It’s that time of year again (or maybe just after that time) where thousands of students across the world prepare to ‘graduate’ from college/university/high school and move on into a new place in their lives. Invariably, coupled with this rite of passage is some sort of speech given to them by an elder. Someone with wisdom and knowledge. Someone who is charged with the task of (motivating?) these wide-eyed youngsters into an assortment of possibility. I have yet to give a commencement speech (although I can see it happening at some point in the distant future), but I can’t imagine it’s a very easy speech to write/give.
Let me explain. In the audience you have a wide array of people. There are people who are conservative, people who are liberal. There are people who are (older), there are people who are young (some still have yet to full mature into themselves). There are parents, sometimes grandparents. There are siblings. There are people of varying intelligence. There are people at different stages of development and there are people with varying degrees of religiosity. There are people don’t care what you say and there are people who will hang on your every word. I understand that many will say that the characteristics I have described are not that much different from any other audience, but to me, it feels like there’s something different about a commencement audience. Maybe I haven’t quite captured the feeling that I’m trying to describe.
So, even though you might be communicating (specifically) to the graduates, their varying degrees of development, motivation, and aspiration, could make it hard to settle on a singular focus. I think that’s what makes speeches like Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address so good. The wisdom he conveyed was timeless. It’s probably part of the reason why Time ranked it second on their top 10 commencement speeches.
Then there are speeches that are more aimed at humor. I found Amy Poehler’s address to Harvard on College Day particularly amusing. There are also those (like Poehler’s) that are intended to be humorous and insightful. Some say Conan O’Brien’s recent commencement address at Dartmouth could have been the best ever (I think that’s a tad overstatement). Even more recently, Stephen Colbert gave what some are calling a hilarious (and genuine) speech.
Like the TIME article, you’ll find a variety of sites that have lists of some of the best (or just the ones that year) commencement speeches. There’s this one of the 2011 commencement speeches from The Huffington Post and there’s also a list of 25 celebrity commencement speeches that were “surprisingly good” from ‘Online College Degrees.’ I’m a little surprised to see Jobs’ 2005 speech at the top of this list, but maybe he wasn’t thought to be the speaker that he is today back in 2005.
It seems that this time of year also motivates people (or bloggers) to talk about their favorite commencement speeches of all-time. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times liked Bono’s speech at UPenn and JK Rowling’s speech at Harvard.
There are also the sites that seem to collect graduation speeches. There’s a Yahoo! Directory of graduation speeches. I’ve also seen sites like Graduation Wisdom that actually have a storehouse of commencement speeches that can be broken down by speaker (politics, business, technology, science, media, arts, sports, and entertainment). I’ve seen some “off-the-beaten path” commencement addresses that I thought were pretty good, but were not talked about by journalists or bloggers (at least that I had seen).
What are some of your favorite commencement speeches? How would you prepare and craft a commencement speech? I think before I sat down to write, I’d want to get some statistics on the class I was speaking to (not just their majors), but if there were a way, I’d want to know where they were going after school (do they already have jobs?) and if possible, maybe see if I could have an assessment of them based on Wilber’s AQAL. That might be asking a bit much (AQAL), but it would sure help to set the tone of the language of the speech.