Authenticity Surfacing

As one with a personal passion for gadgetry, I paid attention this week with Microsoft’s announcement of their new tablet computers, the Surface(s). After watching the video, it was obvious that the whole thing wasn’t fully baked. But more interesting than the new hardware from Microsoft was the announcement itself.

With a lot of focus this week on our 708 “Ignite” presentations, many minds are thinking about leadership presence. How can we summon it? How can we project it? I think one of the best ways to approach presence is to be an authentic person. In terms of speaking and presenting, the words ought not to be memorized copy, but rather a stream of your own conscience. If you tell us something is great, we ought to feel your enthusiasm for the statement before we even hear the word great.

I thought about the personalities that appeared in the Microsoft video/Surface announcement. I viewed each of these folks as leaders. They obviously hold high-ranking positions within Microsoft. But their “persona” on the video is likely different from the one folks deal with each day. The only reason I can say this is because I felt they came across as artificial. If it was authentic, then I wager they need to work on not feeling “artificial” when they’re not. We all come across this way when we are nervous.

For as much as Presentation Zen dude likes to channel Steve Jobs for his “keynote zen” and presentation genius, I believe this video of the Microsoft announcement will likewise be studied.

Ballmer comes across as half-yelling in most of his opener. He’s an intense man, and I know it’s easy for me to imagine him in an angry, yelling state. The man has, for the record, a now famous “Developers, Developers, Developers!” video that’s gone viral, earning him the nickname “MonkeyBoy.” That said, this week he was professional and delivered the right words. But the message didn’t sound entirely genuine. So much of the rhetoric was second-hand (from the mouth of Apple Steve, the late Steve Jobs). You cannot legitimately call yourself “innovative” when you’ve just borrowed the creed from your biggest competitor.

But tech companies borrow from one another all the time. There’s no point in belaboring that. But let’s take the connections you can make with those you are presenting to… there was an audience of reporters in that audience. But I never felt that Ballmer or even his lieutenants ever “connected” with the audience. In fact, the video likely makes the situation even worse, as we cannot hear an audience for most of the video. I am struck by what happened when Ballmer came on stage. He came out and it was difficult to make out any applause from the audience. He stood around a few moments before talking, looking uncomfortable. The immediate thought I had was that he wasn’t sure what to do in the absence of applause.

The next guy who came out reminded me of Microsoft’s version of a Phil Schiller, or better yet, Scott Forstall. But he was unpracticed. He was nervous. He was practically reading the copy someone had written for him, instead of “living” the demonstration. And then the worse possible thing befell him, his demo unit failed. I could sympathize with his plight. Ballmer was watching from behind the stage. He just said the thing was perfectly designed. You could play all kinds of games through Internet Explorer. But then it was frozen. No Internet Explorer. He nervously pecked away at the Windows Home button, the similar home button that appears on Apple iPads. Nothing. A few nervous “uhs” come to pass, and then he walks backwards and gets another demo unit.

Yet, we connected with him. It was the most authentic moment yet in the presentation. Anyone who deals with an audience and technology knows it can foul your talk. It can freeze. The software can crash.

But Sinofsky never really acknowledges the mistake, nor does he diffuse the snafu with humor. That would be off-script. How could a presentation be so well-crafted, and die so fast? It might have been simply bad luck. Windows has a history of locking-up, after all (harr, harr). But seriously, we had this glimpse of authenticity – perhaps of authentic fear – and then, back to script. A lost opportunity. He was missing authenticity. I couldn’t connect to him.

Then he was bettered by a younger guy who actually, you could feel it, was authentically proud of this product. He helped design it. And he talked about the human connection to the device, just like his predecessor, but here you felt he actually believed it. Then he reiterated some of the same points everyone before had already made. And then Microsoft lost it again. This was more marketing. I am not against marketing, but if it reeks of marketing, then something is wrong. The glimpse of authenticity was gone.

You can also lose an audience with not sticking on point to the topic(s) at hand. At one point, the brass stands aside and let’s a video play, introducing the product. It did nothing more than display the word “Surface.” The word “Surface” forms from rocks in a barren desert. That was a cool graphic and animation. But it was significantly anticlimactic. What did that have to do with the metal case or the product? It was a beautiful visual that had little to contribute to the message. Leaders with presence stick to the message.

Watch guitarist/songwriter John Mayer record tracks with Steve Jobs. It was how Apple introduced GarageBand – their music software. Was any of that scripted? Yes. But does it necessarily feel that way? No.

Whether or not you admire John Mayer or fancy his music is also not important, in the end. The fact that a professional musician can come to make some music, on the spot, using a thin computer and then you see the genuine response of wonderment from Steve Jobs, is pretty raw. It’s presence. It’s inviting you to agree, “This is some cool kit they’re showing here.”

By the time they say “And it’s available Today!” they’ve already sold several thousand copies. Over a million, perhaps, by the weekend. And marketing is part of selling your ideas as a leader.

I give credit to Microsoft for trying the Apple approach with Surface. But the boys from Redmond get criticized for not being hip. Apple poked fun in their own “I’m a Mac” series of commercials with “stodgy” vs. “cool.” The Surface introduction demonstrated many things, but the most crucial was the importance of authenticity in presenting to others. Their disconnect with the audience of press – even to acknowledge them, to laugh with them, or to pause for their reactions – was telling. And in the final analysis, it tells me they have work to do in selling their brand. If they want their brand to be “hip,” they need to project leaders who ooze it authentically.

The last lesson to be learned from this announcement is timing. The new Surface tablets, the integration of a stylus for writing, the cool thin cover/keyboard, etc., all amount to something that is a potential winner with consumers and business customers alike. But I got the sense it wasn’t quite ready for being kicked about yet. The tech press all commented on how no one was able to actually type on that new keyboard. We’ve been promised an announcement very soon from Google, perhaps on a similar class of product. The consensus is that Microsoft wanted to be seen out front, first. We’ll have to wait and see if they did the right thing, at the right time!

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