How ‘Steve Jobs’ illuminates the world of executive comms

Although the Apple co-founder’s contemporaries might tussle about how faithful the depiction is of the title character, the launch-day frenzy should be readily recognizable.

For anyone who has worked in the speechwriting, executive communications or PR business and supported an executive who has presented at a major event, much about the new movie “Steve Jobs” will seem familiar.

No matter how faithful a portrait it is of the man (played by Michael Fassbender) who co-founded Apple—debate rages among those who worked with him—it is certainly an accurate account of life behind the scenes on the day of a product launch presentation. Actually, we are given a backstage pass to three events: the launches of the Mac in 1984, the NeXT cube in 1998 and the iMac in 1998.

Poetic license­

At each event, it is marketing VP Joanna Hoffman (played by Kate Winslet) who attempts to keep the tech guru focused on the product launch. His attention is continually distracted by a series of visitors to the green room, from angry and frustrated co-workers (chief among them Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and CEO John Scully) to angry and frustrated family members (chief among them his daughter, Lisa, and her mother, Chrisann).

This is extreme poetic license. No executive could tolerate such emotionally charged conversations moments before stepping in front of an audience. Indeed, for the real story on the focus that Jobs brought to his presentations, and the intensity of the preparation, read Carmine Gallo’s excellent analysis of “The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs.”

Familiar details about life behind the scenes at a major event include:

  • The chaos of cables, monitors and cluttered hallways the audience never sees from the front of the house
  • The auditorium before the doors open, with a random scattering of people watching the final rehearsal
  • Swarms of black-clad, production people on headphones trying to keep everything on schedule
  • The fruit baskets and cans of soda in the green room
  • Techies frantically trying to get the demo to work
  • The script outline spread on the floor, undergoing last-minute edits

The movie captures these universal aspects of the world of executive communications.

What is unique to Jobs and Apple was the evangelical fervor of the launches with enthusiastic audiences behaving more like those at a rock concert than at the introduction of a computer (one of which, in a memorable line, is accused of “looking like Judy Jetson’s Easy-Bake Oven”).

Downward shark?

It also conveys quirky aspects of Jobs’ personality, such as using yoga poses to relax before going on stage; insisting the graphics person show him 39 images of a shark before selecting the specific one that he wanted on the slide; and demanding, over the fire marshal’s express prohibition, that the exit signs in the auditorium be blacked out for a demo.

The movie is of the time and place that birthed Apple and revitalized Silicon Valley. We see flashbacks of Jobs and Woz arguing about the future in that now-famous garage in Cupertino, California. The influences on Jobs—from the Bob Dylan soundtrack to knowing references to dropping acid and glorious images of the Golden Gate Bridge—are intertwined with the theme of reconciliation with his estranged daughter.

Much has been written about how confrontational Jobs was, and this film certainly highlights the difficult aspects of his personality. Though not too many executive communications professionals have the challenge, or privilege, of working with as mercurial character as Steve Jobs, I believe all will enjoy this inside look backstage before the presentation starts.

A version of this article first appeared on Professionally Speaking.

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