Listen Different

In September 1997, eight weeks after he returned to Apple as interim CEO, Steve Jobs called his senior managers together and shared what he was doing to turn around the company. By then Apple had lost much of its relevance in the technology industry. Sales had fallen by 20 percent over the previous year and they were expected to fall by another 30 percent that year.

Steve said, “We were up until three o’clock last night finishing this advertising up, and I want to show it to you in a minute and see what you think of it.” The entire update lasted 16 minutes. For about six of those minutes Steve shared his thoughts on marketing. Years later someone posted the update to the Internet, and that’s how I found it.

The first time I saw the video I knew it was important, and I knew I could learn from it. I watched it and I was struck by Steve’s thoughts on marketing. I appreciated his point that marketing is about values, and that the purpose of marketing is to explain a company’s core values. At first that’s all I took from it. But it wasn’t until I transcribed Steve’s remarks by hand a few months ago that I began to really understand them. It took about about an hour. [A person’s normal speaking rate is between 120 and 140 words per minute. As far as I know, other than that one I made, there’s no transcript of what Steve said to his managers that day. There is just a video on the Internet.]

My first review of the transcript changed the way I see Apple. I saw the connection between all of Apple’s advertising campaigns; I understood why Apple builds products the way it does; and I appreciated the company’s core values.

My second review of the transcript changed the way I see ads (and commercials and marketing in general). Marketing should describe the reason a company exists in the first place. It should describe what moral wrong the company is correcting in the world. Most ads try to differentiate a product in the marketplace by comparing one product to another. Great ads differentiate a company in society by associating that company with excellence. They reflect a company’s self-image and honor the very best of the human spirit. They express a company’s moral mission. Here’s a recent example. Here’s another. The sum total is that great companies honor people with their products and services.

My third review of the transcript changed the way I see leadership. Steve was talking about all the steps he was taking to turn around the company. Not just marketing, but everything. Since he’d been back, he said, “We’ve been working really hard” on the company’s overall strategy, “and what we’re trying to do is not something really highfalutin; we’re trying to get back to the basics. We’re trying to get back to the basics of great products, great marketing, and great distribution.” He said he “started by looking at the product line…and got rid of 70 percent of the stuff on the product roadmap.” Because of that, he said, they’d see the product line “get much simpler…and much better.” He wanted the same thing to happen to distribution: “We’re gonna get really simple,” so the company could respond to the customer “super fast.”

For me the process of creating a transcript and reviewing it was the difference between appreciating the points Steve made, and owning the lessons he was imparting. I don’t mean stealing his thoughts or claiming his words as my own. I mean possessing the knowledge and perspective he shared; I mean expressing the same concepts in my own words; I mean applying those concepts in different situations.

I’m passionate about marketing, but that’s not the point of this post. I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say about marketing in the future. The point of this post is to promote listening…and not just listening, but recording. Watching any speech once isn’t enough to understand it. The first time you watch a speech the best you can hope for is that you’ll know it’s important and that you can learn from it. Even watching a speech a few times isn’t enough; for me at least, the only way to really get what someone is trying to communicate is by reading a transcript multiple times.

A few weeks ago I wrote that my experience as a speechwriter made me a more discerning reader and listener. On the most basic level, that’s true. The more experience I gained the closer I listened to people. But what I’ve found is that no matter how hard I listen to a speech (or to anyone who is communicating anything) I always learn a lot more from reading the speech the next day — even if the message is crystal clear and the listener is focusing on every word. Sometimes you have to write it down, whether it’s just a few bullets or a full transcript. I call this phenomenon ‘the power of transcription.’

At the end of his update, Steve thanked everyone for their commitment to turning the company around, and he said, “This company’s absolutely gonna turn around. As a matter of fact, I think the question now is not ‘can we turn around Apple?’ I think that’s the booby prize. I think [the question now is] ‘can we make Apple really great again?’”

A lot of things have changed in the 17 years since I graduated high school in 1997. Technology is different. The economy is different. Apple is different. But Apple’s core values haven’t changed. The goal of great marketing hasn’t changed. And the key to receiving a message hasn’t changed. It’s about writing it down and studying the words on a page. Last week the share price of Apple stock surpassed an all-time high, after rising by 5,000 percent over the past decade. Today Apple is the most valuable company in the world, with the most valuable brand in the world – and $160 billion in the bank.

To see why, just read the transcript.

And here’s the transcript of the ad campaign itself. You may have heard of it.