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How to write a great graduation speech

It’s graduation time at many of the nation’s schools and colleges. The commencement ceremony is a great exhalation for all involved and an annual rite of passage celebrating academic achievements. Commencement ceremonies typically feature a visiting dignitary who offers a few thousand inspirational words.

Over the years, I’ve heard more of these speeches than I care to admit and have made my own checklist of suggestions for speakers. For those of you giving commencement speeches or listening to them, here’s my advice:

1. Be just funny enough

The best speakers are knowingly wry and a bit self-deprecating. Here’s Michael Bloomberg, opening his 2014 Harvard Commencement address, with a typical opening:

I’m excited to be here, not only to address the distinguished graduates and alumni at Harvard University’s 363rd commencement but to stand in the exact spot where Oprah stood last year. OMG.

Compare that with President Kennedy, speaking at Yale in 1962, who invoked the Cambridge-New Haven rivalry to tease his hosts a bit:

Let me begin by expressing my appreciation for the very deep honor that you have conferred upon me. As General de Gaulle occasionally acknowledges America to be the daughter of Europe, so I am pleased to come to Yale, the daughter of Harvard. It might be said now that I have the best of both worlds, a Harvard education and a Yale degree.

Then again, presidents can get away with that sort of thing, but most speakers can’t.

2. Be like Shakespeare

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“Graduation 2009” by Tulane Public Relations. CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr.

Keep the diversity of your audience in mind. You are speaking to students, but the students are not all the same.  There are honor students—summa, magna, and cum laude–as well as those who are still sweating out a few grades. You are also speaking to families and to the university faculty.  Shakespeare had that same problem—needing to address those in the Lord’s room, the galleries, and the ground pit. He solved it by repeating himself, expressing ideas in both the Latinate phrases and in plain Anglo-Saxon, as when he combined unfamiliar words like incarnadine with familiar ones like red.

Here is Ellen DeGeneres, giving the commencement speech at Tulane in 2009. Talking about the honorary degree she is receiving, she plays with the languages of her audience:

I thought that you had to be a famous alumnus – alumini – aluminum – alumis – you had to graduate from this school.

She speaks to both the people who are not quite sure of the singular of alumni, and to those who are.

3. Think about bite-sized ideas

Your speech is likely to come up as a topic of discussion later in the day at lunch or dinner, if only to deflect attention from other topics like job interviews and loan repayment. What will the different audiences take away from your speech? What will students say when Grandma asks, “So what did you think of the speaker?”

As you develop your theme, try to have a memorable, quotable line for each segment of your audience—the grads, the families, and the faculty. And remember that your audience can’t rewind your speech or mark it with a yellow highlighter, so be sure to illustrate your easily-recognizable theme with smaller, easily-digestable examples.

Neil de Grasse Tyson did this in his 2012 speech at Western New England University.  His theme was the prevalence of fuzzy thinking and the desire for choices rather than fresh thought. He touched on the theme repeatedly, with examples ranging from a lunch date with his sister, to a spelling bee, to a job interview, throwing in an allusion to Plato (for the faculty) and ending up with the point that thinking is painful hard work. Journalist Sharyn Alfonsi also did it in her commencement address to the journalism school at Ole Miss in 2013, as she talked about work and perseverance, and illustrated those values through her own career’s challenges, including job applications, tough days, and bad bosses. Choose examples that everyone can relate to and can talk about over lunch.

4. Avoid the “Real World” and other clichés

Be careful when using clichés in your speech. Tempting as it may be to tell the graduates that they are about to enter the “Real World” (where you have thrived), you should avoid that. Savvy students will see you as out of touch, since many of them have been working all along and are often managing any number of real life issues.

You may want to avoid talking about the value of their education as well. They know the value. That’s why they went to college. (It’s the cost they are worried about.)

And don’t tell them they are going to die. What if someone had just died on campus? Steve Jobs could get away with talking about death at Stanford in 2005 (“And yet death is the destination we all share”), but he had cheated death at the time.

On a rare occasion, though, you can subvert the clichés. Jon Stewart, speaking at William and Mary in 2004, presents the so-called “Real World” this way:

Let’s talk about the “Real World” for a moment… I don’t really know to put this, so I’ll be blunt: we broke it… But here’s the good news: you fix this thing, you’re the next greatest generation, people.

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“David Foster Wallace” by Steve Rhodes. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

David Foster Wallace took the liberal arts cliché by the horns in his 2005 speech at Kenyon College, telling the audience:

So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about “teaching you how to think.”

Wallace then used that to suggest a new perspective—that education is about choosing what to think about.

And screenwriter Joss Whedon, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, tricked up the death theme at Wesleyan in 2013, opening with a reference to the horror genre and the live-life-to-the-fullest cliché:

What I’d like to say to all of you is that you are all going to die.

5. Keep it short

Unless you are a national leader using the speech to announce a major policy, you won’t need more than 20 minutes, tops. Twelve minutes would be even better. The average speaker reads about 120 words a minute, so that’s about 1,400-2,400 words or 9-15 pages (double spaced, 16 point font). Sitting in the sun, the students, families, and faculty will all appreciate brevity.

Here is Poet Laureate Billy Collins speaking at Colorado College in 2008:

I am going to speak for 13 minutes. I think you deserve to know that this will be a finite experience. It is well-known in the world of public speaking that there is no pleasure you can give an audience that compares to the pleasure they get when it is over, so you can look forward to experiencing that pleasure 13 minutes from now.

One of the most memorable commencement addresses at my institution was given by a retired speech professor, Leon Mulling. It was just one-minute long, consisted entirely of verbs (Go. Do. Create. Laugh. Love. Live.) and received thunderous applause.

6. Above all: relax and enjoy yourself

To do well as a commencement speaker, you need gentle humor, Shakespearean universal accessibility, something memorable for each audience, both a theme and relatable examples, an awareness of clichés, and brevity. And if it makes you nervous to think that college graduates, families, faculty, and even YouTube will be scoring your speech, remember—there’ll be another commencement speaker up on the stage next year.

Image Credit: “Graduation Day” by Md saad andalib. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Peter Sage

    Very good advice and a fun article to read. My graduation speaker 45 years ago was the president of an African country and he spoke about something relating to Africa. It was memorable. The “it” was the weather that afternoon. It was hot and humid and the gowns were an extra layer on top of regular clothes. Oh, the campus political environment was also memorable. I wore an “equal” sign stenciled on a white cloth armband, urging equal admissions of men and women; the university was concerned that admitting more women would reduce long term importance of the college (useless nonworking women) plus eventual lower alumni donations. Oh, yes, and there was Carling Black Label beer at the reception afterward, chosen because it was donated by an alumnus. My father attended. My girlfriend’s parents were there, watching her graduate, and they had some suspicions about us, but thought we were being really careful. Yeah, that was pretty much it.

  2. Makste

    I loved it thanks

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