Steve Jobs, the “speaker of speakers” was invited to
Stanford University to deliver the commencement speech on June 12, 2005.
He wanted to tell the graduating students to live boldly and to chase
their dreams – this is the theme of many commencement speeches given by
notable figures over the years. But more than a decade later, Jobs’ speech stands out as one of the most memorable and compelling of its kind. At present, the speech has over 26 million views on YouTube.
So, what made this speech different from all the rest? And, why are people still talking about it today?
The Power of Preparation
First, Jobs knew that his audience included some of the best and
brightest young graduates in the world. The amount of time and money
that this graduating class had invested in getting to this moment was
huge. Statistically, the impact that this group would have on the world
was also huge – these were the game-changers of tomorrow – the future
titans of Silicon Valley and leaders of the world. By all accounts this
made him nervous, and for good reason!
So, he calculated the value
of his audience’s time, and he spent large amounts of time preparing,
practicing and rehearsing his speech. He had a few minutes to address
this important group (and to impact their lives), and he wasn’t going to
squander it. His wife reported that he practiced on the family at
dinner time, and walked around the house practicing his delivery out
He was prepared.
Stories that Stick
Next, Jobs knew that for his words to be memorable, he had to use
story. Human beings are narrative creatures, and we retain what we hear
when there is a compelling story. So he delivered a story about
“connecting the dots” in retrospect (don’t get lost in the future),
“love and loss” (losing the company he founded and losing his job in
shame led to even better things) and “death” (a cancer diagnosis led him
to live each day as if it were his last).
Many of those who heard the speech that day, or even those who
listened to the recording afterward, can tell you today what Jobs said
because he used stories that connected in a real way with every person
in the audience.
Stories matter immensely.
Finally, Jobs “chunked” his narrative into three. He had his core
message, but he found three compelling stories to illustrate each point
he wanted to make. There is simply something about “threes” that connect
with the human mind and heart. We can rattle off a litanies of threes
because much more would be difficult to remember, and much less doesn’t
have the same impact. We know about the Three Musketeers, the Three
Blind Mice and the Three Amigos. We remember, “Life, liberty and the
pursuit of happiness,” “faith, hope and love” and “A Government of the
People, by the people and for the people” … because three as a
rhetorical device just works.
Job’s used his rhetoric wisely.
Many of those who
heard the speech that day, or even those who listened to the recording
afterward, can tell you today what Jobs said because he used stories
that connected in a real way with every person in the audience.
Of all the commencement speeches
out there. Jobs’ 2005 speech to Stanford was short (14 minutes),
powerful and memorable. A well prepared and practiced speech with
compelling stories and the wise use of tried and true rhetorical devices
is a winning combination that we would be wise to imitate.