With his cool, calm exterior combined with a charismatic personality, Steve Jobs is often seen as the poster child for business leaders wanting to take centre stage and win audiences and customers over with a compelling rhetoric.
Jobs was instrumental in Apple becoming the world’s most valuable publicly-traded company within just over a decade after returning to the firm he co-founded.
His ’reality distortion field’, in other words his ability to bring people round to his way of thinking, is well known and admired.
Here, Loizos Heracleous, Professor of Strategy, Warwick Business School, reveals six lessons we can learn from Jobs’ rhetorical style.
1. Know your audience
Jobs was brilliant at this and would adapt his style to suit his audience. Being able to gauge your audience is a vital skill for any business leader: a knack of knowing the language and rhetoric to use is an essential component of conveying leadership skills and getting the audience on your side.
Of course, you only need to watch an Apple product launch presentation to see how Jobs played to a receptive audience, but in my research of Jobs I found he was also able to alter his rhetorical style, depending on the situation and audience in question, far beyond simply playing to the Apple fans.
For example, when being interrogated by the US Securities and Exchange Commission during a deposition - an audience which basically saw Jobs as a potential criminal and therefore paid little regard to his senior position at the firm - he used economical, descriptive, straightforward language, emphasising emotional appeals (ie pathos).
He mentioned that he was overworked, couldn’t see his family and was eventually ‘fired’. In other words he presented himself as just a human, as opposed to an all-powerful CEO of a huge tech company.
2. Practice, practice, practice
When looking at someone like Jobs, many people will inevitably ask “how can I develop rhetorical skills as a business leader like him?” I would suggest the answer is simple: effective language skills can be learned by watching great rhetoricians and learning from them.
Of course that is easier said than done, but by taking the time to reflect on speeches that made an impact on you and trying to understand why this was the case, you’ll really help yourself develop.
Take this a step further and use any opportunities you can to practice public speaking. While my study focussed on Jobs, who was unusual in his dedication and effectiveness of publicly presenting his company, you can focus on a leader who really inspires you.
By doing this you can raise your self-awareness in order to use language more useful to the context of the situation at hand; while at the same time, consistently promoting themes that are instrumental to your company’s future.
3. Choosing the right tool
Combined with knowing his audience, the late Apple boss was an excellent orator, utilising Aristotle’s classic tools of persuasion – ethos, pathos and logos to play to the differing audiences.
This is a skill I found Jobs to be especially proficient at throughout my study. I found the driving factor in Jobs’ rhetoric was his perceived ethos – his credibility in the situation - which significantly influenced how he used logos (logic) and pathos (emotion).
For business leaders I would therefore suggest that it is wise to appreciate the situation and how the audience sees you, and customise your rhetoric to that situation.
For example, in high-ethos situations use open, expansive and entertaining rhetoric. Jobs would certainly do this at product launches and at the Wall Street Journal’s D8: All Things Digital Conference where he was seen as a Silicon Valley icon, and therefore able to impart his knowledge with abandon.
At a low-ethos event like the SEC deposition which put Jobs under the microscope while Apple’s alleged backdating of shares was investigated, the Apple guru adapted his style to use rhetoric that was descriptive, formal and restricted to the facts.
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