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Rhetorical Analysis of Steve Jobs Commencement Speech

In his commencement speech presented to the Stanford graduates of 2005, Steve Jobs provides the audience with parallels regarding the college setting and his own education and career path. Rhetorically, the speech is structured in a way that persuades the viewer to respect and trust. Steve Jobs. He is able to establish a reliable relationship with the viewer which, in turn, provides him with credibility. By evoking respect, he effectively presents the audience with an encouragement to choose the profession they love and have passion for. Therefore, the speech is inspiring for college graduates because it successfully incorporates the use of structural devices and rhetorical elements.

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The speech is structured in five parts – the introduction, the three stories within the body, and the concluding paragraph. Jobs starts his speech by stating that he is honored to be presenting at the Stanford commencement. In this way, Jobs is paying respect to the audience for being invited. Thus, he creates a trusting relationship with his viewers by respecting them. Heracleous and Klaering (2017) suggest that the opening paragraph helps Jobs establish an affinity with the audience which, in turn, allows them to identify with the admired personality. Therefore, the beginning of the speech is focused on creating a trusting relationship between the speaker and the listener.

Then, Jobs states that he has never graduated from college, which is appropriate in the setting of a university. According to Heracleous and Klaering (2017), here Jobs displays humility which acts as an additional means of identification. Using humor, Jobs accentuates his own story and how the failure to receive a college diploma has not stopped him from achieving great success in the business of technological advancements.

It may be argued that the inclusion of a personal background of not completing college is not appropriate for the particular setting. Jobs highlights that dropping out of university was one of the best decisions of his life. The inclusion of this fact raises the question of the appropriateness of the given information to students who just recently graduated from one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Jobs undermines the importance of receiving a degree, which might not be relevant in the context of a commencement speech. It is unlikely that the fact that Jobs does not consider college diplomas to be useful is what Stanford graduates need to hear at their commencement.

Therefore, after hearing the speech, the audience might start questioning the purpose of their degree. Clearly, they are graduating from a renowned institution and career pathways are wide open to them. Yet, many young adults experience issues of self-identification, especially in terms of their future lives. Learning from Steve Jobs that college is, in fact, not that important might lead to further concerns regarding their chosen career paths. However, the juxtaposition between the speech of a college dropout at a commencement ceremony raises the emotional engagement of the viewer (Heracleous and Klaering, 2017). The created tension between the students’ and Jobs’ realities further increases the viewers’ interest.

The body of the speech consists of the three personal stories which Jobs experienced in the past. The three narrations are given memorable names – a “story about connecting the dots”, a “story about love and loss”, and a “story about death”. All three stories operate on the relationship between the past and the present. By “connecting the dots”, Jobs encourages graduates to understand that some aspects of the past might prove important in the future (Sarpong et al., 2018). He talks about the doubts that many graduates might have about the relevance of the classes they had taken in college.

The speaker illustrates his own example of studying calligraphy which at the time did not seem to him as a skill that would ever prove useful to him in life. Yet, specifically, this course helped him with designing the fonts for the Macintosh. Mirza (2019) states that many college students are worried about taking courses that might not immediately seem as relevant for their chosen career paths. Therefore, Jobs addresses the anxieties that students commonly experience associated with the usefulness of the classes they had taken, which is specifically important to hear for the graduates.

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Furthermore, in terms of exigence, Jobs’s speech might be a fitting statement in the given circumstances. Jobs reassures his audience that it is impossible to achieve great success without experiencing certain failures. He prepares his listeners to be ready to make mistakes because they form the necessary basis for learning from one’s own experience. By highlighting his own ups and downs, Jobs suggests that he, similarly to other people, had obstacles on his path. In this way, Jobs further strengthens his bonds with the audience. Providing specific examples of personal failures, the speaker creates a connection to the audience and, therefore, engages them to carefully listen to and respect him.

Jobs famously states that humans should be passionate about their chosen careers. He encourages college graduates to take on careers that they love following the path of passion. However, Stebleton (2019) argues that finding one’s passion and working hard does not mean immediate success. The accomplishment of one’s goals might largely depend on such contextual factors as their socioeconomic background or immigrant status (Stebleton, 2019). Therefore, offering career advice in the form of suggesting finding a passion for a specific occupation might not be highly relevant because particular aspects of the individual students are not taken into consideration.

Additionally, the commencement speech can be evaluated in terms of the three rhetorical appeals of persuasion – ethos, pathos, and logos. Jobs convince the audience of his credibility using ethos when displaying his achievements and success, being the co-founder of major worldwide corporations. Similarly, he is credible in his contemplations on death because being a cancer survivor he was once close to experiencing it. The speaker incorporates the appeal to emotions, or pathos, specifically when illustrating his personal background. He evokes in the viewer feelings of sympathy and curiosity (Sakdiset, 2018). Jobs conveys his story of being adopted and being diagnosed with cancer which are two cases of emotionally rich experiences. The final paragraph contains logos, presenting the audience with the logical conclusion to the speech.

Evidently, Jobs’s speech is successful in persuading his audience to trust and listen to him as he is a figure of admiration for the college graduates. Rhetorically structuring his narration, Jobs is able to engage his listeners and act as a reliable and respected speaker. Highlighting the importance of being doubtful and making mistakes, he actively creates trusting relationships with the audience, which is why they find it easy to be intrigued by his account. Moreover, even though the personal background of never graduating from university might not seem relevant in a college setting, Jobs uses his account to further engage the viewers. Finally, the devices of ethos, pathos, and logos are also used by the speaker as tools of persuasion and producing interest in the viewers.


Heracleous, L., & Klaering, L. A. (2017). The circle of life: Rhetoric of identification in Steve Jobs’ Stanford speech. Journal of Business Research, 79, 31–40. Web.

Mirza, Y. Y. (2019). Doubt as an integral part of calling: The Qur’anic story of Joseph. In D. S. Cunningham (Ed.), Hearing vocation differently: Meaning, purpose, and identity in the multi-faith academy (pp. 93-110). Oxford University Press. Web.

Sakdiset, M. (2018). A neo-Aristotelian critique of the rhetoric used by “college dropouts” in university commencement addresses. Journal of Southern Technology, 11(2), 211-219. Web.

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Sarpong, D., Eyres, E., & Batsakis, G. (2019). Narrating the future: A distentive capability approach to strategic foresight. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 140, 105–114. Web.

Stebleton, M. J. (2019). Moving beyond passion: Why “do what you love” advice for college students needs reexamination. Journal of College and Character, 20(2), 163–171. Web.

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