Steve Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field

Before you think this is some sort of anti-Apple post and scurry off, don’t, it’s not – I have a point to make.

I give credit where it’s due, and Steve Jobs definitely deserves some. Lots of people chalk up the unending enthusiasm for all things Apple to his Reality Distortion Field (RDF). But I think I know the real reason. Part of it has to do with a bit of Apple fanaticism, plain and simple. However, a large part of Apple’s launch success is Jobs’ well developed presentations and presentation skills. Through my work in the Product Management team at Sybase, I’ve been learning how to create compelling demos. Steve Jobs really knows how, and that’s why Apple’s product launch events are so successful and well covered. The guy is a performer.

Pragmatic Marketing, a resource for technology product management and marketing, has an excellent article about creating on demand software demonstrations. Although that article specifically talks about enterprise marketing, it applies quite well to all sorts of presentations and demonstrations. There are many things to consider when making and delivering a successful product demonstration, but a few key points are:

  • Make it tangible
  • Make it understandable
  • Make it relevant
  • Make it valuable

Steve Jobs does an excellent job of hitting all of these notes in his presentations. Let’s take the most recent announcement this past week, of new iMacs, iLife and iWork. I’ll focus on his presentation of iLife for this example.

  • Make it tangibleThe product exists. Steve was demonstrating the software on stage. There were no tricks, no sidestepped questions about availability. You can go and purchase the iLife ’08 suite from Apple right now.
  • Make it understandable – This is relatively easy as the software is quite consumer-oriented. There needn’t be too many technicals for organizing photos and making simple movies. People understand the importance of media in their lives and Apple typically creates very user-friendly applications, so this one’s in the bag.
  • Make it relevant – This is a biggie. What problem does the product solve? Steve shows us – he creates a story about a person searching through his photo library, but discovers that he cannot find the photos he’s looking for because there are just too many, and they’re unorganized. In comes the ‘Events’ feature. With it, you can categorize your photos by events. It’s much easier to remember an event than, say, a date and time. For iMovie, Steve presented a story about a co-worker who was trying to make a video of his underwater adventures, but found the existing tools too cumbersome. Enter iMovie and its user-friendliness, allowing the regular Joe to make feature-filled and good looking videos.
  • Make it valuable – For businesses, this may require fancy graphs and charts outlining ROI and various other investment metrics, but for consumer software such as iLife, value can be much more qualitative as opposed to quantitative. Jobs does a wonderful job (harhar) showing that some things are just priceless, things that tie memories together. I’m sure many people won’t think twice to spend $79 for something that makes their digital lives a bit more organized. People don’t want to buy a feature list. They want something easy to use that simplifies their life and makes it more convenient to do the things they want to do.

And all of the demonstrations only scratch the surface of what is possible. It’s irresponsible and plain boring to attempt to show every single feature. Let the user discover some for themselves. One group will be interested in some features, while others will find them less than useful. Consumers and businesses aren’t looking to buy a piece of technology or a set of features. They want something that makes it simpler or more cost-effective to do what it is they do. If your product can replace steps X-Y-Z with just step A, people will love you for it. Technology should be transparent to the user. It simplifies, it isn’t there to exist. That’s why companies such as are seeing so much success. They’re in the business of simplifying business processes. For many, there’s no need for a complete in-house system when someone can provide you that same service on demand, as opposed to the technology that allows you to provide the service yourself.

To sum up, marketing a product isn’t necessarily about how many features you can cram into a brochure or how fast you can rhyme off updates from the previous version in a presentation. Steve Jobs is so successful at presenting Apple’s products because he relates to you. He tells you stories, compelling and very real ways of using the products to make life more convenient. His demonstrations follow the story he’s telling on-stage. It’s tangible, it’s understandable, it’s relevant, and it’s valuable to the audience.

Reality Distortion Field? Certainly, but reality is what you make of it and Steve sure creates a nice, simple reality for us to indulge in.


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