“Johnny Cash and Steve Jobs were master storytellers,” Cameron Craig told me during a visit to Polycom’s headquarters in San Jose, California. Craig should know. He’s worked for both men in black and today transfers the lessons he learned to his role at director of global communications for the video conferencing company.
Craig was a tour publicist for country legend Johnny Cash and also worked for Steve Jobs beginning in 1997, watching and learning for the next ten years as Jobs led one of the greatest corporate turnarounds in history. Both Cash and Jobs were performers and gifted communicators in their respective fields. Craig credits both bosses for influencing his communication skills. He learned two especially valuable lessons: Storytelling and simplicity.
As storytellers, Cash and Jobs featured heroes and characters in their narratives. “For Johnny Cash, the hero of his songs was the underdog, the prisoner in San Quentin, the misunderstood youth, the Native-American. He gave the underdog a voice. Steve Jobs did the same thing for another underdog, the ‘mere mortal,’ the person who just wanted to get something done, but the technology was too complicated.”
Craig’s reference to ‘mere mortal’ refers to a line Steve Jobs often repeated. Jobs once told a reporter for The New York Times, “As technology becomes more complex, Apple’s core strength of knowing how to make very sophisticated technology comprehensible to mere mortals is in ever greater demand.” In the Apple narrative complexity was the villain and mere mortals were the underdogs.
Watching his former bosses connect through narrative gave Craig an understanding for the power of storytelling to establish a deep and loyal connection with an audience (music fans or product customers). “You’ve got to tell great, authentic and compelling stories to draw people in,” Craig says.
In his second week at Polycom, Craig saw Jeff Rodman, the company’s co-founder, speaking to a group of children at a ‘bring your kids to work’ day. “He had them captivated and I wondered, what is he saying to those kids that’s so interesting?” Rodman told the kids a story about the day he found a 95-cent book at RadioShack, tinkered with an idea for a compact audio speaker, and turned the idea into a $2 billion company with more than 400,000 customers.
The kids—and Craig—were glued to every word. “You have to tell that story to a broader audience than eight-year-olds,” Craig suggested. They shared the story publicly and it was picked up by the Harvard Business Review with the title, How I Built a $2B Company by Thinking Small.
According to Craig, “If you search deep enough, we all have these stories inside us.” Craig believes in looking for the hook, the backstory behind a business, service, or invention. Once you discover it, you’ll likely find an audience that wants to hear it.
Polycom’s Cameron Craig and communication expert Carmine Gallo (photo: Jacqueline Nguyen)
Johnny Cash and Steve Jobs were masters of simplicity
The second lesson Craig learned from Johnny Cash and Steve Jobs is to keep communication simple. Johnny Cash’s lyrics and stories had depth, but he was known for a sparse, simple ‘three-chord’ guitar sound. When Cash began his music career, his small band didn’t have a drummer. To make up for it, they invented one of the most recognizable guitar riffs in country music: ‘boom-chicka-boom.’ The deceptively simple technique made the guitar sound like a snare drum and gave a song the weight of a freight train.
In another era and on another stage Steve Jobs, too, would disguise depth with simplicity in both product design and, according to Craig, in communication. “If you ran any Apple press release through a readability test it would most likely score a level easily understood by an average 4th grade student or lower,” says Craig. “Any hint of jargon, cliché, or techno mumbo-jumbo would be removed in the editing process.”
Craig is absolutely right. When I conducted my research for a book on Steve Jobs’ communication skills, I was surprised to discover than the transcripts to many of his presentations could be understood by an elementary school student. In this Forbes article, I made the point that my then second-grade daughter could easily read one of Steve Jobs’ most iconic ads.
Craig didn’t want to disappoint Jobs and if a ‘mere mortal’ could not understand the language of a press release, it would have been considered a failure. “Failure was not an option. Steve Jobs read and personally approved every press release, and we didn’t want to fail him.”
Steve Jobs and Johnny Cash are role models of communication. They both paid obsessive attention to the stories they told, the simplicity of their delivery, and the value of making heartfelt connections with their audiences.
This article was written by Carmine Gallo from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.