13 Rules for an Effective (and Perhaps Even Inspiring) Commencement Address

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I have been listening to many commencement addresses over the past two weeks, and I've been a listener of commencement addresses for a long time.

NPR's The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever, with more than 350 speeches going back to 1774, is an excellent place to start. Many have videos of the speeches, and there is text for those never recorded.

This graduation season, I have heard many poorly delivered speeches. A handful of adequate to good speeches. A couple of very good speeches.

Two, to be exact.

I may be picky, but I think a good commencement address is hard to come by.

My personal experience delivering commencement speeches is limited. I have delivered exactly two commencement addresses in my life. One was good but not great.

One was excellent.

I've also delivered two convocation speeches. Both were very good, in my not-so-humble opinion.

Keeping my relative inexperience with commencement speech in mind, I offer the following rules for an effective and inspiring commencement speech.

13 Rules

  1. Don't compliment yourself. Don't praise your accomplishments in any way. It is not your day. Even if you're delivering the valedictory speech, it's still not your day. It's a day for every person in your graduating class. Don't place your accomplishments ahead of theirs. You've already been recognized as valedictorian. That should be more than enough credit for one day. Make the speech about something other than the great things you have done.
  2. Be self-deprecating, but only if it is real. Don't ever pretend to be self-deprecating. Everyone will see right through you. This is worse than being self-congratulatory.
  3. Don't ask rhetorical questions. These questions always break the momentum and defer your authority as the speaker onto your audience. Also, audience members will sometimes answer these questions and interrupt you, which is never good.
  4. Offer one granular bit of wisdom. Something that is both applicable and memorable. Anyone can deliver a speech filled with sweeping generalities. Most people are capable of offering old chestnuts and choice proverbs. The great commencement speakers manage to lodge a small, original, useful, and memorable idea in the minds of the graduates. It's the offer of one final lesson - a bit of compelling wisdom and insight that the graduates will remember long after they have tossed their caps and moved into the greater world.
  5. Don't cater any part of your speech to the parents of the graduates. As much as they may think otherwise, this is not their day either. This is a speech directed at the graduates.
  6. Make your audience laugh.
  7. Never reference the weather or the temperature. If it's a beautiful day, everyone knows it. If it's not, reminding your audience about the heat or rain is stupid. There is nothing more benign and meaningless than talking about the weather.
  8. Speak as if you were speaking to friends. Be yourself. If your language sounds more formal than your normal speech, you have failed.
  9. Emotion is good. Be enthusiastic. Excited. Hopeful. Even angry if needed. Anything but staid and somber. This is not a policy speech or a lecture. It is an inspirational address.
  10. If you plan on describing the world in which the graduates will be entering, don't. It's ridiculous to assume that the world as you see it resembles the world into which this diverse group of people will be entering. Your prognostications will most assuredly prove to be wrong. The paths of these graduates are multitudinous. Some will be moving on to higher levels of education. Others will be hired for jobs that may not even exist yet. Others will join family businesses, travel the world, launch their own companies, or return home to care for aging parents. Telling these people what the world will be like for them requires hubris on a monumental scale.
  11. Don't define terms by quoting the dictionary. "Webster's Dictionary says..." are three words that should be banned from all speeches and essays until the end of time.
  12. Don't use a quote that you've heard someone use in a previous commencement speech. Don't use a quote at all if possible. Instead, be quotable. Your job is not to recycle but create something new.
  13. End your speech in less than the allotted time.

A note on #4, which is probably the most important of the rules:

In 2016, Mo Rocca delivered a commencement speech at Sarah Lawrence College. I don't love his speech overall, but he manages to provide one granular bit of wisdom that is both applicable and memorable.

“Some perspective: Your great-grandparents—and some of you may be lucky enough to have known them—survived the Great Depression and defended freedom during World War II, defeating Hitler and the forces of darkness, ensuring that their progeny could also enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There’s a very good reason the women and men of that generation are known in history as the Greatest Generation.

Well, I did some research, and it turns out that the life expectancy of that generation was just 54. Your life expectancy is 76. That means that you can take a deep breath, chill out—catch up on House of Cards and Narcos—and spend the next 22 years figuring out what you want to do—and you could still end up matching the achievements of the Greatest Generation.”

— Mo Rocca

This singular idea - that graduates today will live on average 22 years longer than those from the Greatest Generation, is a tremendous bit of wisdom. He uses this to encourage graduates to relax. Place less pressure on themselves to succeed immediately. He encourages them to take the time to explore the world. Try out many things. Consider all their options. Stumble into opportunities.

Rocca says:

“Some of you may not know exactly what you want to do or who you want to be. Your brain may be whiting out from too much possibility. Or maybe you’re simply drawing a blank. You haven’t found your passion. Well there’s no shame it that. Quite the opposite.”

— Mo Rocca

His speech may be imperfect, but the wisdom is not, and it will remain with me for a long, long time. I've already used it twice when speaking with people who I coach, to remind them that it's never too late to start something new. We have more time than we think.

This is exactly what you want from a commencement speech: one final lesson that graduates (and commencement speech stalkers like me) can use.

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