Steve 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:
- Watch the video.
- Read the analysis below.
- If you like, read the full speech text to gain further insights.
- 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.
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.
- For 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
Jobs structures his speech around three main points, and he applies the Rule of Three in many sentences and paragraphs.
- “I learned  about serif and san serif typefaces,  about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations,  about what makes great typography great.” (3:39)
- “It was  beautiful,  historical,  artistically subtle…” (3:47)
- “...  started a company named NeXT,  another company named Pixar,  and fell in love…” (7:16) Jobs follows this up with three sentences which demonstrate how each of those turned out great.
- “ all external expectations,  all pride,  all fear” (9:33)
- “ 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.  It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family.  It means to say your goodbyes.” (10:28).
- “…  don’t waste it living someone else’s life.  Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.  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).
- The 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.”
Did you enjoy this speech? What did you like from a public speaking perspective? How could this presentation be enhanced?