We're in the middle of the most unusual graduation season in memory. So let's look back at what might well be the  greatest commencement address in history. 

When you think of Steve Jobs and public speaking, chances are you think of his Apple product unveilings. His original introduction of the iPhone in 2007 is still fascinating to watch today, as is his 1984 introduction of the Macintosh

But if you want to learn how to give an amazing speech, it's worth taking 15 minutes to watch another Jobs performance: his address at Stanford University 15 years ago.

Here's why it worked so well, and why it's worth watching and imitating (as Jobs might have said, "stealing") all these years later--no matter who your audience is, and almost no matter what you have to say to them. 

1. Structure

The first big lesson in this speech comes less than a minute into it, when Jobs establishes the audience's expectations for the structure of what comes next.

He does it with this line: "Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That's it. No big deal. Just three stories."

It's masterful. It uses the rule of three. It frames what comes next as stories--not lessons, not advice (even though all three stories have clear morals).

And, it reassures the audience that nothing they're about to hear will be complex or controversial. If you take nothing else from this analysis, take Jobs's structure.

2. Pacing

The speech takes just 14 minutes to deliver. It runs only 2,255 words. (By comparison, this article runs about 600 words.) Of those 2,255 words, 1,959--86 percent--are devoted to the three stories. 

There are no words wasted. Nothing else bogs it down. He respects the audience's time. He doesn't even waste words thanking the deans, as most graduation speakers do.

Plus, the stories are nearly identical in length: 720 words for the first story, 604 for the second, and 635 for the third.

Jobs paid so much attention to design in his life's work. I can only imagine he was acutely aware of the degree to which people react with positive emotions to symmetry, and to groups of three. None of this is an accident.

3. Connection

The three stories Jobs tells are about:

  • how a calligraphy class he took in the 1970s led him to insist that the Macintosh computer have high-quality fonts,
  • how getting fired from Apple turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to him, and
  • what he learned about life, after he was told he had pancreatic cancer in 2004.

Of course, all three have much deeper themes. Who am I? What do my experiences mean? How do I find what I love?

Ultimately, of course, there's a note of sadness involved, as we know Jobs had only a bit more than six years to live at the time of this speech. And it makes one of the most-quoted lines from the speech even more poignant:

"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life."

Steal this speech

Jobs was an enormously complicated man -- as I wrote a few years ago: both "a creative genius" and "a total jerk."

But he also famously adopted a quote that he attributed to Pablo Picasso: "Good artists copy; great artists steal."

I think that's your license to at least borrow the best parts of this classic speech, especially the structure, the pacing, and the striving for an emotional connection. Do that much, and you'll walk away with your audience wanting more.