Steve Jobs’ Untapped Potential

The world is surely a diminished place in the wake of the passing of Steven Paul Jobs. He is arguably the greatest public speaker of his generation, and while many analyzed and parsed his manner and tried to dissect the secret of his success, few succeeded. He was great simply because he was.

As a professional observer of the craft, I admit to feeling a bit cheated. But not because I will never be able to witness him in action again; I feel cheated because I will not be able to watch him realize his potential. Indeed, I believe Steve Jobs was only half as good as he could have been and I believe he was about to find that other half.

Why was Jobs such a great speaker? It’s a bit easier to answer that if you start with the end result: he compelled audiences to feel the weight of his message. He made people around him feel better about themselves, and he inspired others to look beyond their own perspective. He did all this with an impossible-to-imagine ease of accomplishment that defies explanation. This made him fascinating beyond proportion.

What I find equally fascinating about the man is the qualities of great public speaking that he did not exhibit. If you were to add up all of the reasons why he was effective, compile lists of his qualities, there would be one that is conspicuously absent:

Himself.

He gave very little of himself. As wonderful as they were, his product announcements and state-of-the-technology addresses were consistently devoid of personal glimpses. It is clear that he worked very hard at them, that he practiced diligently, that he mastered the craft, and that he dedicated untold effort to this mastery. But you would not come away from them with any heightened sense of knowing better the man. He almost never made his speeches personal; he almost never let you in.

Those who knew or studied Jobs would attest to his being intensely private. Most of us learned more about his personal life in the five days since his passing than in the previous three decades. His having been an orphan, his having fathered a child prior to his marriage to Laurene Powell, his having dated Joan Baez. While these personal factoids were not closely guarded, neither were they well known. With few exceptions, Steve himself offered none of them. I always wondered how amazing it would have been if he had.

I chalked it up to the crafted facade of the CEO of arguably the most enigmatic corporation in the world. I really wanted to believe that it was calculated, that the Jobs mystique would make product launches, and the products themselves, all the more tantalizing. And as a result, a part of me actually looked forward to his resignation. As is so often the case, once people are out of the game, they tend to let a bit more of their hair down. They open up more, they share more, they are more honest with and about themselves. I was so looking forward to Jobs’ first public appearance post-resignation. I had it in mind that it would be a true coming out, that he would make it more about himself.

Were that to have happened, I believe his speeches would have become even more powerful. Is that even possible? That’s the scary thing — I think Steve Jobs could have been twice as effective as he was. Imagine all of the personal stories he could have shared about his time with Apple, about those heady early days, about creating all of that insane greatness. All of the things that he never allowed in his product demos and MacWorld keynotes.

It is the exception that proves the rule: watch this under-the-radar speech he gave for 2005 Commencement from Stanford University. It is more formal than his keynotes, as he stands behind a podium and reads from a script. But focus on the substance — listen to how he weaves his personal stories into his message. And imagine if he had done that at MacWorld all those years.

It’s almost scary to imagine how impactful his speeches could have been. And I feel cheated that we will never know.

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