The CEO Agenda: Convert Half-truths to Gospel

“We’re obviously going to spend a lot in marketing because we think the product sells itself.”

— Jim Allchin, Microsoft

Many modern CEOs of technology companies are very visible and vocal. It’s a chance to do some clever marketing. One goal, when speaking, is to convert subtle half-truths into gospel for their followers. Steve Ballmer and Steve Jobs are notable.

Steve Ballmer

This week, at the All Things Digital D8 Conference, Steve Ballmer took the opportunity to dispel the idea that the Apple iPad is fundamentally different than a PC.

Q: Is the iPad a PC?

Ballmer: Of course it is. What do you do on it? Answer email. A guy tried to take notes on it at a meeting I was at yesterday — that was interesting [chuckles from the audience]. He suggests that the positioning of devices like the iPad as something beyond the PC is just a marketing tactic.”

Here we see an attempt by the Microsoft CEO to dispel a dangerous notion: that the iPad is a fundamental paradigm shift and is a fundamentally new device in the evolution of computers.

A feature of Mr. Ballmer’s speaking style is that he takes a plain-folk approach. He does that because he’s the leader of 90+ percent of personal computer users. He has to be plain spoken and all inclusive in his chosen deceptions. To some, however, mostly on the opposition side, that approach makes him appear to be, with all respect, an idiot.

What if the roles with Apple were reversed? What if Steve Jobs were the CEO of Microsoft? How would Steve present the same iPad/PC proposition?

Steve Jobs is different. He’s been the traditional underdog, so he uses different approach by adding three things: technical content, arrogance and some sarcasm. This makes Mr. Jobs seem more credible as an opponent. Here’s my take on how Mr. Jobs would say it.

Both the iPad and the PC have a CPU, memory, a display and a modern OS. You’d have to be an idiot to think there’s a difference — except for size and form factor.”

We’d all absorb that pronouncement and turn it into gospel in our writings, ignoring the real, underlying truth.

Steve Jobs

Apple is a wildly successful company, and Steve Jobs deserves much of the credit. If he makes a claim, with confidence and a technical tone and an air of self-confidence, then he must be right, right? That’s how Mr. Jobs operates. We internalize his half-truths and they become our gospel. Sometimes that’s called a Reality Distortion Field (RDF). He uses other techniques as well.

Mr. Jobs also spoke at this week’s D8 Conference. Some of his assertions seemed surprising at first.

For example, Mr. Jobs understands the fallout from a direct, PC OS market share comparison with Microsoft. By that standard Apple has still failed, so the notion must be that Apple competes in a fundamentally different way. Mr. Jobs told Walt Mossberg, roughly, “…we never saw ourselves in a platform war with Microsoft.”

Well, of course, Apple has been in a platform war with Microsoft, and millions of words have been written about it. When faced with failure on the opponent’s terms, change the rules of the game! Gospel: Apple provides a different kind of product and is moving into the future rapidly; Microsoft is not.

On Apple, the Apple TV and the TV industry, Mr. Jobs appeared to be very humble. That’s another technique he uses: throw in some outspoken humility to keep people off guard or lead them to a desired conclusion.

Mr. Jobs explained the difficulties in the home TV market, how Apple still regards the Apple TV as a hobby and added: “Smarter people than us will figure this out.” The Apple CEO uses that technique when he needs to buy time, keep the competition off guard and in a state of overconfidence. Gospel (for the competition): Apple isn’t sure where it’s going, so we can continue with our current plans.

Finally, the presentation of humility can often lead people to draw the opposite and desired conclusion. For example, Apple’s market cap recently exceeded Microsoft’s. Mr. Jobs’ remark was, “It doesn’t matter very much that Apple’s market cap is bigger than Microsoft’s.” Of course it does. But by couching it, humbly, in a throw-away line, we’re seduced into the desired conclusion without being offended. Gospel: Apple is more successful now than Microsoft — PC market share notwithstanding.

It’s All About Marketing

Each CEO has his favorite techniques. Mr. Ballmer tends toward the aw-shucks, matter of fact statements that promote the Microsoft agenda. They aren’t very complicated, but Mr. Ballmer can count on the PC press to back him up and amplify his half-truths until they become gospel. Also, because the simple statements sometimes make Mr. Ballmer look like a simpleton, we tend to underestimate him — which is what he wants.

Mr. Jobs prefers to be more snarky at times alternating with humility when called for. The snarkiness is used when he wants to take a small bit of half-truth and turn it into a major gospel item for the followers. Humility is used when he’s either buying time or wants us to draw a conclusion without being offended.

Both techniques are effective, suit the personalities of these CEOs, are great marketing techniques, and keep the acolytes buying their products. You can’t be a highly visible CEO without a bag of tricks like these.