Under the Hood: Steve Jobs’ Stanford Speech

Some texts feel like slowly unwrapping a present.

At first, you don’t have a clue as to what is there inside. As you peel off the wrapping paper, you get a glimpse of the present. Maybe you stop for a second and try to guess what it is. You get excited as you reveal yet another piece of the surprise and realize it is something grander than what you have initially imagined. And when you finally see it all, this big shiny present, everything just makes sense. You suddenly understand why it looked the way it did and why it made that sound when you rattled it. Now, you can enjoy the present, but for some reason, the experience is much more impactful than it would have been had you been handed the gift without the wrapping.

This was my experience reading the text of Steve Jobs’ famous Stanford Commencement address from 2005. If you ignore the title of the webpage, the text itself is untitled. Apart from the context in which the speech is given, no one has a clue what Jobs will talk about. And Jobs himself blurs the destination even further by stating he is just going to share three stories from his life.

For the next fifteen minutes, Steve Jobs gives us a glimpse into three small personal stories. Even when the events he describes are dramatic, he is not climactic about them. For most of the text, they are told like biographical details. However, each story carries a message.

And this is where things become interesting.

The Unfolding Keynote

With no title or a declared destination, we are taking a walk with Steve Jobs throughout these three stories — three fragments from his life. And since we do not know the goal, each time we encounter an insight or a lesson, we feel we got there. As often happens in real life, we think we understand something, just to realize later it was just a fragment of something bigger and more profound. Jobs hints at that in the conclusion of his first story. The “connect the dots” insight, for which this speech became famous, is good enough to be the keynote of the speech. But no one suspects it is just one piece of the puzzle.

By the end of the second story, Jobs provides us the second insight. Just like the first one, it seems to be a standalone epilogue for a standalone bit. And as a reader, you can certainly treat it that way. However, once you let it sink in, the second message perfectly resonates with the keynote of the first story. It is a more profound realization that also embodies the “connect the dots” idea. Jobs creates an invisible arc that links the two stories, creating a grander, more meaningful statement. At this point, you might think again that you have arrived at the destination, but Jobs has one more story to tell.

In the third story, Jobs returns to a memory from when he was 17, and then he shares that just a year ago, he had been diagnosed with cancer. This seems to break the flow of the text when, in fact, it creates another arc connecting the first story with the current one. As often happens in life, you reflect back on earlier experiences, and that’s precisely how Jobs structures his speech. As he gets the devastating message, a memory from his early life surfaces. The message of this story now spans across most of this section’s text. What makes it effective is that this message again resonates with the two preceding bits. The keynote of this section includes the previous two insights, amplifies them, and delivers a more established and profound idea.

This is where Steve Jobs was leading us all the time. The destination we were all heading to without knowing is articulated clearly in the final sentence. Every bit of the text, every detail in these three stories leads to the four words that we get to hear only at the very end. Like a realization you have looking back at your life.

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

Why it Works

Would this text work and be as effective if it was titled with these four words or if they were disclosed at the beginning? It might, but the flow and structure Steve Jobs had chosen serves his goal perfectly.

First, we must acknowledge the risk of structuring a text (or a speech) as an Unfolding Keynote. People like to know where they are, and at minimum, they want to know which neighborhood they are in. Taking your audience on a journey without disclosing where you are heading (or, in plainer words: what’s the point) could quickly go wrong. You can lose your audience, sometimes even literally. Surprises could be highly appealing in storytelling and texts in general, but there is a difference between taking a surprising turn and not knowing where you are heading.

And yet, in this case, the essence of the keynote — the main idea — has to grow on you. Jobs didn’t realize he had to “stay hungry and stay foolish” when he was 17. Nor did he know that when he was 30. It is an idea derived from the experiences of his entire life. Like the structure of his text, Jobs had to experience these three stories (and probably many others) to form this life-changing insight. Can you deliver the message “stay foolish” to people who have just graduated without sharing the experiences that led you to that conclusion?

The way the main idea gradually evolves as the text progresses lets it grow on the audience organically, instead of aggressively dropping it on them. It also adds an element of surprise. You really don’t know where the text is heading and how it will end. The fact that you are in the middle of a grander story is not evident as you read or listen to the text. Even on the second and third read, the final words of the text caught me by surprise. Nothing in these stories prepares us for the clarity and impact of the final message. But of course, everything does.

What helps us accept not knowing where we are heading is that we come to a milestone early in the text. As the first story ends with an explicit lesson, we now feel we know the destination. We don’t really because we are just beginning the journey, but it is enough to calm our minds. Breaking the text into three different stories and creating the feeling of arriving somewhere after each mask that we really don’t know where Steve Jobs is leading us. When you use the Unfolding Keynote pattern, give the audience something that creates a sense of direction early on. Don’t keep them entirely in the dark for a long time.

Articulating smaller ideas along the text is vital for another reason. As each idea resonates with the previous ones, it creates amplification. These are not just decoys planted along the way. They are part of the grander message. With each of them, you get a glimpse of the gift — a new detail that creates excitement. And yet you still don’t know the complete picture.

Steve Jobs’ speech is a perfect example for unfolding a keynote as this structure embodies the idea that Jobs wants to convey in his speech. How can you tell a story about a lesson it took your entire life to form by stating it upfront? Gradually unfolding the idea with the audience is a perfect analogy to how Jobs has crafted this realization.

You can use the Unfolding Keynote pattern for various kinds of texts and with different stories. As long as you are doing it consciously and use it with care.

Use With Care

Steve Jobs is a well-known persona. The audience knows him. He can start talking without setting the direction, and the audience is likely to trust him to lead them on this journey. That is an essential factor in reducing the risk of leaving your audience in the dark. When Jobs promises to tell three stories about his life, the audience becomes engaged because who wouldn’t want to listen to personal stories from a famous person. A less known speaker might have encountered a less patient audience.

The context in which this text was initially delivered is also important. It is the kind of event where you don’t really need to declare anything in advance. The text still works when you read it years later and in a different context, but as stated above, the editors of the transcribed version already gave it a kind of a title (though not “the right” one).

And finally, I can imagine some topics which do not go well with this structure. The personal nature of Steve Jobs’ speech and the fact that its keynote is about a life lesson go perfectly with this pattern. On the other extreme, if the topic you are writing about is of technical nature, it might be much more difficult for the audience to follow blindly. In between, there is, of course, a vast spectrum of topics and nuances.

When using the Unfolding Keynote pattern, consider how long the audience will follow you blindly before they get a sense of direction. Take into account the nature of the audience, how they perceive you, and the kind of topic you are writing or talking about. All these aspects will affect the effectiveness (or risk) of using this pattern.

Reflect

How did you feel listening to or reading Steve Jobs’ speech? Consider what in the text affected your feeling, and was it a positive experience.

Play

Pick a random text from your reading list (or any other type of short-form content). Identify where the author sets a clear sense of direction or defines the destination (starting from the title of the content). Try to structure the same content using the Unfolding Keynote pattern and consider what works better.

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