Article Category: Speech Critiques

Speech Critique: Steve Jobs (Stanford, 2005)

Steve Jobs - Stanford 2005Steve Jobs wrote and delivered the commencement speech “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” to the graduates of Stanford University on June 12, 2005.

The style and content are very different from his Apple product launch presentations, but no less worthy of study.

Noteworthy elements of this wonderful speech include:

  • strong opening;
  • simple classical structure;
  • the Rule of Three;
  • rich figures of speech; and
  • a recurring theme of birth/death/rebirth.

My suggestion is to:

  1. Watch the video.
  2. Read the analysis below.
  3. If you like, read the full speech text to gain further insights.
  4. Share your thoughts on this presentation. What did you like? What could have been done better?

Strong opening: Praise the audience and show some humility

Jobs opens with a compliment for the audience: “I am honored to be with you today for your commencement from one of the finest universities in the world.” He follows that by showing humility in admitting that he never graduated college. In just a few sentences, he has made the audience feel very good about themselves, and increased their receptiveness to his message.

Conversational Style

Contrast “Steven Wozniak and I started Apple” with “Woz and I started Apple.

  • The former is formal, and invokes an image of two entrepreneurs who founded Apple.
  • The latter is conversational, and invokes an image of two close friends. Jobs chooses a conversational style, and this is a wise choice. His audience is composed of college graduates for whom graduation often means diverging paths from their close friends.

Simple structure and sentences

Jobs adopts a simple and traditional structure. Opening >> Three stories >> Conclusion. He guides the audience through the 14.5 minutes with simple sentences.

  • Today I want to tell you three stories.
  • The first story is about connecting the dots.
  • My second story is about love and loss.
  • My third story is about death.

Pauses and Timing

Jobs executes effective pauses before and particularly after key points to allow the audience time to digest his points.

  • Road Not TakenFor example, he concludes his first story with an apparent reference to Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken: “even when it leads you off the well-worn path… and that will make all the difference.” This is followed by a full six seconds of silence. (5:16 – 5:22)

This speech is littered with humour, but I felt the comedic delivery was a bit lacking. Perhaps this was intentional – was his goal to imitate an academic orator? Regardless, the timing was off on several punch lines.

  • For example, consider his delivery of “I didn’t even know what a pancreas was.” (10:07) The line is delivered with only a hint of emphasis and barely any pausing before or after. I would have liked more. This is a particularly tense moment in the speech, and the audience would benefit from stress-relieving laughter.
  • A minute and a half later, he does a better job of injecting humour in the midst of a serious point: “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there.” (11:40) The timing is better here.

Rule of Three

Three stonesJobs structures his speech around three main points, and he applies the Rule of Three in many sentences and paragraphs.

  • I learned [1] about serif and san serif typefaces, [2] about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, [3] about what makes great typography great.” (3:39)
  • It was [1] beautiful, [2] historical, [3] artistically subtle…” (3:47)
  • “... [1] started a company named NeXT, [2] another company named Pixar, [3] and fell in love…” (7:16) Jobs follows this up with three sentences which demonstrate how each of those turned out great.
  • [1] all external expectations, [2] all pride, [3] all fear” (9:33)
  • [1] It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. [2] It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. [3] It means to say your goodbyes.” (10:28).
  • … [1] don’t waste it living someone else’s life. [2] Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. [3] Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” (12:18)

Several of those (marked in bold) are additionally examples of anaphora – repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses or sentences.

Figures of Speech Abound

Jobs employs numerous figures of speech in his remarks.

  • An antithesis (or antitheton) is a figure of speech using the juxtaposition of contrasting words, often in a parallel structure. Jobs uses several well-crafted examples:
    • If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in” (4:34)
    • Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” (4:40)
    • The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again…” (7:05) Note also the alliteration of “being a beginner.”
    • Death is very likely the single best invention of Life.” (11:55)
  • Parallelism (and another example of anaphora): “that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school.” (1:38)
  • Anadiplosis (repeating a phrase from the end of one sentence at the beginning of the next): “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.” (8:15) This example is effective, but rather loose due to the repetition of “the only way to.”
  • Assonance (repetition of vowel sounds): “And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.” (9:18)
  • Repetition. In addition to the many examples highlighted previously, Jobs concludes his speech by repeating “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” three times. Repetition adds strength to key arguments, especially in a conclusion.

Recurring Commencement Themes: Birth, Death, and Rebirth

In a literal sense, Jobs talks about his birth in his first story, and about confronting death in his third story. However, this speech contains numerous other metaphorical references to these “circle of life” concepts:

  • In addition to his physical birth, he relates how the original couple decided they wanted a girl (a symbolic “death” since his life with them was “snuffed out” due to gender). He then tells about how he experienced “rebirth” with his parents.
  • His college career had a short “life.” The “death” of his formal academic career made way for the “birth” of his informal learning process.
  • His relationship to Apple (in his 20’s) was “born”, grew, and then “died.” Later, when NeXT was purchased by Apple, his career at Apple is reborn.
  • He uses the word “renaissance” (a rebirth or revival) to describe the current state of Apple.
  • He receives the cancer diagnosis (a “death sentence”), but later is saved by an operation (a rebirth).
  • Whole Earth CatalogThe Whole Earth Catalog. Stewart Brand “brought it to life“, and “then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue.”

Interspersed with these stories, Jobs repeatedly ties it back to his audience. This is particularly clear in the conclusion when he relates these metaphors to his college audience one last time with “as you graduate to begin anew.”

Your Thoughts?

Did you enjoy this speech? What did you like from a public speaking perspective? How could this presentation be enhanced?

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Comments icon26 Comments

  1. Jason Black says:

    There are three observations I’m really surprised you didn’t make in your otherwise good analysis.

    The first thing I noticed while watching it was his delivery. Namely, that he didn’t actually _deliver_ the address. He _read_ it straight off of sheets of paper. This totally killed his eye contact with the audience. Sure, the audience got to study the top of his head and his particular nuances of male pattern baldness, but as for eye contact, there was nothing there.

    Second, I felt it was a mistake in his section on the calligraphy class, to take a tired, cliche pot-shot at Microsoft. The “…and since Windows just copied the Mac…” line. I didn’t feel that it helped his message at all to bring up something that, quite frankly, is almost a dogmatic difference of opinion between Mac lovers and Windows lovers. Sure, a lot of college kids love and use Macs, but also a lot of college kids can’t afford a Mac, and thus use lower cost Windows computers. The line isn’t exactly a zinger against Microsoft anymore, and while it may score a few lackluster points with the mac users in the audience, it does so at the cost of rankling the majority of Windows users in the audience. That line certainly didn’t help his message; he would have done better to avoid, in political parlance, “going negative.” Let his own accomplishments stand on their own, and resist the temptation to try building yourself up by tearing someone else down.

    Third, the writing itself. You point out a great number of excellent turns of phrase and literary devices, but there was a degree to which I felt the speech was written for paper, not for voice. One of the things I learned somewhere around project number 4 or 5 in the CC manual was that things which read as wonderfully eloquent on paper often sound horrible when spoken out loud. Spoken English just follows different rules and conventions than written English. It was clear to me that Jobs wrote his address for paper but didn’t rehearse it out loud to find the places where the written English just didn’t work.

    Finally, I have to disagree with your analysis about the “laugh lines” in the speech. Namely, I didn’t think they were really intended to get laughs. I felt that the “I didn’t even know what a Pancreas was” line was intended to convey to the audience the sense and degree to which Jobs was completely out of his element and comfort zone to find himself dealing with a serious medical problem after a life spent immersed in the world of technology. I thought it was there to underscore the degree to which he had let himself become distanced from the biological, in favor of the technological. It was another self-effacing line, meant to build empathy with the audience. And the line about people who want to go to heaven: yes, it’s a funnier line, but I don’t think it was there for laughs either. It was there to underscore the universal applicability of death. I think he chose that line to a) deliver that message, but b) do so in a more ironic, light-hearted way to keep that section of the speech from being too much of a downer.

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:


      Thanks for the additional analysis. You’ve made some excellent points. In particular:

      • Re: lack of eye contact. I, too, was disappointed by this. I thought it showed a lack of preparation.
      • Re: avoiding the “cheap” pot-shot at Microsoft. Again, I agree. This is similar to the Al Gore critique where I suggest it may have been better to avoid reinforcing the political left and right.
      • Re: writing for paper vs. writing for voice. I agree that this speech tends toward a more formal style, which is generally more appropriate for written works, not spoken works. However, I think it is plausible that Jobs may have intended to adopt a more formal, academic orator voice for this commencement speech.
      1. gavin says:

        The way steve jobs says you must find what you love in order to succeed is not really a fair statement, as some people are in love with what they do and yet make no success whatsoever.

  2. Andrew: thanks for this fabulous post. I have carried this speech in my head for sometime now and occasionally go back to read it. But to have it accessible with your analysis, good comment from Jason, and the ability to see it and then read about it–what a joy.

    I give workshops on the topic of writing to heal and help. Many gems from this post will quite soon find their way into these workshops. Thanks, again.


  3. wow! Great work, I will refer to it in my thesis about the 2007 keynote.

  4. Jeanne C. says:

    i think both of you guys’ opinion pointed out here are excellent! i have very important rhetoric presentation tmr and found out this perfect website! it helped me alot and i really appreciate you both posting and sharing this critique with everyone! 🙂

  5. I use this speech for teaching university undergraduates. They think that since he reads the speech it’s rude to the audience and they don’t like that he doesn’t give eye contact. Many of my students do not know who Steve Jobs is so they don’t understand some of what he talks about. (I am always amazed when not a single person in the room knows who he is. I thought you might find that interesting.)
    About the comments regarding the language choice. My students don’t think he wrote the speech himself. They argue that he is certainly rich enough to hire a speech writer. My personal feeling is that it is very likely that he worked WITH a speech writer to create the speech. The choice of more “lofty” language was an attempt to use appropriate language for the occasion and likely came from the speech writer and not him. Maybe that’s why the delivery seems awkward. Like Ronald Regan did in his challenger speech.

    Andrew thanks for this great blog! I am looking forward to reading more of your reviews and the comments.

  6. alex hughes says:

    I thought it was wonderfully organized and written speech. More importantly, it was authentic and had guts. It would have been so easy for him to serve them platitudes but he gave them the real speech about his real life and I admired that. My main gripe was his lack of eye contact. He could have given that speech without the notes. He had his eyes down the whole time reading the script, yet I’m sure he didn’t need it. Hell, it was his life. That was unfortunate.

    I was also embarrassed for the audience. They should have been more grateful for that speech. Perhaps their tepid reaction was from being in the hot sun too long.

  7. This is a terrific critique. As a speech coach, another thing I took away from Jobs’ speech is the importance of speaking on something you are passionate about – no matter what your topic is. I blogged recently about Jobs’ speech and this takeaway on my speaking advice blog – I would appreciate hearing your thoughts.

    Much thanks,

  8. Alla says:

    I am ordinary Russian women and liked his speech very much.
    It das not matter much who helped to write it.
    Reading this material I felt the same. This great man has survived and understood a lot. I believe him.
    He is very positive person and nether became embittered.
    Good luck to everybody.

  9. Troels Thomsen says:

    Hi Andrew Dlugan

    My name is Troels Thomsen and I am writting an assignment on Steve Jobs speech at Stanford University.

    I am using Aristotles Logos, Pathos and Etos but I am having trouble finding them in the text. Could you perhaps help me?

  10. Dan McGee says:

    Hard hitting speech and well done. I’ve done everything he spoke about in the opposite way. It took me four decades to find what I wanted to do and am doing. So I’m not about to take this speech apart. I’m just glad someone posted it and led me to this site. Thank you Steve Jobs, and yes I’m a MAC person.

  11. lawrence roller says:

    excellent graduation speech/
    Steve Jobs 2005, Stanford University.

    (part 3 was the heart of the speech/I will try to abide by his thoughts each day)

    Such a creative person, we will all miss him

  12. Elaine says:

    Wonderful speech…nothing grandiose, just heartfelt and practical.

    Wise and commonsense..

    Great ingredients for giving anyone advice..

  13. Asia Decker says:

    This article was not as appauling as I thought it would be. The speaker didnt grab his audience attention. I think a little more sense of humor would have done the trick. Overall it was a nice speech, but if I was there, i would definitely lost interest.

  14. Jessica Johnson says:

    Reading this article shows quite a few stong points when catching your audiences attention when preparing to deliver a speech. Like the different points the author gives and like the methods he used such as catching your audiences attention by a strong opening which in my opinion gives a great start and your audience will want to listen to your speech in its enterity. great points given by the author.

  15. George Torok says:

    I watched this video again and noticed the pain in this speaker. It was a well written speech and it was delivered with intense pain. Notice the body language, lack of eye contact and failure to laugh. Very revealing.

  16. I loved his simplicity. One of the richest men in the world telling three personal stories instead of using big words or big figures to sound gran. Such personal security. Knowing what a stellar presenter he was when introducing Apple products, I found it interesting that he had his head down reading text most of the speech. As we all know, this greatly reduces a speaker’s connection to his/her audience and the power of his/her delivery. How poignant that he thought he had another two or three decades. And what a reminder to us all.

  17. Jon says:

    I remember watching this speech in a college classroom. It was and still is powerful.

    Thanks for the post!

  18. Jina Lee says:

    I personally like how he gave out his speech of his experience. Personally, I love to hear people experience It is a lot easier to understand and share sympathy. The way he points out three topics that were most important to him, and I believe that most of us are going through same issues but different situations. He spoke very clearly so that all people who were listening could understand. By hearing his speech I can apply to my life, and what type of career I love to do. The first part that he never graduate from the college impact my mind a lot and how his parents had to a lot of money to his school tuition. He certainly gave me a message to find my better career and stay in my faith.

  19. Victoria says:

    Great analysis!

  20. Sivadas says:

    I am learning a lot from your analysis.I am grateful to you for all your articles,time and effort.

  21. Excellent analysis of a wonderful speech.

    Three personal stories very effective! and of course “story” interpreted by him.

    One observation about the humour: I would not have felt very funny if I was told I’ll die soon. He was better making dream and inspire, then making laugh.

  22. Dave Linehan says:

    I remember watching the speech for the first time on learning about Steve Jobs’ death. It’s an amazing speech – so engaging. The detailed analysis here is excellent. I particularly liked the analysis around the rule of three – such a powerful tool. Thanks for your efforts with this post Andrew.

    Dave, CommunicateYouBlog

  23. Juliann says:

    Really good speech

  24. Zeng Jiankun says:

    The speech is very interesting. Firstly, he uses his experiences to deliver his opinions, and these stories are very interesting. So it is easy to remember. Secondly, deep and precise opinions, which is beneficial to his unique and successful jobs and that is also people who can’t copy. However, his head always down to see his draft, I think it’s not good because it lacks the eyes communication with audience.

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