A Rhetorical Examination of the Product Keynotes of Steve Jobs

By Alexander E. Hopkins
2012, Vol. 4 No. 09 | pg. 3/9 |

When Jobs designed a product, he ensured that the user experience was designed first. Without a product falling into the hands of consumers, there was no way that Apple could turn a profit. It was easy for Apple’s rivals to produce products that were, by all means, technologically-superior. However, Jobs understood quite well the difference between a product being superior on paper and it's user interface being superior in a consumer’s hands. Like his easy-to-use products, his language reflected simplicity as well. He was not a well-known speaker for using overly-technical computer jargon with ease. Rather, he gained a large customer and fan-base for speaking well, that is, speaking simply.

Perhaps the most striking visual element of Steve Jobs’ keynotes were his effective slide designs. Not only were the slides visually-appealing, but they served a purpose beyond just informing the audience of products. These slides could also integrate interactive, among other media, sales figure charts, video clips and magnified live demonstrations (Gallo 6-12). These keynote slides complemented Jobs’ stylish, easy-to-use products and his accessible, exciting speaking style because the slides could set the mood, depict a picture and convey information (Saglimbeni).

One subtle effective tenet of Jobs’ keynote slides is that they guide the audience to help them follow along. Often, Jobs would include pictures of the product at various angles, as well as large text that described the product’s key features. Imagine for a moment that a consumer was deaf and was watching the keynote address. Even if this hypothetical consumer could not read Jobs’ lips, they could still follow Jobs’ keynote because the slides conveyed precisely what Jobs was speaking about at a given time

Take, for example, the launch of the first-generation of the Apple iPad on January 27, 2010. The description of each of the Keynote slides are at the bottom of this paper in footnotes. The keynote slides projected behind Jobs would allow a consumer to follow along even if they had never even read or watched Jobs’ speech before. After citing several meaningful sales figures, Jobs excitedly began: “So, now let’s get to the main event. I chuckled when I saw this [audience bursts into applause]. Ha, oooh. But before we get to that, I want to go back to 1991. When Apple—When Apple announced and shipped it's first PowerBooks. This was the first-modern-laptop-computer. Apple actually invented the modern laptop computer with these PowerBooks. It was the first laptop that had a TFT screen, the first modern LCD screens. It was the first laptop that pushed the keyboard up, [thereby] creating palm rests. And [it] had an integrated pointing device, in this case a ‘trackball.’ Well, of course, almost twenty years later, we’ve got incredible laptops now” (YouTube, 2010).

Here, Jobs used his keynote slides to show the technological progress of Apple. When Apple’s popularity continued to soar, media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal would often capitalize on the anticipated excitement for a story. Especially in Jobs’ latter keynotes, he would often “exploit” these news stories and integrate them into his keynote addresses. Jobs effortlessly built unity with the audience because it showed that, like many people, he would read the newspaper to catch-up on current events. Jobs’ keen sense of humor manifested itself in Jobs’ awareness of current rumors. In just one slide, Jobs capitalized on the audiences’ excitement by assuring them that their anticipation was worth the wait.

In every last one of Steve Jobs’ keynotes, he was excited to reveal his new product offerings to the public. Exclamations like “extraordinary,” “amazing” and “cool” were peppered-throughout his speeches to add to the excitement (Gallo, 2008). While Jobs’ enthusiasm stems from how he loved to be leading Apple, it was a clever rhetorical marketing strategy as well. Before rehearsing, he would likely have internal dialogue race through his mind prior: If you are not enthusiastic about your own products or services, how do you expect your audience to be? (Gallo, 2008). One of the best moments of Jobs’ enthusiasm was his attitude towards introducing a new kind of cell phone: the iPhone. As he was playing around with the device, he exclaimed: “I can just turn my device and take a look at it. Pretty cool, huh? So I can even swipe when I’m in landscape here. Isn’t this awesome? The other thing I can do is I can take any of these pictures and I can make them bigger. So let me go ahead and get the camera back up. I can take my fingers and I can, we call it the pinch, I can bring them closer together and move them further apart to make it bigger or smaller. So I can just move them further apart and stretch the image. Isn’t that cool? I can move it around, and … isn’t that cool?” (Nguyen, 2007).

Here, the screen where the Keynote slides were projected came in handy because everyone could see him sliding his fingers across the iPhone. While Jobs was joyfully-animated throughout his keynote, he used the collective voice to mirror the enthusiasm of both the entire iPhone development team and the audience (Sharma, 51). In a sense, while Jobs knew ahead of time every feature of the iPhone, he could still have fun with his products. To add depth to the collective voice, there were three main exclamations alone in this snippet: “Pretty cool, huh,” “Isn’t that awesome,” and repeating “isn’t that cool” twice. While his enthusiasm could be interpreted as shameless self-promotion, sales figures of his products—especially that of the iPod—reveal that this behavior paid-off big dividends.

Jobs knew that the typical electronics consumer was faced with a myriad of choices for a new computer. For the most part, Apple had only a small handful of products that were available to consumers. This reflected Jobs’ perfectionist attitude, as he wanted to focus Apple’s energies on developing just a few ground-breaking products, as opposed to a slew of poorly-designed products. Edgar Woolard, former CEO of DuPont, recalled Jobs’ mass-discontinuation of products when Steve Jobs returned in 1997. Upon slashing the lineup from a dozen products to just four, Dupont remarked “Our jaws dropped when we heard that one” (Elliot & Simon, 157). For Steve Jobs, quality over quantity was a dogmatic principle that encapsulated his company’s approach to product design. When a consumer was researching computer products, the Apple product line was deliberately-sparse because Jobs only wanted to sell the best for consumers.

Prior to the iPhone’s unveiling, rumors swirled that Apple was going to enter the cell phone market. When the rumors proved to be true, the cell-phone market was already fairly-well-developed—a stark contrast to the MP3 Player market relative to the iPod’s 2001 introduction. This factor alone raised stakes further for Steve Jobs because he had to show the iPhone’s superiority compared to every other cell phone in the market at the time.

However, as sales figures have revealed, the iPhone was a massive success in the U.S. As time went on, demand for the iPhone in other countries increased. To keep up with the enormous demand, Jobs ramped-up production, as well as negotiated deals with several international cell phone carriers to ensure world-wide availability. In some ways, no single phone manufactured by any company had experienced such a world-wide success. As such, the iPhone could be considered a financial “trailblazer.” Jobs capitalized on this sentiment by remarking at the January 27, 2010 iPad launch: “Just a few years ago, in 2007, Apple re-invented the phone with the iPhone. And a few years later [in 2009], we got the great iPhone 3GS. The best phone in the world” (YouTube, 2010) Considering that the iPhone sold approximately 7.5 million units during the previous quarter, Jobs’ assertion that the iPhone was “the best phone in the world” was not entirely unfounded. However, what sets this part of his speech from many of his keynotes is that he also asserted that Apple truly “reinvented the phone with the iPhone.” This keynote, one of Jobs’ last, had the most up-to-date sales data compared to his previous keynotes. Subsequently, the sales that accumulated over several quarters added up to dramatic sales figures.

Steve Jobs knew that consumers were bombarded with a variety of choices when they were in the market for a desktop computer. In order to make his products look superior, he characterized his competitors in a broadly negative light. In August of 1998, Steve Jobs introduced the first iMac, an all-in-one desktop computer. He laid-out his rationale from the consumer’s perspective when he announced: “Now, what should it be? Well, we went out and looked at all of the computer products out there. This is a picture of one of the better ones. And we noticed some things about them pretty much universally. The first is they’re really slow. They’re very slow. They’re using last year’s processors. Very, very slow. Second is, they’ve all got pretty crummy displays on them. They’re generally 13 inch, a few fourteen inch, and the quality of them is very poor. Uh, Apple designs it's own displays, and we’re used to something better. But these are pretty bad. Likely no networking on them. Some have them, most don't. Old generation I/O devices. And what that means is lower performance and they’re harder to use. And most of them aren’t ‘plug and play.’ And these things are uuugggglllyyyyy [audience laughter]” (YouTube, 1998).

The keynote slide was particularly effective because it showed a typical “ugly” desktop PC, precisely what the audience was having issues with. Rather than simply listing-off a variety of consumer desktop complaints, Jobs transformed the keynote into a “design studio” for the audience. When describing a particular problem of most laptop computers, he posed the question of what most consumers would want, rather than describing his solution first. If Jobs had described his own solution first, the audience could have possibly thought that Jobs was removed from them precisely because he did not understand the pose the question or problem first. When Jobs poses the question or problem first, he gains audience credibility because it shows that he understands the problems that the typical consumer is faced with. This would make sense because he was still building-up his own social capital with the public. As history has shown, when Jobs bided his time and empathized his rationalizations with the audience, the public was positively receptive.

In 1999, a year after the iMac was first introduced, sales indicated that the iMac proved to be popular with the public. It's simple OS, powerful processor and eye-catching colors evoked a memorable image for the public. While the PowerBook was Apple’s main laptop, it's processing power, high cost and conservative style appealed mostly to business professionals. Jobs understood that there were many casual users in the world who did not need such a high-end laptop. Like the iMac, he wanted to appeal to these casual users by creating, what he called, “the iMac ‘to go.’” He announced at the July 21, 1999 MacWorld Expo: “We’re gonna introduce our consumer portable machine. So [audience cheers and claps wildly] we’re working really hard on it and, uh, I hope you like it. So we went to our customers. We went to our consumers and education customers and said, ‘What do you want in a portable [computer]? What precisely is it that you want?’ And we listened very carefully and when you added it all up, what they wanted was an iMac ‘to go.’ They loved iMac and they wanted an iMac ‘to go.’ Could we make an awesome iMac ‘to go?’ And we have done that, we hope. So, first of all, what are we gonna call it, so we have a name to refer to it by? Well, as you—you know, we tend to start our consumer products with prefix ‘I’ and our pro products with [the] prefix ‘power.’ And we tend to end our desktops with ‘Mac’ and to end our portables with ‘book.’ So, since we’re such logical folk, ‘iBook’ is the name of this product [audience claps and cheers wildly]” (YouTube, 1999).

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