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On Graduation Speeches and YouTube
May 24, 2012 - 8:15pm

Before the advent of YouTube, I never thought too much about the annual tradition of the graduation speech – their content, their message, their performance. Sure, a decade or so ago, the TV nightly news might show brief clips this time of year of various celebrities, politicians, and pundits in cap and gown, speaking at various Ivy League universities. These were typically offered as montages – 2o second snippets of wisdom that boiled the advice to graduates down to either platitudes or punchlines.

Of course, graduation speeches tend to be comprised of those very things – platitudes and punchlines. They always include sweeping gestures towards the future unknown; admonitions for graduates to be bold and brave. Oh, the places you’ll go. Congratulations and hey, let’s be safe out there.

But pre-YouTube, unless you attended a graduation in person, you wouldn’t hear a graduation speech in its entirety. Nowadays, this time of year, they’re posted on YouTube with great frequency, and when you hear word that so-and-so will be giving the speech and such-and-such university, you don’t worry that you don’t know anyone who’s graduating or that ever attended the school. If the speech is good (and often even if it isn’t), you’ll be able to watch on YouTube. You’ll be able to watch the whole thing – all the platitudes and punchlines, all the sounds of graduates whooping and applauding at themselves and at the advice they’re hearing, all the stoicism of the faculty sitting behind the speaker.

There may a time in your life when you’re more likely to watch these speeches “live” – when you’re young, for example, and you and your friends are graduating high school and college. Then, later when in turn your kids are graduating. I’m not sure that these times are the only ones when it’s good to listen to words of wisdom from smart people. But such is the ritual. Such is the performance. And now, thanks to YouTube, you can tune in anytime – not even solely in the spring.

I don’t tend to watch these videos. I think it’s a tough genre in which to say anything new or meaningful or original. You only have 20 minutes or so, after all, to say something to inspire a room full of 22-year-olds.

The best graduation speeches are often the ones in which the speaker tells about personal struggles and triumphs, and thanks to YouTube, I’m sure you’ve watched some of them: Steve Jobs’ 2005 speech at Stanford, Ellen Degeneres’ 2009 speech at Tulane. The best graduation speeches are often given by the best storytellers. No surprise, then, that Neil Gaiman’s address at the University of the Arts’ commencement is this year’s “must watch.” (You really must watch all three of these.)

Over the weekend, I took my son to his first Maker Faire. (You really must attend one.) There Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame gave a talk. It was an inspirational talk – a genre not too far afield from the graduation speech – on “Why We Make.” In fact, Savage had just come from delivering the commencement address to the Sarah Lawrence College Class of 2012.

It was pretty inspirational, my son leaned over and told me after listening to Savage speak. Of course, Savage’s words at Maker Faire weren’t really aimed at young folks making their start in the world the same way that such a speech would be crafted for and delivered to college graduates. And that’s a good thing – it isn’t just the 22-year-olds after all that need to hear messages to go out and do something, build something, make something. I’m grateful that YouTube can let all of us hear these sorts of messages any time. You can watch his speech embedded below. But even more, I am glad my son got to hear it live, out of a context that implies that your start in the world just happens when and if you graduate from college.

 

 

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