Mark Zuckerberg’s Commencement Speech Used This 1 Rule of Persuasion

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Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s speech at Harvard’s 366th commencement ceremony has made news for several reasons. First, he gave the speech after receiving an honorary degree from the school where he dropped out. Second, it was inspiring because it touched on a universal social desire–to have purpose in our lives. Third, he got choked up near the end when relating a story about an undocumented student he had met at the Boys Girl Club.

It’s not surprising that these elements of the speech caught the attention of viewers and readers on social media. They are emotional hooks. But hooks need something to hang on, and Zuckerberg’s speech structure provides the foundation.

Zuckerberg wrote the speech himself and he may have studied great speeches of the past to get some ideas. If so, Zuckerberg’s friend and mentor, Steve Jobs, was a likely source. Jobs gave what many consider one of the best commencement speeches of all time at Stanford University in 2005.

Both Zuckerberg and Jobs structure their speeches using one of the most effective strategies in communication: the rule of three.

The rule of three simply means that people chunk information into groups of three or four. In literature and film we have three-act plays and three-act screenplays. Thomas Jefferson gave us “three unalienable” rights. Children’s stories are often broken into three: the three bears, the three little pigs, the three musketeers, etc. The rule of three is pervasive because it works.

Steve Jobs began his now-famous 2005 Stanford commencement speech by delivering the structure of his remarks: “Today I want to tell you three stories from my life.” Each story had its own theme:

  1. Connecting the dots.
  2. Love and loss.
  3. Death.

The structure allowed Jobs to keep the speech tight (15 minutes) and easy to follow.

Zuckerberg’s speech followed a similar structure.

First he began with a theme: “Creating a world where everyone has a sense of purpose.”

How do we create this purpose? Zuckerberg said he would propose “three ways” to do it. He outlined the three ways immediately before providing a deeper dive into each one. This is an effective way to deliver information because it offers a verbal highlight for the listener. It keeps the structure in tact and previews the content.

The three ways to achieve a sense of purpose for everyone were:

  1. “Take on big meaningful projects.” These projects, according to Zuckerberg, should include climate change, curing diseases, and improving education.
  2. “Redefining equality to give everyone the freedom they need to pursue purpose.” In this section Zuckerberg suggested we should “explore ideas like universal basic income.”
  3. “Building community.” Zuckerberg saved his most emotional moments for the third section of the speech. He called out three people in the audience who were graduating. He told a short story of how each one is giving back to their communities. For example, Agnes Igoye “spent her childhood navigating conflict zones in Uganda, and now she trains thousands of law enforcement officers to keep communities safe.”

The rule of three is an effective speech technique, and it also works for nearly every type of business communication: presentations, emails, blogs, etc. Don’t overwhelm your audience with too much information at once. Give them three things and they’ll be more likely to read it, listen to it, and share it.