Communication lessons from Apple Events

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Another Apple event is over and the headlines are filled with the usual: merits and demerits of the products launched, fan wars taking sides and punditry on whether Apple has lost its mojo. Amidst all this, what goes unnoticed is the near perfect execution of the event itself from a presentation and overall ‘communications’ perspective. Herewith some unsolicited observations:

Script out everything

Ever since I have followed the Apple Keynotes (from 2007, I guess) I have noticed the near complete lack of ‘erm, aah, umm…’ etc in the presentations delivered by Apple executives – be it Steve Jobs, any other Apple executive or even a guest from any other company. Everyone speaks in complete sentences and there is almost no ad-libbing. It is apparent that everything is scripted including the legendary introduction to the original iPhone:

Well, today, we’re introducing three revolutionary products of this class.

The first one: is a widescreen iPod with touch controls.

The second: is a revolutionary mobile phone.

And the third is a breakthrough Internet communications device.

So, three things: a widescreen iPod with touch controls; a revolutionary mobile phone; and a breakthrough Internet communications device.

An iPod, a phone, and an Internet communicator. An iPod, a phone … Are you getting it?

These are not three separate devices, this is one device, and we are calling it iPhone.

Even when guest presenters come on stage, they are given a script and teleprompter. The result: the presentations go off smoothly without any surprises, awkward silences, incomplete sentences and so on. Contrast this with most other corporate events where speakers ramble on and often end up being incoherent and unable to make an impact.

Control the event yourself

Apple never relies on an MC to hold together the event. Apple’s own executives do that job and most of them are good presenters. In other corporate events they rely on a presenter or an MC to do the intros. In my view, they are hired guns and are unlikely to feel the same level of passion or commitment about what is being said or launched. In Apple’s case the events are all bout showcasing the engineering, design and product development – the efforts and more importantly the conviction needs to shine through and ‘felt’ by the audience. It is unlikely that an MC can embody that before a major product reveal. Imagine a hired presenter launching the iPhone or Apple Watch – it is just not the same. Sometimes the MCs tend to bring their own personality, which may be out of character with the event. At the recently concluded Startup Awards conducted by The Economic Times, the MC (a popular comedian from Bangalore) tried to ad lib and imbue his brand of humour to the proceedings and as a viewer I thought the efforts fell flat. In advertising it is said that even if the venue and equipment are the clients’, it is the agency’s presentation. Moral: don’t leave anything to chance.

Rehearse, rehearse and rehearse

One may very well say that it is all fine for Apple events because they have good presenters. I can bet that many of them are average presenters who’ve only become better because of the efforts on training and rehearsing.

Former Apple developer Matt Drance recalled the experience: “I worked at one point for 72 sleepless hours for something that Steve Jobs showed on stage for 9 seconds.

If you were an Apple employee, you had to script and rehearse your part several times, first with your team, then in front of your successive bosses, leading up to Jobs. The same applied even for guest speakers.

Product is the hero

Another detail to be noticed is that the presenters are almost always dressed in dark clothes against a dark background (of the screen). The result, when a shiny white iDevice or a silver Macbook is showcased on stage the product stands out – it becomes the hero… not the presenter. It simply conveys the effort of the company to focus on its products and not draw attention to the presenter.

Apple Watch 2

One slide, one point

Almost all the slides have one ‘hero’ element – either a sentence or an image conveying a single point. The exceptions could be the ‘nice to share’ slides like the green initiatives which list the compliances of an Apple product. This discipline is the most difficult to execute among corporate presenters as w are all accustomed to pack our slides with several points and lot of text. The advantage of this approach is that the presenter is forced to elaborate on that single line of the slide. In contrast, when we have a slide with a long title and 5 bullet points running into two sentences each the audience reads the slide (and doesn’t pay attention to what the presenter is saying) or the presenter and the audience read the slide together, which is kind of pointless.

Design to tell your story

Every slide of an Apple presentation is well thought through in terms of content and execution. The images are carefully chosen to bring out the drool factor – which is so important for this category and very often do. Design is not just about making the slide look good – it is about driving home the relevant point with maximum impact. Whenever a complex engineering or technical aspect is to be explained it is not done with some with dry statistics but with illustrations and animations which bring alive the thinking, the effort and science involved. Take for example, the explanation of how the Apple Watch Series 2 is made water proof: the slide where the speaker is shown to eject the water out, is embedded in my mind.

Ditto with the slides showcasing how much science is packed inside the AirPods. Such design interventions in the presentation go a long way in subliminally justifying the premium Apple products seek.

Every medium has a role

Just as the videos explaining complex engineering have a role to play, so do other communication platforms. On the web, immediately post the event, Apple executes gorgeous pages which showcase the product in full glory. It is not just about great photography or design though – great copywriting also comes into play. As I have said before, Apple’s web creative team does a wonderful job of telling the product story in a charming way. There is a method to the madness:

– the product is always the hero; the lines will directly refer to it and not offer any airy-fairy lifestyle promise like ‘fill your life with excitement
– word play to bring a smile: the product focus is juxtaposed with a phrase which brings a smile. For example:

Makes a splash. Takes a splash
Two cameras that shoot as one.
FaceTime. Make your smile go further.
Mail. An even better mail experience. Delivered.

But such world play is not mandatory or forced – the emphasis is more on driving home a product feature in a direct manner than being clever with words. The focus on the product and task at hand comes through here too.

Selective PR, marquee titles

The leaks which happen before an Apple event have a positive and a negative effect. The positive aspect is that it keeps the tech blogs and social media abuzz prior to the event. The negative aspect is that if the leaks are right they reduce the surprise factor at the actual event. Having said, Apple knows how to keep a secret as long as it is within its own control – no one anticipated the Mario introduction or the launch of Mac Pro for example. Having said that, Apple knows how to feed media with sound bytes at the right time. The thing to notice is that such interviews are always given to top of the line, marquee titles and journalists. They are also limited in number so that such interviews are sought after.

Aside from the above, Apple simply lets social media talk about its brands in any which way – negative or positive. They don’t intervene to correct a negative feedback or respond to the thousands of memes – from selling kidneys to parodies of the Keynote. This zen-like attitude and shutting out the social media noise is important for a brand like Apple because paying attention to it, responding to such will drive the marketing team mad. What’s more it will bring the brand status several notches down – I believe iconic brands should avoid over exposure on social media. Of course, Apple is uniquely placed among company brands – no other brand is subjected to so much of scrutiny, reverence, abuse and mocking. Every product feature, marketing move and company policy is dissected and analysed in an unprecedented manner. It is futile for ‘regular’ companies to expect such treatment and attention, but there are some pointers on how to handle communication and execution of launch events.

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