A Commencement Address to Remember

Chances are you have endured at least one commencement address, with “endured” being the key word. And chances are, you can’t remember the speaker (“It was some guy in a robe”) or the message (“I think it was something about success”).

Of all the speeches you may be asked to give, a traditional commencement address is the most predictable and most easily forgotten by the audience. “Commencement speakers have a good deal in common with grandfather clocks,” said the late W.Willard Wirtz, a former U.S. Secretary of Labor. “Standing usually some six feet tall, typically ponderous in construction, more traditional than functional, their distinction is largely their noisy communication of essentially commonplace information.”

It doesn’t have to be so.

To understand why commencement speakers and addresses are so under-appreciated, you must first understand the makeup and mood of the audience. Graduation ceremonies are celebrations given to astonished students by relieved teachers in front of grateful parents. If there was ever an occasion that demands brevity and humor, commencement is it. Be brief and be funny. If you can toss in a cleverly disguised message, you’ll be a hero.

Should the honor of speaking to a roomful of graduates ever fall on you, use these five suggestions to help you move from unimpressive to unforgettable:

1. Be aware of the obvious. As Ellen DeGeneres said in her delightful 2009 commencement address at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, “I realize most of you are hung over and have splitting headaches...but you can’t graduate until I finish, so listen up.”

Commencement ceremony hangovers and headaches may not be a universal problem, but the listeners’ inherent lack of investment in your message is. Those listeners – students, teachers and parents – are there to celebrate, not to learn. If actual learning takes place, consider it a pleasant surprise.

2. Be entertaining. Again quoting DeGeneres’s Tulane address: “Look at you...all wearing your robes. Usually when you’re wearing a robe at 10 in the morning, it means you have given up.” A laugh or two in a commencement address is a most welcome relief. On this occasion, laughter trumps learning.

3. Be brief. Graduation ceremonies can seem interminable. By the time you are introduced as the keynote speaker, the audience has progressed from “restless” to “easily provoked.” Want to learn how to handle a hostile audience? Speak too long at a graduation ceremony and you’ll find out. I was once asked to give a high school commencement address. The organizer asked me to speak for 10-12 minutes; I gave them nine. When I sat down, the principal leaned over and said, “That was the best speech I ever heard. It was short!” If I had known that was his measure of success, I could have made it even better.

Typical commencement addresses last no longer than 20 minutes, and shorter is better.

4. Be original. How many times have you heard someone quote Robert Kennedy’s famous remark (as inspired by George Bernard Shaw): “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why.... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

I love the quotation and its philosophy – but put it to the freshness test: Recite the quote up through “I dream of things that never were,” and see how many can correctly finish the phrase. If two or more in your audience can complete the quotation, consider it at risk of overexposure.

Yet that doesn’t mean you can’t make the point. If your example is too widely known, rewrite it, as author and environmental activist Paul Hawken did in his 2009 commencement address at the University of Portland in Oregon: “Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.”

Same message, different words.

5. Be personal. Building on the concept of originality, don’t simply take someone else’s example to make your point. Use your examples. If you have attended even a handful of graduation ceremonies, you have no doubt heard someone read or recite Dr. Seuss’s poem “Oh, the Places You’ll Go.” It’s a great message, but overdone. Instead, take the core message and rephrase it, and use your life’s story for the examples. 

A Prime Example
Perhaps the best example of this that I have seen came from Patton Oswalt, a stand-up comedian and actor best known for his role as Spence on the U.S. television show King of Queens. As he gave a commencement speech at the high school he graduated from, in Ashburn, Virginia, he started off with these words: “First off, I want to thank the faculty...for inviting me to speak here. I am touched and humbled. And you have made a grave mistake.” In five seconds, he set the hook. He then explained “why I am here and why you should be amazed,” before launching into a deeply poignant personal vignette.

Oswalt told a story of being given a college scholarship – to his bewilderment – and the local banker who presented it to him: “[The banker] says to me, ‘There are five environments you can live in on this planet. There’s the city. The desert. The mountains. The plains. And the beach.

‘You can live in combinations of them. Or you could choose just one. But you need to get out there and travel, and figure out where you thrive. If you belong by the ocean, then the mountains will ruin you. If you’re suited for the blue solitude of the plains, then the city will be a tight, roaring prison cell that’ll eat you alive.’”

As I read Oswalt’s story, I was moved by the writing and the vivid imagery. The actor continued: “And I remember, driving home from that [college scholarship] dinner, how lucky I felt to have met someone who affirmed what I was already planning to do. I wanted to explode. I devoured books and movies and music and anything that would kick open windows to other worlds, real or imagined. And I followed that banker’s advice. I’ve seen endless daylight and darkness in Alaska. I’ve swum in volcanic craters in Hawaii and saw the mystical green flash when the sun sinks behind the Pacific...”

Then Oswalt delivered his punchline: “And I missed the banker’s lesson. One-hundred percent, I completely missed it.” He was ready to drive his point home: “Telling me about the Five Environments and urging me to travel? That was advice. It wasn’t a lesson. Advice is everywhere in this world. Your friends, family, teachers and strangers are all happy to give it. But a lesson is yours and yours alone.”

Patton Oswalt’s commencement speech successfully illustrated the five strategies: It acknowledged the obvious. It was entertaining. It was brief. It was original. And it was intensely personal.

I wish I could have been there for his address that day, for it is definitely one to remember.

David Brooks, DTM, is Toastmasters’ 1990 World Champion of Public Speaking. Contact him at www.DavidBrooksTexas.com.

Graduate with Style

How does a commencement speaker inspire graduates to soar into their future? Try the acronym BRIEF:

Brevity – Speak for 10-20 minutes. This will force you to focus on the most important aspects of your message while improving the overall event.

Relate to the audience – It doesn’t matter how many accolades you have or how many letters are behind your name. As the commencement speaker, you are there for the members of the audience. At Duke University’s 2009 commencement, Oprah Winfrey offered personal stories about the ways other people touched her life. One of her stories centered on a woman who told Oprah, when she was a girl, that she was pretty. Winfrey said, “And it made me see myself differently from that day forward,” which she followed with advice to the grads, “If you can be generous enough to say kind, affirming words to those who may long to hear them, you will be a huge success.”

Inspire and offer hope – Leave them with a tidbit to ponder. School textbooks don’t teach feelings from the heart. The Dalai Lama addressed this beautifully in his 1998 Emory University commencement speech, “Education and the Warm Heart,” when he talked about a “good, warm, compassionate heart” combining with a person’s knowledge to better the world.

Engaging – Audiences relate to stories about real people. Steve Jobs, in his 2005 Stanford University commencement address, “Find What You Love,” used three personal stories to illustrate his points. Each offered a valuable lesson that resonated with the audience. He spoke about his early life as an adopted child, dropping out of college, and his battle with cancer.

Fun – Humor gets your message across. Actor Tom Hanks spoke at Vassar College’s graduation ceremony in May 2005. His speech, “The Power of Four,” described how any four actions, people or things can change the world. He discussed four letters: h-e-l-p. Then he played it as only a great actor could: “Help. HELP. HEEEELLLLLLPP!” he pleaded. Fun and humor is not about cracking jokes, but about making the situation lighter. Humor helped Hanks connect with his audience, lightened heavy concepts and made his message more memorable. 

Tammy Miller, DTM, is a Pennsylvania-based professional speaker who served on Toastmasters’ Board of Directors in 2005–2007.