Steve Jobs wasn’t always the confident showman he seemed to be on stage during his famous keynotes. On the morning of June 12, 2005, hours before Jobs was scheduled to deliver the commencement speech for the 114th graduating class at Stanford University, “He woke up with butterflies in his stomach,” says his wife, Laurene, in Becoming Steve Jobs. “I’d almost never seen him more nervous.”
The speech meant a lot to Steve Jobs. He had practiced the speech endlessly, often talking out loud as he walked around the house. He gave the speech several times during family dinners, taking advantage of the captive audience. The best speeches and presentations—those that connect deeply with another person’s soul—are best written from the heart. At 22 million views on YouTube, Steve Jobs’ commencement speech did connect deeply with millions of souls around the world.
The Steve Jobs Stanford commencement address is a finely crafted speech because it’s emotional, inspiring, and simply structured.
Although it wasn’t held at a TED conference, Jobs’ speech had all the elements of an inspiring TED presentation , which might explain why the video of the speech has garnered 8 million views on TED.com.
The speech was short. The speech lasted for just fifteen minutes. As the TED conference has learned in its 30-year history, 15 to 18 minutes is an ideal length of time to deliver a substantive message without putting an audience to sleep. A lot of powerful messages have been delivered in under 18 minutes. John F. Kennedy inspired a nation in 15 minutes and Martin Luther King shared a vision of racial equality in 17 minutes. On a TED stage, Sheryl Sandberg took 15 minutes to deliver a moving and powerful speech that launched the movement Lean In. Fifteen minutes is enough time to spark a movement.
The speech had a theme that resonates with just about everyone who seeks meaning in their lives and their career: Do what you love. “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it,” Jobs said.
Jobs wrapped three lessons in three stories. Readers of this column know that I’m a fan of the ‘rule of three.’ Dividing a message into three parts or stories is a simple, memorable, and effective technique to structure a message.
“Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories,” Jobs began.
Jobs’ first story was about connecting the dots. He talked to the graduates about dropping out of Reed College so he could “drop in” to the courses he wanted to take, like calligraphy, a course that no practical application to his life. Ten years later he incorporated what he had learned into the design of the Macintosh. “It was the first computer with beautiful typography…You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. You have to trust the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
Jobs’ second story was about love and loss. He recalled falling in love with computers at an early age, meeting Steve “Woz” Wozniak, building Apple, and losing Apple after a falling out with the Board of Directors. “Getting fired was the best thing that could ever happened to me…I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love.”
Jobs’ third and final story was about death. “Remembering that are you going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
The speech emphasized triumph over adversity. Each of the three vignettes from Jobs life involve struggle or sacrifice. Stories of triumph over struggle resonate with audiences because humans are hard-wired to empathize with one another, and stories are the vehicles through which we share these common bonds. Stories help transport listeners to another world, allowing them to see to themselves in the speaker’s shoes. Once they’re connected to a speaker, an audience is more likely to follow the speaker’s advice or buy in to their idea.
Steve Jobs saves his call to attention for the end of the speech: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”
A few years ago I met an entrepreneur who had given up a lucrative job to pursue an idea for a tech company. He was making a very high salary and I asked him where he had found the courage to quit. He pulled a paper from his bag and passed it across the table. I immediately recognized it as the printed text of the Jobs commencement speech. “This gave me the courage to follow my heart,” he said.
A great speech can give people courage they didn’t know they had. The Jobs speech has been inspiring people for a decade and will continue to do, convincing many more people to “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”