Thursday, June 16, 2011

Commencement Speeches and Why We Need Inspirational Stories

I don´t think there is a single business school student who has not listened to Steve Job´s commencement address at Stanford in 2005:

Steve Jobs did three things that made his address so memorable to an extent that the speech is now used in classrooms to teach rhetoric and composition:
  • relating personal experiences: who knows your personal stories better than you and, more importantly, who is going to retell them with same conviction and confidence? It's easy to talk about others, about things in general and something very speculative. It takes courage to talk about yourself, but then it's how you change the world and you change yourself at the same time.
  • clear structure and the power of three: it is a magic number - it has to be the three wise men, the three little pigs, the three tasks and surely, the three life stories from Steve Jobs (well, the Snowwhite is ruining the party with her dwarfs but let's ignore that for the time being, and really - seven is also a cool number). The transparency of Job's speech is amazing: a few introductory words, telling the audience what he is going to talk about, three clear and concise stories and finishing off with repeating what he has just been talking about. Textbook precision!
  • appealing emotionally and talking directly to the audience: engage not only the mind but also the hearts of people, know whom you are talking to: university students and not the same crowd as NASA engineers but they might equally relate to topics of death, love, failure and friendship. At the same time, each and everyone is a homogeneous group will respond differently to the emotional stimuli you are using in your speech simply because all of us have lived through different life experiences and one can never know for sure what strings in people's hearts and minds you'll be strumming when you are up there on the stage holding the mike with your sweaty fingers. Sweaty and at times shaking - you are talking about yourself there as well, you are putting yourself out, and it is the greatest danger and the most powerful tool you can use: laying yourself bare at the mercy of the audience and being strong enough to take it no matter which way the situation turns out.

The month of May normally brings many celebrities to university campuses to share their personal experiences, to give a sense of direction, provide guidance, inspire, ignite, provoke, console - the power of speakers is in their ability to sense the needs of the audience and speak directly to the hearts and minds of people. Listen to these 11 celebrities talking at various graduation ceremonies around the USA: (Tom Hanks is mischievously provocative :)

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