Commence becoming a good commencement speaker for graduation season

By Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton, Contributors

It’s graduation season, and with that comes joy, trepidation, and the graduation speech. 

What an honor to be the one to stand behind a podium and behold the *** cheeks, flush with last night’s celebratory beer and the brightness of the future, while nearby the wide eyes of parents and grandparents grapple with both pride and relief! Who wouldn’t want to bless those hopeful faces, offer them sage advice and speed them on their way? There are 3,046 four year colleges in this country, which means every year 3,046 graduation committees are looking for someone to deliver that most honored of traditions, their commencement address.

It could be you. 

But it probably won’t be you. Don’t worry, it won’t be me either. But if you are a tech CEO (who didn’t drop out of college), a Pulitzer Prize winning historian, or a TV personality with a rugged childhood but a plucky demeanor and a meteoric rise to fame, or you just plain make a lot of money, it really might be you. If so, you should be prepared. Or may I be so bold, as someone who faces a lifetime of future graduations: you MUST be prepared. 

The ceremonies are grueling enough, with their poor temperature regulation, and puzzling rituals (what’s with the weird hats, really.) But there’s also our dread: will the main speaker be worthy? Will the speech be both stirring and mercifully short? Or will we be pelted with one word clichés – “rewarding” “fulfilling” “explore” “dream” – and tired exhortations to “follow your path” and “challenge yourself”? (all mind numbing clichés in this essay are transcribed from a real commencement speech.) 

Luckily the internet is chock full of graduation speeches you can learn from. Every year the best are exalted and go viral. The bad ones get a lot of play too, if not on a respectable culture site, on Youtube or Facebook. For this reason your future audience will no longer sympathize when you tell those bushy-tailed young people (and some older ones of course – there was a man of 52 at the last ceremony at which I was present) about the “gardens that you’ll plant,” the “safe harbors” to eschew, the “enrichment” and “passion” that lies ahead. Unlike those that went before, you have a treasure trove of Do’s and Don’ts to study, hours of analysis to enjoy. It’s your duty to make the best of it, and emerge a talented speaker with a keen sense of what works. These days if you fail to take full advantage of what technology is offering – a slew of free and informal instruction on the effective commencement address – and once at the podium advise spirit and enthusiasm or exhort everyone to look toward the horizon, we will be cruel and unforgiving. That click you will hear will be our brains turning off and our phones turning on to play Words with Friends while you drone on. 

I attended a ceremony last week, was pleased to find that it was mercifully short (two hours), a little edgy (men on stilts, a marching band in lace and bowties) and featured a fascinating speaker (a *** woman and overall superstar.) The audience was loud and responsive and the graduates were giddy. The main speaker bowled us over with her inspiring (sorry) life story, and even though she failed to use the sparkling anecdotes that elevate a good speech to a great one, she left some of us teary, most of us impressed, and a few a little shocked.

It’s never too early to start thinking about the message you’ll give at the commencement you’ll be invited to, and begin scrolling through the speeches that have both empowered and bombed.  When your turn finally comes, your gilded advice will make hearts soar. Thank you in advance.

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