Give Yourself 25 Seconds: My Favorite Steve Jobs Moment

This entry is cross-posted from my personal website.

Whether you think he was a visionary genius or overrated hack, few people will deny one thing about Steve Jobs: he was one hell of a presenter. His 2005 Stanford commencement speech and 2007 iPhone announcement are all regularly touted as some of his finest moments. My favorite moment, however, is a subtle one that is seldom mentioned.

In 1997, Steve Jobs returned to the helm of Apple after they acquired his computer company, NeXT, and his first course of action was to drastically trim Apple’s product line. Among the many cuts was OpenDoc, a promising software framework Apple had released the same year.

During the 1997 Worldwide Developers Conference a few months later, Jobs was directly addressed about the demise of OpenDoc by a member of the audience. To directly quote the video; the man asked the following question:

“Mr. Jobs, you’re a bright and influential man. It’s sad and clear that on several counts you have discussed you don’t know what you’re talking about. I would like, for example, for you to express in clear terms how, say, Java in any of its incarnations addresses the ideas embodied in OpenDoc. And when you’re finished with that, perhaps you could tell us what you personally have been doing for the last 7 years.”

The question is posed rather aggressively and is met with a mix of shock and admiration amongst the rest of the audience, many of whom also aren’t quite convinced that Jobs is the right man for the job.

Now, anyone that is familiar with Jobs personal history knows that handling criticism well was not his strong suit. When I first watched the video, I immediately wondered how Jobs would respond. Would he go on the offensive and attack the askers credibility? Jobs was famous for telling people they were stupid, after all. But mostly I wondered how I would answer that question. I imagined that I, along with most people, would stumble over a few words before ultimately moving on to another question. Answering any question that you weren’t prepared for, aggressively posed or not, is never an easy thing to do.

How Jobs handles it, though, is a stroke of genius and easily made it favorite moment of his. What does he do? He remains quiet. Jobs responds to the mans question with 25 seconds of mostly complete silence, during which time he takes a seat on his stool, looks down at the floor and lets the gears in his head turn.

Something that I have seen time and time again during presentations is a rush to respond. Almost as if people are afraid that if they don’t immediately begin speaking once the question ends their credibility will be questioned. When you’re prepared for the exact question, you can pull it off well. But when you’re not, and you often aren’t, the result is less successful. People try to think while they speak, and only end up tripping over their words, usually failing to even address the original issue. Your anxiety level immediately shoots up, and the audience notices. It’s a slippery slope from there.

Despite being in the middle of a presentation in front of dozens (if not hundreds) of people who he knew were judging his every word, Jobs wasn’t afraid to take a moment to collect his thoughts. After his 25 second intermission, he begins his response:

One of the hardest things when you’re trying to affect change is that, people like this gentleman are right! In some areas.

After taking the time to think through his answer, he begins by validating the asker and their issue, and then explains his decision making clearly and concisely over the course of 2 to 3 minutes. In the end, the audience is impressed and captivated (enough to turn it into a YouTube clip nearly 20 years later).

What I’ve taken away from this clip every time I’ve watched it is not to be afraid to give yourself 25 seconds. Whether it’s during a presentation or just a conversation with your coworker, it’s always okay to stop for a moment and collect your thoughts. In fact doing so will result in a more productive, solutions-oriented conversation.