When Steve Jobs made his Commencement speech to the graduating students of Standford University in 2005, he was already a business icon and in possession of a powerful personal brand which was widely admired. His expertise at marketing beautifully designed technology was matched only by his genius at marketing himself as an entrepreneur and leader. While the Mac brand is disseminated mainly through product imagery, its founder’s preferred means were personal appearances at launches and the stories he would tell to his audience.
So why make did he make stories such a major tool for promoting himself?
We are all adept at telling stories about ourselves. Despite all the arbitrary events and apparent randomness of large sections of our lives, we can’t help shaping our experience into something meaningful.
The stories we tell about ourselves to great extent determine our own view of who we are – maverick outsider or girl-next-door, resourceful or cheated by fate, inspired visionary or determined grafter, or possessing a myriad of other qualities or traits. The more we recount the events of our lives in a particular way, the more we come to be convinced by this version of ourselves.
That said, the story may change over time. Our genre may shift depending on our current emotional state. In low mood, we might be relating a sob story. In a more jocular frame of mind, the same set of events might take on a comic turn.
Because we all tell stories, we have the perfect vehicle for presenting ourselves to others in such way in which we would like to be seen.
When storytelling to others, we may be adjusting tone, selecting where to focus or which details to leave in or out, depending on our relationship with our audience. Or depending on how we would like that relationship to be.
Stories are much more effective than listing a set of attributes – resourceful, hard-working, open-minded, etc… – which by themselves are not necessarily credible.
For instance, I always recommend that candidates for job interviews mine their previous experiences for a true story that demonstrates talents with which they can hold their interviewers’ attention.
For good measure, I suggest they dramatise any problem they’ve encountered and paint it very darkly indeed before explaining what they did to resolve it. They can be as self-deprecating in tone as they wish, as long the story ends with the problem fixed by their action. This action must epitomise their personal ingenuity, fast-thinking, empathy – whichever talent fits the bill. They never need to describe themselves as ingenious, etc… , but that will be the impact made.
Surprisingly, sometimes people find it difficult to think of a suitable story to tell. These people are often obviously skilled with a good grasp of how to relate to others. And yet I have to tease it out of them!
Perhaps the story they’ve internalised is that of a small problem which didn’t require any special skills to overcome. In other words, they’ve been telling themselves a story which minimises their abilities rather than one which gives them their due. That’s the reality they’ve created with their story. And that’s the reality that they will present to potential employers – unless they’re prepared to rethink their own life story.
The art of getting a story to create reality
A masterclass in using stories to give you more bang for your buck can be gleaned from the Commencement speech that Steve Jobs gave at Stanford University. For the full transcript, look here: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html , and for a recording look here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VHWUCX6osgM
“Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. No big deal. Just three stories.”
This is the deliberately underplayed opening. The signposting is, however, neat. We get just enough to appreciate there will be a structure but there are no spoilers about what is to come. So, Jobs creates some anticipation.
Each story is signposted as to what themes will arise, yet each time he sets up expectations which he later overthrows.
The first story, he says, is about connecting dots. He goes on to begin the story “It started before I was born.” By the conclusion, the story which initially we have been directed to understand in terms of birth and destiny turns out instead to be about happy accidents.
One might assume that the second story, which is billed as “a story about love and loss”, would be a romantic tale about his marriage. It’s actually boy sets up computer company in garage, boy gets fired by his computer company, boy returns to computer company as hero and CEO. His wife barely gets a look in.
The subject of the third story is starkly introduced: death. In a rather moving section which shifts fluidly from the abstract to the personal, the expectation he set up earlier about a love story are finally fulfilled as Jobs expresses his regret that dying means leaving his family too soon. In a finely crafted sentence, the plot does a 180º turn. The doctors weep as they realise that, against all odds, Job’s cancer is operable and he is granted a reprieve. “I had the surgery,” he says. “And I’m fine now.”
No event turns out to be for no reason. Job’s narrative voice shifts backwards and forwards in time, allowing him to direct the audience’s attention to how seemingly irrelevant details become the keys to success. Just as Cinderella’s lost slipper reconnects her to her Prince, Jobs’ casual interest calligraphy launches a font revolution in personal computers.
All three stories are actually about redemption in their different ways, which was likely very close to Jobs’s own view on his life. They also served a useful specific purpose in the context in which this speech was delivered, to an audience of young men and women graduating from Standford that summer 2005, starting their own careers.
It is not too far fetched to claim that this speech has messianic ambitions. The protagonist suffers and is reborn, each time newly wedded to his work. Jobs exhorts his audience to echo his own relationship with work: “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” He urges them repeatedly, “Don’t settle.” These calls to action would have less force, however, even coming from Steve Jobs, without these authentic stories to demonstrate their essential truth.
It’s impossible to say how much others would supply corroborating or contradicting evidence for these self-fashioned myths. But the telling of these stories in that moment, and also in their afterlife on YouTube and in the transcribed text, will give these myths a definitive cast.
Steve Jobs is not the only technology giant who has benefitted himself and his corporation through the persuasive power of stories. Similarly, the Hollywood movie The Social Network has become the founding myth of the Facebook story, drowning out any other heterodoxies.
It’s also the reason that party political leaders bolster what Aristotle would have called their “ethos”, or appeal to character, with stories about growing up in an ordinary family. Conference speeches are full of anecdotes about humble immigrant origins or fathers getting on bikes to find work. On the surface, these life stories are not pertinent to policy, but they offer a chance to connect with a disparate audience over values.
Stories really are the art of creating reality.