Commencement Speech: How to Rock It

How to Rock a Commencement Speech

As April showers make way for May flowers, graduates prepare to turn their tassels and toss their hats in the air. But what happens first? The commencement speeches, of course!

For the grad, leader or educator preparing for a commencement speech, I bring you a special “how to” guide for how to be motivating, emotional, relevant and humble.

Content Preparation: Graduation Edition

1. Create Connection: To Them & The Moment

If you connect, you earn the right to give them something to consider.

Remember your primary audience is the graduates. Talk about the college/educational experience. Focus less on what you did way back when, and relate more to their experience. Reference the school, the President of the University, the surroundings, the students, the accents, the late-night eats, the school motto, etc. Conan O’Brien told the 2011 graduates at Dartmouth that he prepared for his speech with the same intensity they would have used to prepare for their term papers, “So late last night, I began. I drank two cans of Red Bull, played ‘Call of Duty’ and opened my browser.” And don’t forget that the secondary audience of parents, siblings, supporters, educators. How can you connect with them, too?

Acknowledge the gravitas of the moment. No matter how big of a deal you are, or how great of a speech you have prepared, this moment is all about the graduates. Share the humility you feel to be a part of it. At Penn, Bono said, “What are you doing here? Because if you don’t mind me saying so, this is a strange end to an Ivy League education…listening to an Irish rock star give a speech…For four years you’ve been buying, trading, and selling, everything you’ve got in this marketplace of ideas. The intellectual hustle. Your pockets are full… and now you’ve got to figure out what to spend it on.”

2. Show Vulnerability

Whether it’s through self-deprecating humor, or by revealing a failure or a mistake, the best commencement speeches show vulnerability.

Conan O’Brien used concrete details to acknowledge reactions to his own failure: “I started trying things. I grew a strange, cinnamon beard. I dove into the world of social media. I started tweeting my comedy. I threw together a national tour. I played the guitar. I did stand-up, wore a skin-tight blue leather suit, recorded an album, made a documentary, and frightened my friends and family.”

Steve Jobs used rich figures of speech in his speech at Stanford in 2004, juxtaposing contrasting words to paint pictures of opposites. He said, “If I had never dropped out of college, I would never have dropped in on that calligraphy class,” (that ultimately inspired the typefaces on Macs), “Death is very likely the single best invention of life,” and “Getting fired by Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again.”

3. Make a Call

Every great commencement speech ends with a motivating conclusion. Be bold. Don’t lecture. Don’t tell them what to do. Challenge them. Leave them ready to act. What should they do – if they take away one thing from your talk? Repeat your point of view, and make a call.

Will their takeaway from your speech be, “Gosh, it was hot out there…” or will it be, “Make courageous decisions,” as Dick Costolo implored the University of Michigan grads in 2013, saying, “It seems impossible to make any impact at all. Syria, Iran, North Korea. As you go through that list, it makes me wanna sweat. And not just because I’m wearing this robe that has no natural fibers in it. I think this was synthesized from tractor fuel three days ago. Instead, what I implore you to do is know that if you make courageous decisions, bet on yourself, and put yourself out there, you will have an impact.”

What about you, readers? I’d hedge a bet that nearly all of you have been to a commencement ceremony at some point. Questions? Comments? Builds?

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