It is graduation season, and across the country nervous keynote speakers are scrambling to write that perfect commencement address. How to do it well? If you are looking for a model of a stand-out graduation speech, you will want to watch Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address to Stanford University.
Here is why it works.
A fundamental rule of speechmaking: Choose a topic that you care about, and figure out how to make your audience care about it, too. Jobs selected as his theme the importance of doing what you love and trusting yourself—a commonplace graduation topic made extraordinary by the personal, often humbling examples that Jobs offered from his own life.
By focusing on moments of failure, rather than moments of success, Jobs instantly connected with his audience. Steve Jobs was the founder of Apple Computers. He could have spoken of his multi-billion dollar fortune, the success and innovations of his companies, the role of technology in the future. He chose instead to talk about a handful of critical points in his life, moments of disappointment that his listeners could imagine suffering themselves. Suddenly, the multi-billion dollar innovator and pioneer of business became Everyman, a real person, making it easier to relate to and appreciate his advice. His tale resonated with the audience because there was nothing self-aggrandizing in it; he spoke of personal things because he wanted the audience to know and understand him. His credibility level, or ethos, was high from the outset because of his earnest desire to reach the audience.
His advice sticks because the stories illustrating it are unexpected and deeply personal. A speech is more likely to make an impression if you grab the audience’s attention from the beginning rather than wasting time with needless wind-up. Jobs accomplished this by promising “three stories from my life. No big deal, just three stories.” He took the audience by surprise when he confessed his lack of academic credentials—the speech at Stanford University was the closest he had come to graduating college. He then spoke of the unusual circumstances surrounding his adoption. He revealed an admirable strength of character as he explained that, despite the significance that his birth-mother placed on receiving a college education, he could not bear to see his working-class adoptive parents spend their life savings sending him to college. He opted instead to take a few part-time classes in subjects that interested him, which is how he found himself in a calligraphy class at Reed College.
That class became the basis for various for various fonts on the Apple operating system, the first system to have multiple typographies. And so Jobs began to weave his theme: Unconventional choices can offer opportunity if you look for it.
Jobs described how he was ousted from Apple Computer, the company he founded, and the uncertainty and shame that he suffered. As you listen to this portion of the speech, notice how adeptly he struck the perfect tone—likeable and credible. He revealed no trace of bitterness towards Apple or the executive who replaced him. Jobs explained that he came to view his departure from Apple as liberating, because it freed him to think about what he loved doing and forced him to do it (leading him to found the innovative, Oscar-winning film company, Pixar Studios).
Finally, Jobs spoke being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (the disease that ultimately took his life on October 5, 2011). He revealed grim details of his diagnosis and his fears about telling his family he might not live much longer. In a miraculous turn of events, Jobs survived the cancer at that time and was offered a second chance. By sharing this personal experience with the listeners, Jobs made that second chance theirs as well. Jobs implored graduates to remember that time is finite and to make the most of it.
Jobs’ stories were memorable because they were unexpected, humbling, and hopeful. His personal anecdotes were not widely known before he gave this speech, which left the audience feeling as if it were being let in on a secret. Jobs chose a topic that was meaningful to him; exhibited ethos in his modesty and honesty; captured attention by offering surprising tidbits of information; and ultimately packed an emotional punch through his willingness to be vulnerable. Instead of a formal commencement address, Jobs offered a warm, intimate, and compelling lecture about life. That is why, years later, you can see still his closing lines printed on bumper stickers or T-shirts:
“Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”