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Some suggestions on writing a commencement speech

The commencement speech is a resurgent artform. It is a cooling oasis from the siroccos of information blowing through modern life.

Yes, many speakers still think the occasion is about them; many still seek to inspire with uninspiring words; and, inevitably, half the audience is hung over and inattentive. Nevertheless, each year more men and women are delivering pointed, memorable, and profoundly inspirational messages, keyed to the graduates and grounded in the wider reality of positive change — speeches happily and necessarily relevant, in fact and in promise, to all humanity.

From twenty-three years of analyzing commencement addresses, I offer five suggestions on how to join those who do it best, those who see clearly into the eyes and the hearts of young men and women eager to apply whatever it is they have learned in whatever honorable way they can to whatever it is that is out there.

#1 HONOR THE OCCASION

Don’t be fooled or lulled by the celebratory bravado of the day. Honoring the occasionmeans honoring the graduates. Yes, there is confidence, optimism and good cheer under those mortarboards, but there also is insecurity, fear, ambivalence and ignorance. You have accepted a responsibility to offer all the inspiration, hope, information, humor, idealism, common sense or advice you can summon. Whatever style and substance you choose, make it about their lives, not yours. Your target audience is not the parents, the media, the teachers, or yourself; it’s the graduates, exclusively.

Most speakers inherently “get” that a commencement is an intimate occasion, not a public one. The best speakers understand that they therefore are deeply responsible to their audience. Your challenge is to memorialize the occasion with as compelling and inspiring a message as you can muster, avoiding the lethal temptations of political persuasion, of complacency, or of an unrestrained ego.

#2 KEEP IT UNDER 18 MINUTES

Cut. Edit. Chop. Delete. Do the hard work of being precise. Make your speech less than 18 minutes long, not a second more. Your audience wants to get on with the celebrations – not to mention discovering that wicked and/or wonderful world you have just described. There is nothing worth saying in a commencement speech that takes more than 18 minutes – even George Marshall, the only professional soldier ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize, outlined nothing less than the crucial, complex challenge of restoring Western Europe in only 11 minutes.

#3 BE UTTERLY YOURSELF

You are a virtuoso for those few minutes. The stage is all yours. You will claim success by how well the graduates listen and how well they connect to you. Know what you are saying. Feel it in your heart more than your head, for that’s where the graduates will hear you best. Emotional honesty works well in any speech. It is particularly compelling on graduation day.

So say what you know and what is truly important to you. The best irony of commencement speaking is that you do not have to be wise about the future; you do not have to try to make it timeless. Simply by being present, personal and honest and working as hard as you can to make it intriguing and useful, your chances of being heard and remembered vastly increase. Commencement speaking is self-expression of the best kind, underscored with the possibility of giving something enduringly positive to theleaders of the next generation.

#4 STARTLE THEM

As you are being introduced, the graduates, understandably, are distracted by many different things, most having nothing to do with you. You need to startle them, to command their attention. Humor, anecdote, spontaneity, of course, are effective; but also ask yourself: What might they not know? What unusual experience of yours will most intrigue them? What would you tell your own daughter or son, in private? What is most important in your life and how has that changed over the years? What might be most important to these graduates in five or fifty years?

#5 SPEAK SLOWLY AND WELL

If only for a few moments, rescue your audience from the sheer velocity of this century with a clear, considered voice.

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As you put pen to paper, these three speeches, among all the excellent ones in our archive, may provide the best inspiration:

  • Barbara Kingsolver’s (2007) is so quietly powerful and so spare, her choice of phrase so commanding and right for the occasion. Also, she remains personal and positive, even gentle, throughout what is essentially a very tough message, asking “Have we lost our courage?” and “Will we hold on to our hope?”
  • Bono’s (2005) I like for its sense of urgency, its directness, its fresh, Irish charm. He captures his audience so damn well. (No surprise there!) And his was an unusual and startling message, “Your degree is a blunt instrument. Build something bold with it!”
  • Toni Morrison’s (2004) is among the most mature, sobering and real, spectacularly so. She talks of “true adulthood”. She connects so well to what is human, leaving us with the so very graceful phrasing, “I see your life as already artful, waiting, just waiting and ready for you to make it art.”
  • Okay. I can’t stop there. My other recommendations would be Tom Friedman’s (so digestible), Lewis Lapham’s (so wise), and Dan Goldin’s (never forget family) – not to mention David Foster Wallace’s, for its fierce grip on life.

 

One final word: graduates are humans about to invent themselves, to somehow transition to adult, professional, father, mother, citizen, bread-winner, community leader. What do they know? How can they choose? What are the dangers? The secrets? The joys? How should they spend their days? You, you the commencement speaker, just might be a crucial guide, motivator, co-conspirator, friend, ally, and above all inspirer. What an opportunity! So find that gem, what you alone know, or feel, or understand. Give these fellow travelers, merely younger, your heart and insight and inspiration. Odds are, you will change a life or two for the better.

In only eighteen minutes.

— Tony Balis