In Memoriam: 5 Lessons from Steve Jobs' Famous "How to Live Before You Die" Speech

We’ve all witnessed the high-impact, visually stimulating, and engaging Steve Jobs’ presentations of years past.  Steve Jobs’ world-famous product release presentations are still influencing presenters who want to exude the “It” factor when presenting and who covet their audience’s undivided attention.

But what can one of the most influential presenters of all time teach us about delivering a scripted speech?  As the world remembers Steve Jobs on the anniversary of his death (October 5), we want to highlight five lessons from his famous “How to Live Before You Die” Commencement Speech at Stanford University.

1. Be Authentic to Win the Audience

Whether you are reading your speech or delivering it extemporaneously, authenticity plus transparency is the recipe that engages the audience from the start — every time.

“Truth be told, I never graduated from college and this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation,” admitted Jobs.

When we gift the audience with transparency, they gift us back with their trust.

Tip: Be willing to disclose something about yourself, but keep it short and to the point.

2. Leverage Structure to Serve Your Audience

Steve Jobs is best known for his (apparent) extemporaneous presentations.  Reading a speech, word for word, was a rarity for him.  Still, Jobs was a master at leveraging presentation structure, the reason why his messages were so easily understood and memorable.

Notice how Jobs outlines the structure of his speech from the very beginning, so the audience knows exactly what to expect:

“Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories…”

Tip:  Give the audience a road map from the very beginning, so they can easily follow along. For a business presentation, the simplest way to accomplish that task is by first spelling out the presentation’s core message with a succinct statement and then organizing the information in 3-5 distinct buckets — preferably 3.

3. Illustrate Your Ideas through Stories

At 2Connect, we teach that your presentation needs to tell a story. But within that story, anecdotes or shorter stories can best illustrate your ideas vividly. Notice how Jobs first tells the story, then clarifies the lesson he wants the audience to take away:

“The first story is about connecting the dots…  [The Lesson:] You have to trust in something–your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever–because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.”

Tip: Choose the best story that can illustrate a point you want to make; use vivid details that can paint a concrete picture you audience’s mind. Be succinct. Clarify the lesson it illustrates.

4. Master the Art of the Sound Bite

Sound bites are succinct and memorable statements that help audiences remember important elements of your presentation or speech.  Sound bites rarely just happen. It takes time to cut the fat and leave the flavor of key ideas. Steve Jobs was the consummate sound bite presenter:

“Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition”.

“There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Tip: Spend time crafting one or two memorable sound bites your audience can remember, then repeat them a couple of times during the presentation.

5. Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish

This was the last piece of advice Steve Jobs left with the Stanford University 2005 graduating class. You can draw your own conclusions about what it means for you after watching the presentation. However, those words seem fitting for presenters and those of us who make a living from helping presenters shine.

Tip: On staying hungry:  keep honing your presentation skills–there’s always more you can do to engage your audience and leave them hungry for more.  On staying foolish: Have fun! Enjoy presenting and your audience will enjoy listening to you.

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