In many countries, the summer months do not only mark the time of vacation, but also the time of graduations. Thousands of students are sitting in gyms and auditoriums all over the globe, waiting to receive the diplomas that are their entry ticket to the academics’ job market. You may be one of them. You may recently have been one of them. Imagine the excitement of this milestone event, the parties and celebrations of the day and the great careers that will follow it.
And now imagine that the only person standing between these students and their diplomas is: you.
Universities frequently like to ask successful students and alumni to say a couple of meaningful words to the next generation of graduates. And there are many compelling reasons to RSVP with “yes” once you get asked to deliver such a speech. It’s flattering, you get the chance to promote yourself and your chosen career and, most importantly, you get a couple of minutes to actually influence young people at a symbolic moment in their lives.
For all its promise, however, word has it that commencement speakers tend to make quite little of the opportunity they are given. It may be due to bad air conditioning or to the stuffy graduation attire, but listening to an average commencement speech can resemble the daunting experience of being forced to sit in a sauna dressed in skiing underwear while listening to someone reciting the phonebook.
Interestingly, when quizzed about their takeaways from a commencement speech, most people will cite one of the many Ivy League commencement addresses one can find on Youtube: J.K. Rowling, Jeff Bezos, Oprah Winfrey and, of course, the famous
“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life”
commencement address from Steve Jobs at Stanford University in 2005.
Okay, so living up to these examples can appear like an impossible task if you haven’t founded a computer company, become the boss of an e-commerce giant or invented an imaginary wizard. But it’s doable. As Quartz has pointed out, each of these famous commencement addresses contains essentially five pieces of identical life advice to students:
- Be bold.
- Don’t forget to pay it forward.
- The world needs you.
- You don’t know anything.
- You will fail...and that’s ok.
Sadly, we are not here to tell you to use this as mock-up content for your own speech. It’s not as easy as that. Instead, we are telling all speakers to take this advice to heart when writing their own speeches. Because coincidentally these five pieces of advice are pretty much all you need to remember in order to deliver a cool commencement speech (or any other speech for that matter).
# Be bold.
Or in the words of the great 21st-century philosopher Ali G: “Keep it real.” (Before you laugh, Ali G actually delivered the Harvard commencement address in 2004. His remarks were deemed as ranging “from the unprintable to the very unprintable” by the Harvard Crimson.)
The most courageous thing to do in a speech is to actually talk about yourself. The go-to reflex in a commencement address is to talk about something profound and meaningful, a topic that everybody has heard about and can vaguely recognize as important. Peace. Equality. Climate. The Future. The whole problem with these concepts is that they are so vast and abstract that it is very hard to fill them with meaning during a 15-minute speech, try as you might. So instead of tackling the big questions of life, how about digging down into your own experience? Ideally, you might create a human moment. At worst you will just end up telling people:
“ ‘Apple’ and ‘orange’ don’t start with a capital letter unless they start a sentence.”
And who is to say that this is not helpful knowledge for graduates?
# Don’t forget to pay it forward.
In life, this means contributing something to society in return for all the good stuff that has happened to you. For character traits, this usually implies being kind, understanding and helpful towards fellow human beings. In a speech, it translates to keeping it short. A decent time is 15 minutes, 20 minutes tops. After that, even the most talented speakers will find it hard to hold people’s attention. It also doesn't hurt to look up some general tips on public speaking so that you can deliver your words smoothly.
# The world needs you.
The reason why sharing your experiences is so powerful is that personal experiences are relatable. It’s less important which experiences you share than how you share the story. The only mantra is: Show, don’t tell. In their respective speeches, Steve Jobs talked about his college calligraphy course, Jeff Bezos about his childhood summer holidays with his grandparents and Thomas Friedman about constantly forgetting to switch on his mobile phone. And still, by the end of the address all of them had somehow managed to convey profound ideas about trust, change, life choices and destiny - actually pretty meaningful topics after all.
# You don’t know anything.
Humbleness is a nice trait, and it’s especially nice in a speaker. While your own success is considerably easier to talk about than your failures, the sad truth is that no one wants to hear about how you made that swift promotion from junior consultant to consultant to senior consultant. Don’t misunderstand: It’s impressive, it’s just not very relevant speech material. Why is that? Because you don’t learn anything from succeeding. In the words of J.K. Rowling at Harvard in 2008:
“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default. Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way.”
That’s why your true potential as a good speaker probably doesn’t lie in your last success, but in those bad science grades, in dropping out of law school or that totally dumb career move you are still shaking your head about in hindsight.
# You will fail...and that’s ok.
And since you’re already talking about your own failures, it’s time to face another one right on stage. Not to put the pressure on you, but quoting Aaron Sorkin as he addressed the graduates’ parents in his commencement speech at Syracuse University in 2012:
“I realized something while I was writing this speech: The last teacher your kids will have in college will be me. And that thought scared the hell out of me.”
It is that scary thought that may prompt many speakers to play it safe and make their speech the smallest common denominator that no one finds awesome, but that no one will find disagreeable either. True, there is a risk that even if you put your heart and soul into the speech, you will fail to get through to everyone in the audience. Someone may not agree, may find it boring, may not laugh at your jokes. But that partial failure is still preferable to a speech that will be forgotten even before the first bottle of champagne is popped after the ceremony.