The Secret Behind the Best Steve Jobs Speech: Why Does It Work so Well?

Jobs uses narrative arcs to convey his message
By Entrepreneur
Empowering People in the Business of Changing the World | Entrepreneur® is dedicated to fueling the world’s visionary leaders compelled to make a difference through their innovative ideas, businesses, and points of view.
October 4, 2021 Updated: October 4, 2021
Epoch Times Photo
By Francisco García Pimentel

What makes a speech effective, powerful, and inspiring?

We start with one of the great modern ones: Steve Jobs, founder of Apple and Pixar, communication genius, geek guru, and turtleneck enthusiast.

Despite the fact that its product introductions are legendary in their own right (the iPod in 2004 broke three different industries), Stanford’s commencement address takes the cake for being the most viewed and the most shared. In it we enjoy a Steve Jobs that you can rarely see: open, human, natural, and, above all, de-stressed.

You can see the full speech here:

Stanford’s speech is a masterclass in public speaking and storytelling and contains some of his most quoted lines. How does it work? We go step by step.

The First Seconds Establish Ethos, Mood, and Expectations

The first few seconds in a speech are absolutely crucial. Rather than attract attention with a joke or comment, what you want to do here is establish who you are and what the relationship is with your audience. This opens the door of trust.

Steve Jobs was already famous in 2005 and was enjoying the success that the rebirth of Apple. He was a living legend. That’s why Jobs chooses humility and appreciation as his cover letter, even making a joke at the expense of his own ribs. There are laughs. The public is attentive. We’re going from strength to strength.


I have the honor of being here with you today at your beginning in one of the best universities in the world. Truth be told, I never graduated.

Truth be told, this is the closest I’ve ever been to a college graduation.

Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. Nothing special. Only three stories.”

First Story: We Build Our Destiny

Steve Jobs was always a great storyteller and convinced of the importance of aesthetics alongside technology. His genius is seen in the early Pixar films, in the fonts of the Mac, in the first iMac, iPod, iPad, and iPhone. For him, functionality was as important as the heart, history, and spirit of things.

Jobs chooses three stories that illustrate clear points. He delivers them simply, with little theatricality; but with a great emotional accent.

The first story was about connecting the dots. He talked about his difficult childhood, his resignation from education, and the importance of curiosity. He then talked about discovering a line of dots that, when joined, allow the creation of new things.

“The first story is about ‘connecting the dots.’

I dropped out of Reed University after the first six months, but then I wandered there for another 18 months or so before quitting altogether. So why did I quit?

It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, single student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She was very clear that those who adopted me would have to have university degrees, so everything was prepared for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife.

Only when I was born they decided at the last minute that what they really wanted was a girl. So my parents, who were on the waiting list, got a call at midnight asking:

‘We have an unexpected child. Do you want it?’

‘Of course,’ they said.

My biological mother found out that my mother did not have a college degree, and that my father had not even finished high school, so she refused to sign the adoption papers. She only gave in months later when my parents promised that one day I would go to college. And 17 years later I went to college. But I carelessly chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings I was spending on my tuition.

After six months, I saw no purpose. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, least of all how college was going to help me find out. And I was spending all the savings that my parents had made throughout their lives. So I decided to quit, and trust that things would work out.

At the time I was scared, but in hindsight it was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

By the time I quit, I no longer went to the required classes that didn’t interest me and started getting into the ones that seemed interesting. It was not idyllic. I had no bedroom, so I slept on the floor of my friends’ rooms, returned bottles of Coca Cola for the 5 cents in the container to get money to eat, and walked more than 10 km on Sunday nights to eat well once per week at the Hare Krishna temple.

I loved it. And many things that I came across as I followed my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.

I will give you an example. At that time, Reed University offered what was perhaps the best calligraphy training in the country. Everywhere on campus, all the posters, all the labels on all the drawers were beautifully hand-calligraphic.

As I was no longer enrolled and did not have compulsory classes, I decided to attend the calligraphy course to learn how to do it. I learned things about serif and sans serif typefaces, about variable spaces between letters, about what makes a great typeface really great.

It was subtly beautiful, historically and artistically, in a way that science cannot capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had the slightest hope of practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, all of that came back to me.

And we designed the Mac with that at its core. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped by that particular course in college, the Mac would never have had multiple fonts, or proportionally spaced characters. And since Windows just copied the Mac, chances are no personal computer had them now. If I had never decided to quit, I would not have entered that calligraphy class and personal computers would not have the wonderful typography that they do.

Of course, it was impossible to connect the dots looking ahead when I was in class, but it was very, very clear looking back ten years later.

I’ll say it again: You can’t connect the dots forward, you can only do it backward. So you have to trust that the dots will connect sometime in the future. You have to trust something, your instinct, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This way of acting has never let me down, and it has made a difference in my life.”

Related: Why Didn’t Steve Jobs Let His Kids Use iPads?

Second Story: Pain and Atonement

The second story was about love and loss. Jobs approaches the notions of success and happiness not from practical formulas or classic management tips, but instead opts to look the bull in the eye. He is not afraid to talk about big, deep, transcendent, and painful topics.

In this, he winks at his audience: He does not treat them as children or students, but as adults. One of the “Pixar keys” par excellence.

Steve knows that the things that really move people aren’t immediate profits or easy outs. He does not lie saying that “things will be easy” or that “there is a quick way” to get to the places where we want to be. His anecdotes follow the hero’s journey with almost microscopic precision: a classic narrative scheme that allows us to identify with the protagonist of a great story.

“My second story is about love and loss.

I was lucky—I knew early in my life what I wanted to do the most. Woz and I created Apple in my parents’ garage when I was 20 years old. We worked hard, and in ten years Apple grew from just the two of us to a $ 2 billion company with 4,000 employees.

It was just over a year since we had released our best creation—the Macintosh—a year earlier, and I had recently turned 30.

And they fired me.

How can they kick you out of the company that you have created?

Well, as Apple grew, we hired someone who I thought was very capable to run the company with me, and for the first year or so things went well. But then our perspective on the future started to change and we finally drifted away completely. When that happened, our Board of Directors sided with him.

So at 30 I was out. And very publicly. What had been the center of my entire adult life was gone and it was devastating.

Really I did not know what to do for a few months. I felt that I had put aside the previous generation of entrepreneurs, that I had let go of the baton the moment it was passed to me. I met with David Packard [from HP] and Bob Noyce [Intel], and tried to apologize for having screwed up so much. It was a very notorious failure, and I even thought about fleeing [Silicon Valley].

But something started to creep into me—I still loved what I was doing. The outcome of events at Apple hadn’t changed that one iota. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. So I decided to start again.

I didn’t see it that way then, but it turned out that getting kicked out of Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.

I had traded the weight of success for the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure of things. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life. For the next five years, I created a company called NeXT, another called Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would later become my wife.

Pixar went on to create the first computer-animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I returned to Apple, and the technology we develop at NeXT is at the heart of Apple’s current renaissance. And Laurene and I have a wonderful family.

I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been kicked out of Apple. I think it was horrible medicine, but I suppose the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you over the head with a brick. Do not lose faith. I am convinced that the only thing that kept me going was my love for what I did. You have to find what you love. And this is true both for your work and for your lovers.

Work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you consider to be great work. And the only way to have a great job is to love what you do. If you have not found it yet, keep looking.

Do not settle.

As in everything that has to do with the heart, you will know it when you have found it. And like all great relationships, things get better and better as the years go by. So keep looking until you find it.

Do not settle.”

Related: From Steve Jobs to Elon Musk, Similar Personality Traits Emerge – How Do You Compare?

Third Story: Death and Resurrection

A hero is not a hero until he rises from the ashes. Gandalf returns after defeating the Balrog, Superman returns after dying, and Batman escapes from an abysmal prison. Heroes fall, die, and are defeated. But they come back. This motif is constant in Steve Jobs’s self-conception, and he ties it to his entire narrative arc with great mastery.

At this moment, his audience has listened to him attentively for more than ten minutes. He does not come to offer technology or business advice, but parables of life—the core of his personal creed.

Stories have the substantial advantage that they can contain within themselves all three elements of rhetoric: ethos, pathos and logos, that is, authority, emotion, and plot. In his third story, Jobs drives the dagger of pain even deeper. What does death have to do with success? Apparently, a lot.

“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.’ It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘no’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.

Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Almost a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer.

I had a checkup at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor in my pancreas. I did not even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor’s code for prepare to die.

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.

I lived with that diagnosis all day.

Then in the late afternoon, they did a biopsy, sticking an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and duodenum, they poked my pancreas with a needle to get some cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when she saw the cells under a microscope the doctor started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that can be cured with surgery.

I had the surgery and I’m fine now. This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:

No one wants to die.

Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.

Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true. Your time is limited, so 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.

And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.

They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. ”

Related: Why Steve Jobs’ Passion For Calligraphy is an Inspiration to Increase Your Creativity

Farewell: Exhortation and Moral Authority

Jobs completely skips the classic third part of a speech, where the “content” of the session is explained or delivered. He does not offer academic theories, statistics, data, or graphs.

Somehow he did everything, without us realizing it, through his stories. And in this lies the greatest of his genius. It never feels like a “class”, but it is a class about the value of freedom, identity, beauty, and meaning—perhaps from one of the people we would least expect to hear it from.

His authority on these matters is not technical: He is not a doctor of psychology or philosophy, but totally moral. He knows these things from his own experience and not from books. So, in the end, he decides (once again) to tell another story and talks about his own inspiration.

His final invitation is not a sensible command, but a totally guttural and passionate battle cry. It is not the phrase of a teacher, but of a friend.

“When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960’s, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and Polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions. Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue.

It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age.

On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words:

“Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

Thank you all very much.”

X-rays: Jobs’s Style

The Rhetorical Analysis Model that contemplates four variables (ethos, pathos, logo, and tempo) through twenty questions, allows us to observe Steve’s style in black and white. What kind of speaker is Steve Jobs?

Steve is an inspiring speaker with a high persuasion coefficient and a walking pace or tempo. His strength is in his own person. His technical authority and recognized identity make him a guru to whom people are willing to listen. This allowed him to forge, throughout his life, what his partner Steve Wozniak described as the Reality Distortion Field.

Empowering People in the Business of Changing the World | Entrepreneur® is dedicated to fueling the world’s visionary leaders compelled to make a difference through their innovative ideas, businesses, and points of view.