Want to know what made Steve Jobs so persuasive? Look to the ancient Greeks

The Athens school

While the Apple of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus is undoubtedly Tim Cook’s, it’s pretty likely that millions of people wouldn’t be queuing up for its devices today if it weren’t for the persuasive power of one Steve Jobs. The Apple co-founder wasn’t just able to convince members of the public either. Those who worked under him coined the term “reality distortion field” to describe his ability to convince himself and others to believe almost anything. But how did he do it? The answer, it turns out is by borrowing from the rhetoric techniques of some of history’s greatest philosophers.

According to Loizos Heracleous and Laura Klaering, of Warwick Business School, Jobs was a master of the art of effective and persuasive speaking, employing various strategies to adapt to differing scenarios and situations, while still delivering a constant message.

More especially, he was proficient in using Aristotle’s classic tools of persuasion — ethos, pathos and logos — and applying them to specific situations.

“We found that Jobs did not exhibit a single rhetorical style, but rather altered it depending on the situation, and yet still managed to deliver a constant message to support his company’s strategy,” says Heracleous.

The academics explore this in a paper entitled “Charismatic Leadership and Rhetorical Competence: An Analysis of Steve Jobs’ Rhetoric“, which was published in a journal going by the title Group & Organization Management.

“Our research highlights how it is important for leaders first to be clear about the central themes they wish to emphasise and second to employ these across all situations where they have to speak publicly, no matter what the context. But they have to be aware of the context in using the right mix of persuasive strategies for the occasion, whether that is ethos, pathos or logos. Further, Jobs’ rhetoric drew from figurative language, using stories and metaphors to emphasise his messages. Stories and metaphors are more memorable than statistics, which accounts for his effectiveness in delivering memorable messages.

“Jobs was brilliant at choosing the right mix of persuasive strategies. This combined with the stability of his central messages was his great rhetorical skill.”

The three scenarios explored by the academics were: Jobs as defender of his company and actions as CEO in a deposition by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in March 2008 relating to allegations of backdating stock options; under aggressive questioning in a TV interview with CNBC in June 2005 for Apple shifting from IBM to Intel as a supplier; and an onstage discussion at the D8 All Things Digital Conference in June 2010.

In each of these instances, they looked at the ethos — Jobs’ credibility in the situation — how Jobs used pathos — appealing to the audience’s emotions; and logos — the extent to which he used logical arguments.

According to Heracleous, the team found that the “driving factor in Jobs’ rhetoric was his perceived ethos, which significantly influenced how he used logos and pathos. When ethos was low, high levels of pathos were employed by Jobs and low levels of logos, such as in the pre-trial interview with the SEC. When ethos was high, lower levels of pathos were used and higher logos, which is what happened at the digital conference, where he already had an admiring audience”.

The academics says Jobs was also able to deliver a constant set of messages or themes across the different scenarios, about his company’s products, future journey and exceptional people. In addition to the mix of ethos, pathos and logos, he employed rhetorical strategies such as amplification, repetition, or re-framing the discussion in a way that suited his goals, such as moving the tone of the CNBC interview from “businesses at war” to “business on a journey”.

Heracleous added: “We found Jobs exhibited high proficiency in customising his rhetorical style to the broader contextual situation, but simultaneously there were constant features in his rhetoric, in terms of central themes and root metaphors, indicating that an important skill of leadership may be the integration of continuity and customisation in leadership rhetoric.

“Our findings suggest that charisma is not an ineffable, magical quality as classically understood, but can rather be seen as a consequence of the relationships among leader, audience and context.”



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