extremes. Since is constantly evolving, he liked to characterize his products as a “peek” into the future. Compared to his competitors, Jobs wanted his audience to view his products as perhaps like a “prototype” that was fully-developed. Two products are singled-out in this part, located side-by side: “The new MacBook Pro is the fastest Mac notebook ever. It's also the thinnest.” Naturally, if a product is futuristic it is safe to assume that it the most advanced product that money can buy.

Likewise, two rhetorical techniques that Jobs used to increase the dramatic effect of this technological “quantum-leap” were exclamations and repetition. In this part of Jobs’ speech alone, four exclamations are present—“These things are screamers,” “It's a gorgeous display,” “It's great,” and “This is heaven.” Exclamations are particularly effective for gaining a bond with the audience is because it verbalizes precisely what they are thinking. Similarly, repetition is effective because it helps the audience make sense of the “disbelief” at the newfound desirability of Jobs’ creation.

Here, repetition is used to refer to the i-Sight camera that is built-in at the top of the MacBook Pro’s cinema display: “Now you can have videoconferencing right out of the box on the go. It's great. Videoconferencing to go. This is heaven.” In some ways, repetition can be viewed as Jobs verbally-suggesting for the audience to take a “second-look” to ensure that they are not dreaming. Of course, this technique has had it's critics, with many accusing Jobs of using planned-obsolesce to convince consumers that their “old” Apple product is not as powerful or stylish (Sawayda, 4).

Even if Steve Jobs was updating an existing product, he could still get the audience excited. For some computer companies, a product can be quietly updated without any announcement at all. Apple was the polar opposite because Jobs’ key was to make his update unpredictable. In his January 9, 2007 iPhone keynote, he recalled the high-stakes effort of completely-overhauling the Macintosh processors. He remarked: “You know, it was just a year ago that I was up here and announced that we were going to switch to Intel processors. A huge, heart transplant to Intel microprocessors” (Nguyen). The analogy of a heart transplant was effective because a real-life heart transplant has several complicated risks, even if the benefits are great. For the latter case, there is no guarantee that the transition from old to new will be successful. However, regardless of success or failure, there would be huge life-changing ramifications.

A great example of making an existing product better, as opposed to introducing a completely new product, was during Apple’s introduction of it's third-generation iPod in 2003: “Today, we’re gonna innovate some more. And this time, in Music. Now, when Apple got into digital music, it was almost two-and-a-half years ago. And, to announce our entry, we were not the first into it, but when we decided to get into it, we came on strong and we ran an ad called ‘Rip. Mix. Burn.’ [After showing a commercial for ‘Rip Mix Burn’] So that ad got a certain amount of attention and, uh, it wasn't just an ad because we introduced iTunes, our digital music jukebox. And this quickly became one of the most popular digital music jukeboxes in the world. And it led us to a remarkable device called the iPod. And this has revolutionized portable music listening” (YouTube, 2003).

Noticeably absent in this snippet from Jobs’ 2003 keynote is that he does not mention how many iPods that the company had sold up to that point (Apple Press Info, 2004). Likely, the reason for this was that it would take roughly another eighteen months for the iPod to dominate the MP3 player market. However, what he could reveal was that the iPod, as well as it’s iTunes counterpart, were making significant in-roads in the digital music industry. Jobs also invokes a collective identity by using the words “we’re,” “our” and “we.” For him, the “Apple” brand-name is much more than prideful egocentrism. Jobs’ inclusive rhetoric reveals teamwork between himself and the Apple team that works on the iPod behind-the-scenes (Sharma, 53).

For many companies, innovation would likely mean introducing a ground-breaking product that the public has never before experienced. To Jobs, however, innovation means “…we were not the first into it, but when we decided to get into it, we came on strong…” Here, “strong” is the key word here because Jobs views similar products made by competitors as being “weak.” Jobs’ definition of innovation is different than how most companies define it. As authors Jay Elliot and William L. Simon write: “The thing that separates visionaries from most of humanity is their tendency to wonder about what they could do or how different their lives or their products could be. If you give such people new tools or new technologies, they immediately begin to wonder about creating products that will enable them to do completely new things. Innovators create products that are an outgrowth of what they imagine, things that help them create a world they would like to live in. That’s a drastically different mind-set from just figuring out how to improve upon the past” (Elliott & Simon, 144).

As such, he feels that he can take a product category of competitors and make it “strong.” When Jobs explains innovation, his justifications often read as a sort of “meta-narrative” because it will often include sub-narratives, including: “…Apple’s rationale for market entry; an analysis of the market place…”an overview of the product’s features and technical specifications; and finally, a glimpse at the product itself (Sharma, 52).

For Jobs, there were two announcement timing categories: early and late. Keynotes that took advantage of early timing often make predictions about the future (Calantone & Schatzel, 27). For example, Jobs could have predicted how many people were going to own an iPod within the next five years. However, he never structured his keynotes in this manner because he wanted his previous sales figures to speak for themselves. First of all, these previous sales figures became a record that Jobs hoped to break. Likewise, if Jobs arbitrarily made a prediction without considering past sales figures, his respectability would have plummeted if this prediction did not come true (Calantone & Schatzel, 27).

Late announcements are similar to early announcements because they announce a forthcoming event. However, one key factor that differentiates late announcements from early announcements is that the decisions are more definite in late announcements. For example, a computer company such as IBM could announce a price cut for the next fiscal quarter. A question thus arises: If Jobs’ keynotes are not definite in terms of early or late timing, where does the timing fall? Looking at his previous keynotes, Jobs held them neither too early nor too late because he wanted to focus on the present. For the most part, Jobs was tight-lipped about predictions for the future. Since he believed that his products were superior to all other competitors, he wanted the technology to be so advanced that his audience would think that they were taking a “glimpse” into the future.

When Jobs took to the stage, he had to consider ahead of time how specific he wanted to be when announcing a product. There are two types of specificity: low and high. Low specificity does not specifically address a given product. For example, a company could announce a consolidation of various product lines within the next few years. High specificity will always specifically explain a product in detail. Jobs’ keynotes are both low and high specificity. The keynotes themselves are almost always high specificity because he unveils or updates a product and always explains it in detail. However, when the keynote events are announced in advanced, they can be classified as low-specificity because they reveal very little about what precisely will be revealed. However, that is not to say that the “taglines” for each media-invitation event cannot generate assumptions.

The main goal of any Steve Jobs keynote is to appeal to the largest audience possible. Whether his audience were present at the event themselves or watching coverage via the world-wide web, Jobs had to show why his products satisfied a given consumer need. There are two types of target audiences: narrow and wide (Calantone & Schatzel, 27). A narrow audience includes a specialized group of people that Jobs must appeal to. For example, Jobs could address Apple’s Board during a quarterly conference call. A wide audience, on the other hand, could simply be defined as an audience that is not specialized.

Each of Steve Jobs’ keynotes takes advantage of a wide audience because, not only are there computer trade journalists and Apple fans, but there are also business journalists and even major newspaper reporters (Baldoni, 42). This varied group of people, both present at the events and listening to live feeds elsewhere, transformed the business-style keynote address into a corporate theater of excitement (Baldoni, 42). As a result, Apple’s corporate rivals would have to appeal to the audience emotions, rather than simply asserting the superiority of their products.

For Apple, special attention had to be paid to the setting because Jobs wanted to appear sophisticated when he introduced new product offerings. In a sense, the stage can be compared to Apple’s retail stores because the stage was uncluttered and used three main materials—stainless steel, glass and Scandinavian wood (Gallo, 177). Like the Apple Stores, the stage serves two main purposes: to “test-drive” new products and make it easy to buy. Specifically, Jobs “test-drives” these products by providing interactive demonstrations. Likewise, he makes the product easy to buy by summarizing a product’s key features, countries where it will be available, as well as the (usually-precise) date that it will hit store shelves

Within a few minutes of starting his keynote, Jobs will usually lay-out the theme of the entire presentation. A great example of a theme announcement took place when Jobs unveiled the MacBook Air. He looked above him and observed: “There is something in the air. What is it? Well, as you know, Apple makes the best notebooks in the business: the MacBook and the MacBook Pro. Well, today we’re introducing a third kind of notebook. It's called the MacBook Air…” (Gallo, 157).

This introduction to his keynote’s theme was clever because, first, Jobs wanted to surprise the audience by informing them that a surprise will come out of “thin air.” Second, he wanted to emphasize how the MacBook Air is “as light as air.” For the most part, while the theme is almost always announced at the very beginning, Jobs does not have follow revealing his theme at a certain time (Gallo, 2008). However, he does have to announce it towards the beginning of his speech. In the case of the MacBook Air’s introduction, the mention of “something in the air” was the fourth signpost of his speech, which clocked at twenty minutes since taking the stage (Gallo, 57).

Perhaps what was most remarkable was that Jobs could still show a tangibly professional demeanor without wearing a business suit. Steve Jobs’ outward appearance told a story all it's own without saying a single word. For every person, the clothes that one wears can suggest subtle traits including personality, status and motives (Ashman & Winstanley, 76). Beginning in 1998, in almost every one of his keynote addresses, Jobs wore a distinctive style that some have dubbed his “uniform”—a black turtle-neck with rolled-up sleeves, relaxed jeans and white sneakers. For Jobs, he wanted to be the antithesis of the typical suit-and-tie professional. He understood that not everyone lived the “white-collar” lifestyle.

Even if someone was a business professional, they would not wear a suit all the time. Jobs knew that there would be times before or after work, especially on the weekends, that a business professional would want to wear more leisurely clothes. For Jobs, his role as Apple’s CEO hardly felt like work at all because he loved designing products and proudly revealing them to a thrilled audience. His passion was what drove people towards excitement and, therefore, he displayed a leisurely appearance to match his attitude. This attitude, in turn, resonated on an audience that was at-ease with Jobs’ personable demeanor. As such, he transcended his keynotes into what looked like a “town hall meeting” (Sharma, 47). The end result was perhaps best encapsulated by Peter Fader of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School. Upon learning of Jobs’ death, Fader wrote: “You’ve got to admire someone [like Steve Jobs] who can stick to his principles and keep swimming against the tide – and then eventually make the tide turn in his direction purely through his vision and relentless persistence” (Wharton School, 2011).

One of the most oft-repeated mantras in the business world is that “the customer always comes first.” For Steve Jobs, his perfectionist attitude always took this simple tenet for granted—and added a few twists. For one, he innovated the customer experience, rather than the technology itself (Wharton School, 2011). In other words, Steve Jobs avoided a common mistake that among CEOs—focusing more on the technology than the user (Elliot & Simon, 19). To avoid this, Jobs revealed his secret when he remarked at the 1997 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC): “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology—not the other way around” (Gallo, 15).

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