Last year at All Things Digital, an annual gathering of senior tech and media executives, Steve Jobs gave a camp in how to handle an on-stage interview while Mark Zuckerberg provided the reverse. Last night, Eric Schmidt, a very smart man who can come across as “too smart” at times, earned points from an often exacting crowd for his deft rapport with hosts/interviewers Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg. But what did the Google (NSDQ: GOOG) executive chairman actually say and why does it matter?
The first person I ran into as we were leaving the room started gushing over Schmidt’s performance. When I offered a more clinical approach, she called it “cold water” (in the nicest way). Some people keyed on his comments but what I heard most through the evening was praise about how Schmidt, who can come across as arrogant or dismissive and has made some flip comments that came back to haunt him, has learned how to handle himself. Those qualities still seeped through at times in words but the tone was often pitch perfect.
It was, in a sense, the new executive chairman’s real post-CEO coming out. The focus on “adult supervision” for Larry Page and Sergei Brin tends to obscure how much learning Schmidt has had to do on the job, especially when it comes to being the public face of a company morphing before our eyes. Now that representing Google publicly is the core of his job, Schmidt’s ability not only to explain but to engage — and lobby — is even more critical. Here are some highlights —and a look at one area where his answers still need work.