Tim Cook: show, don’t tell

By Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry on October 29th, 2013

“Show, don’t tell.” That’s the oldest piece of advice to writers, and it has endured for so long because it’s good advice. It’s also good advice for marketers. And CEOs.

Because CEOs should show and not tell. It doesn’t just mean they should lead by example. It means they should deliver, not just promise to deliver. One version of this is “real artists ship.”

Apple watchers have been obsessing about Cook-era Apple, trying to see if the magic is still there. There are some differences, obviously. But are they just cosmetic differences, or even good differences, or do they portend that Apple’s era of defying the laws of business physics are over?

Well-known Apple blogger Ben Thompson looked at the last Apple event and wrote that the problem is Apple is losing sight of “liberal arts”–in one of his last keynotes, Steve Jobs famously described Apple as sitting at the intersection of “technology and liberal arts.” Under Cook and Ive, Apple sits at the intersection of technology and design. Liberal arts get lost in the shuffle.

There’s probably something to that, but if you look at the promotional videos and ads Apple has been putting out, what struck me is that they are all about telling, not showing.

Think of the iconic ads for the iPod. (Remember the iPod?) These ads weren’t telling you that the iPod is awesome at storing songs and that the iPod had been lovingly designed by cool Californians making Important Design Decisions about Removing Things instead of Adding Things. Instead, they just made an iPod and they showed you the iPod was great at what it did. And you noticed that it was beautiful and clearly showed a design aesthetic and a thoughtfulness in how design decisions were made.

Did Steve Jobs tell a lot? In some ways, yes. But he told about products, not about Apple. His soliloquy about Apple as the intersection of liberal arts and technology was so striking precisely because it was so out of character for him.

The problem isn’t just about marketing, although for a company like Apple that already matters a great deal. It’s a problem about expectations-setting–both internal and external.

External, first : the expectations put on Apple by the world (customers, the media, the investment community, fans and bashers). Everyone expects Apple to come up with a game-changing new product in a new category that will not only make lots of money but completely transform a sector of the economy, the way Steve Jobs did with movies (Pixar), music (iPod & iTunes), mobile computing (iPhone) and personal computing (iPad).

What’s more, they expect this new Apple product to be a smashing hit. How much of a smashing hit? Well, the iPad was literally the fastest-selling consumer device in the history of humanity. And I have a feeling that whatever new product category Apple gets into, if it doesn’t do at least as good it will be seen as a disappointment.

Tim Cook knows the weight of these expectations sits on his shoulders; he sees the tepid stock price (which doesn’t just reflect investor cluelessness but the general mood about the company), and he has been trying to reassure people that he gets it. But the more he tries to reassure people, the more he tells instead of showing, the worst it gets.

The more Cook says Apple is working on “phenomenal” products and hints at new product categories like smartwatches and waxes lyrically in interviews about Apple’s values, the higher the expectations get raised.

But it’s also a matter of internal expectations-setting. If the CEO enforces the company’s values through telling, not showing, it becomes an exercise in box checking.

If you show and don’t tell, people try to make the best product, with “best” being implicitly defined as matching up with Apple’s values. But because the definition is implicit and unwritten, it leaves room for experimentation, for a relaxed interpretation and for really making the best product.

If you tell instead of show, people imperceptibly stop trying to make the best product and instead make the product most in accord with what they’ve been told. Which might actually work out to be the best product. But not always. And not for long.

People have been trying to put their finger on the visibly subtle-but-important way Cook-era Apple is different from Jobs-era Apple. I think the difference is in showing versus telling.