As a graduating senior, I’ve thought about what I would like to hear while sitting under the Southern California sun waiting to receive my diploma, and have debated some pros and cons with my friends. Though we each have our own ideas, most agree there is a certain structure to an excellent commencement speech, which conforms to the following guidelines.
1. Know where you are and how to pronounce the college’s name.
A firm knowledge of the institution shows respect for everyone you are addressing. At my brother’s graduation from Willamette University in Salem, Ore., the graduation speaker consistently mispronounced the college’s name (it’s Will-am-ett, not Will-a-met-ee) even after grumbles and giggles from the audience and several corrections from students.
2. Engage your audience in a story.
Every grown-up child still loves a good story. Keep it relevant to the message you are trying to convey and make sure it doesn’t put us to sleep.
3. Make that story memorable.
Speeches are remembered for three reasons: the speaker who gave it, how they gave it, and what they said. While all three are important, you can make up for not having the first two by making what you say interesting and engaging.
4. Know your audience.
Keep in mind the people in front of you: graduating seniors, their families and friends, trustees, faculty, and staff. That is a pretty diverse group to cater to, but it is important to consider their probable responses if you decide to tackle sensitive subjects.
5. Make it applicable to every graduate.
Not everyone may get as excited as you do about government health policies or backpacking through Uganda. Scripps College’s commencement speaker for 2008 was a screenwriter and poet (Legally Blonde’s Kirstin Smith); instead of droning on about how fulfilling writing is, she focused on the graduating seniors, portraying their current place in life as it would appear in a movie, on the edge of the end of Act 1 and the beginning of Act 2. She nailed it!
6. Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh!
We are freaked out enough about finding a job given the current economy and dreading that six-word question and likely three-word response (“What are you doing after graduation?”… “I don’t know”). We don’t need to be reminded of any impending world war, swine flu, or bank failure. Keep it light, keep it funny, keep it honest.
1. Plug your book, movie, re-election, or art exhibition.
While we are happy that you are so successful, we already know what you’ve done in life -- that’s why we invited you. This is the time to celebrate our success, not yours.
2. Force feed us propaganda on hot, touchy, or potentially politically incorrect topics.
While it is good to bring up questions that need to be addressed and challenge the status quo, please do so in a way that opens the topic for discussion and doesn’t enforce a specific agenda.
3. Use overused themes or clichés.
Avoid familiar quotes, phrases, sayings, advice, movies, songs or pop-culture themes at all cost. We already know that today is the first day or the rest of our lives and we are the future, so please don’t bring up that horrid Green Day song, refrain from quoting Gandhi or Churchill, and give your own advice in your own words.
4. Forget to have fun. This is a magnificent day. Enjoy it with us!