It’s commencement season around the US. Several thousand universities, and tens of thousands of high schools, are gathering to bestow their degrees on proud graduates throughout the United States. And that means speeches – in particular, the dreaded Commencement Address. A recent New York Times article gives an excellent survey of some of the most prominent speakers and excerpts a few wise thoughts from their remarks.
I call them dreaded because they induce so much angst in the speaker’s mind beforehand, and so much boredom in the audience’s mind during the event. The speaker agonizes over what to say: how do I say something new that hasn’t been said a thousand times already? How do I sum up my wisdom in an address that can only go 20 minutes max? How do I actually get the audience to listen to me, to make it worth my while and theirs?
And in the audience on the day, pride and happiness mix with boredom and bafflement as the speeches roll on.
Over the years I’ve written roughly on the order of 100 commencement speeches for other people – governors, senators, university presidents, CEOs and so on. On the whole, I’m proud of the results. They’ve seemed to go over well, with the possible exception of one occasion where the speaker had undiagnosed cataracts, the sun came out and into his eyes, and he was unable to read my carefully prepared remarks.
The resulting flight of fancy, ad-libbed on the spot, was interesting but a little hard to follow, according to eyewitnesses.
And my most personally satisfying occasion was when I introduced the word “solipsism” to several thousand unsuspecting audience members – in a speech that was delivered over the PA system because the speaker was unavoidably held up and had to phone the speech in.
I’m not making that up. You can look up the word.
I’ve never given a commencement speech myself. There’s little call for speech coaches on the dais; mostly the invitations go out to successful entrepreneurs, artists, and celebrities. And so here, in lieu of speaking in my own voice, I offer a few rules for Writing a Successful Commencement Address from One Who Has Written a Bunch But Never Given One. Follow these rules and you won’t go far wrong.
1.Begin by thanking everyone, but especially the proud parents and families of the graduates. Indeed, you can get a guaranteed laugh by saying something like, “Today, I’d like to thank a group of people who has worked hard, stayed up late, and put in a huge amount of effort to get to this proud day. I mean of course the parents of the graduates.” This is one of the few times I will recommend starting with both thanks and a joke. They normally slow your forward momentum, but in this case that matters less than doffing your cap to the various groups in the audience and beside you on the dais.
2.Next, tell them that you’re not going to give them advice because they already know what to do – after all, they’re graduates. This is the humility section of the speech, where you subtly flatter them by telling them how smart they are and how little in need of your advice.
3.Then, make a couple of inside references to goings-on on campus, or to campus lingo, or to the football team. If you’re not actually a graduate of the school, then get this inside information from your contacts at the place. It doesn’t need to be too subtle. If all else fails, a shout out to the winning team on campus will do it. Go Patriots!
4.Now it’s time for your story. You’ve been invited to give the address because you started a company, won a prize, or cured a disease. So tell something of that story. Just a few high points, because you don’t have much time left.
5.And draw three lessons from that story. Humbly offer them (despite their already deep understanding of the world) the three things you’ve learned along the way to becoming the remarkable person that you are.
6.Then, tell them that the world, the future, and their prospects for employment are bleaker than they ever have been before. What can I say? It’s an anxious, angry, worried, fractious time in our history. You’ve got to go dark to be relevant to the mood out there today.
7.But wrap things up on a hopeful note by telling them that they will be able to survive and thrive in spite of the dark times. Commencement means beginning, not ending, so this is the moment to inject a little hope and lightness into the occasion. Find something in their experience, or their school, or their character, that points to a reason for optimism.
Now, get all this done in twelve minutes and you have what it takes to create a successful commencement speech. And when it comes time to give the speech, relax and enjoy the occasion. It’s the one time in your speaking life when more people will listen less to your words of wisdom than any other, so the pressure’s off.
The Zen insight into public speaking is that it’s not about you, the speaker, it’s about the message and the audience getting that message. And that’s never more true than during a commencement ceremony.