Book Review: The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs

I give a lot of presentations. As a college instructor, I present at least once every week, and usually multiple times. I’ve also presented in business contexts and to general audiences. The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to Be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience by Carmine Gallo caused me to rethink how I’m delivering my content. I had seen every Steve Jobs video available online, including all of his keynotes, before reading the book. But it took Gallo’s insights to distill what made Jobs’s presentations so great in a digestible form that I could use.

Gallo’s book is based on the premise that Steve Jobs’s presentations were excellent. If you don’t agree with that and you didn’t like his style, then don’t pick up this book. You can watch any of Jobs’s presentations on YouTube. And if you haven’t, I highly recommend watching some of the most famous ones (introduction of the iPhone for example) before picking up the book. They will give you context because Gallo refers to specific presentations in just about every chapter. In fact, if you haven’t seen them, you may want to watch them as they’re introduced in the book, although it will add many hours to your reading experience.

Most of Jobs’s presentations featured slides. Therefore a significant amount of the advice in the book relates to making slides. If your presentations don’t involve slides, you will find about one third of the book’s content not applicable to you. Jobs’s slides were very different from most of the slides we see in business and academia. They had almost no text. Gallo clearly explains how Jobs made this work

Much of the non-slide advice is common sense: practice, vary your use of voice, be passionate when presenting, use demos, break up your presentation, etc. Yet the combination of all of it into a single volume and the way that Gallo elucidates these points make the book a one stop shop for improving your slides. I never got bored reading this common sense because I love Steve Jobs and even though I already knew almost all of the anecdotes in this book, they really made the advice come alive. If you don’t know much about Steve Jobs then you might not find the book quite as exciting.

The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs is a great book to improve your presenting skills, especially if you make presentations with slides. Its advice about making slides is unconventional and will make you rethink how you do them. Its other advice is mostly common sense but is really well illustrated. If you’re not familiar with Steve Jobs or you have not watched his keynotes you should watch some of them either prior to reading the book or simultaneously with when they are presented in each chapter. If you don’t like Steve Jobs/Apple then this is not a book you will enjoy.

Book Review: Edison by Edmund Morris

Thomas Alva Edison is almost inarguably the greatest inventor of all time. The first device for recording and playing back sound, the first large scale power distribution system, the first practical light bulb, and the first commercially successful video recording and playback device were just a few of his numerous inventions. His inventions span the gamut from mining, to electricity, to chemistry, to telecommunications, to optics, to mechanics, and even to botany. Edmund Morris’s Edison is an excellent book by a very experienced biographer that takes you through every one of Edison’s major inventions with enough context to help you understand how and why they came about. But Morris made a very strange structural decision that, while interesting, takes away from the book’s enjoyment.

Morris’s biography dispels two myths that I had heard about Edison (having only previously read a dime store biography of him and a book about his movie production company). The first is that Edison doesn’t deserve credit for his inventions because it was his workers who really came up with most of them. It’s clear from this meticulously sourced biography that Edison was not only the visionary behind his inventions, but that he also had a thorough scientific knowledge that allowed him to work hand-in-hand with his workers, directing them at every step. This is all the more amazing since he had no formal education and was thoroughly a self-made person. Edison was incredibly studious and consumed volumes and volumes of both scientific and non-scientific literature. Most of his major inventions really were his ideas. Some of them were improvements on the work of other inventors, and some of them were co-invented with his workforce, but he was the indispensable figure who created the first industrial research laboratory, making this all possible and directing it meticulously from his own mind.

The second myth I had heard about Edison is that he was a good scientist but a terrible businessman. It depends what you mean by “businessman.” Morris makes it clear that Edison was poor at managing his finances. But what is also clear from Morris’s account is that Edison was an amazing entrepreneur. He was able to see what inventions had practical commercial potential. He turned ideas into money. Did he then subsequently run those businesses well? Not generally. He was a great entrepreneur, but not a great manager.

Beyond invention, Edison’s life was filled with serendipity, interesting personal stories, and meetings with the greatest figures of his generation. Morris spends about three fourths of the biography on Edison’s inventions and business pursuits, and the remainder on the rest. He was perhaps the most famous person alive during his lifetime, and for good reason—his inventions utterly changed the every day lives of the masses. Reading the biography, you will get a sense of this, but it’s not delved into in any great detail. The majority of the pages are spent on the inventions.

The explanations of the inventions are clear enough that you do not need a scientific background to understand the gist of their purpose. You won’t understand them at a fundamental level, but you will understand why they were important and how they connected to the rest of the Gilded Age world. There’s not room, even in eight hundred pages, to go into all of Edison’s inventions, nor all of his personal life. His journey was just that amazing. But you get a sense that Morris chose the important highlights well.

So, Edison is a well-written and balanced biography about one of the most interesting figures of all time. What is not to like? The structure. Morris chose to bizarrely present Edison’s life in reverse chronological order. Each chapter covers a decade of his life. And the book starts with his last decade, and ends with his first. As we all know, lifetimes progress linearly. We’re used to hearing stories in order. It’s hard to keep track of characters, when we are abruptly and repeatedly thrown back ten years in their lives. The result is that it’s very hard to keep straight the lives of Edison’s associates and family members as you read Edison. It’s interesting in the last two chapters, knowing what you know about his life, to hear about how it started. It’s interesting, but I don’t think the trade off was worth making the rest of the book harder to read and keep track of. Morris died about five months before Edison was published. I wonder if he had lived longer, if he would have rethought the structure upon further reflection. Some reviewers have suggested reading the book backwards. I don’t think it would hurt you much to do this.

Thomas Edison was an amazing, interesting, and world-changing figure who deserves a thoroughly researched extensive biography by a great writer. In Edison, we have that. Its bizarre structure notwithstanding, if you are at all interested in technology, business, or even just history, you should give Edison a read.

Book Review - No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention

No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention is not a history of Netflix. It’s an extended account of the corporate values that have resulted in Netflix’s success as told by its cofounder/CEO Reed Hastings and accomplished business writer & academic Erin Meyer. This well written and clearly explained book offers insight into managing a creative company using non-traditional management techniques that give employees greater freedom and responsibility. However, the techniques are likely not as widely applicable as the authors imply.

No Rules Rules follows a unique format, in which each author’s voice is clearly pointed out in their sections of each chapter, leading to a kind of dialogue between the two. This format creates balance. Each point is discussed from the insider/pragmatic perspective of Hastings and the more academic perspective of Meyer. Meyer will sometimes backup Hastings’s assertions with research outside of Netflix, or gently pushback against some of his more absolutist tendencies. Meyer appears to have had significant access to employees throughout Netflix while doing her research. However, there’s no section in which she completely disagrees with Hastings, and throughout most of the book the reader is simply getting the same point from multiple perspectives.

The book revolves around the benefits of a corporate culture that empowers individual contributors to make decisions without bureaucratic tape and draconian oversight. This is meant to increase efficiency, improve flexibility, and help employees feel more satisfied with their roles. A couple specific examples are employees deciding for themselves the appropriate amount of vacation to take each year (no vacation policy) and signing contracts without getting approval from their managers. To get to this place of what the book calls “freedom and responsibility” there are certain prerequisites defined by the authors. These include a culture of candid feedback and achieving a high “talent density.”

These corporate values have obviously served Netflix well, but they may not quite be the panacea they seem from reading the book. Unfortunately, despite Meyer’s involvement, the values are somewhat myopically presented within the confines of Netflix. Probably the most controversial point in the book is its assertion that “adequate” employees (sometimes interchangeably referred to as “good” employees) should be let go to make room for hiring “great” employees. This is presented rather uncritically, without the obvious introspection that it is easy for an industry leading organization like Netflix to have its pick of “great” employees waiting at the gates to get an opportunity to work for it when they let go of the “good” employees.

The authors only caveat is that safety or process oriented companies (think nuclear reactor or industrial manufacturing) cannot risk freedom and responsibility. Yet, there are many other creative types of companies that cannot fulfill the prerequisites outlined by No Rules Rules. For example, there are creative companies that due to the limited profits in their industry cannot pay top-dollar and cannot risk letting go of “good” employees because there will be no “great” employees waiting to take their place.

No Rules Rules is a good book for learning more about Netflix, how its corporate culture works, and how it has helped to make it successful. It’s sprinkled with enough interesting anecdotes and good writing to keep your attention. The unique format adds value and the non-traditional management techniques are interesting and surely have some merit. Yet, the book’s failure to acknowledge the unique circumstances of Netflix that make its unique culture possible, stop it from being a “great” book. It’s just a “good” book.

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I teach Computer Science to college students, develop software, podcast, and write books about programming including the Classic Computer Science Problems series. I'm the publisher of the hyper local newsletter BTV Daily.

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Based on tdSimple originally by Lasantha Bandara and released under the CC By 3.0.