Search this site
    graduation speeches

How To Write A Graduation Speech

Lighthearted but well researched advice and tips on how to prepare, structure, and deliver a great commencement address

By Cristina Negrut

  1. What Should I Talk About in My Speech?
  2. Possible Themes
  3. Four Ways to Structure a Graduation Speech
  4. The Power of Storytelling
  5. Cliches and Platitudes to Avoid
  6. How Long Should a Graduation Speech Be?
  7. Quick Tips

In this article I am going to share tips and techniques on how to select, structure, and write the type of commencement speech that works for you. Eight years into what I call my second job, as curator of inspirational graduation speeches, I got to the point where I can confidently distinguish four main ways of structuring such a speech. I am going to describe each of these options and illustrate them with many examples from some of the best graduation speeches in this collection. It will be up to you to review and eventually pick a style that suits you best. But first things first. Let’s try to answer the main question that is probably burning you right now and that brought you here in the first place.


1. What Should I Talk About in My Speech?

I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I asked myself what I wished I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that has expired between that day and this”.

- JK ROWLING
at Harvard University, 2000

Wondering about what you should tell the graduates, their parents, friends, grandparents, and faculty, and a whole rest of the stadium? And let’s not forget about all those people potentially sharing your speech on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and the next social media app that was just loaded 30 seconds ago. Well, you are not alone. Many of the amazing speakers whose graduation addresses are worth reading and listening over and over again have asked themselves and fretted about the same very question. So take comfort in that it is normal to find the task of giving a graduation speech quite daunting. Do know that this is a clear sign that you care about your message and you want to get it right. Here are some examples of what past speakers shared with graduates about their feelings regarding the task of preparing a graduation speech:

ED HELMS, ACTOR
Knox College
“So I got nervous. I got scared…I was simply scared of screwing things up. What was I going to talk about?”

MEREDITH VIEIRA, JOURNALIST
Tufts University
“I don’t make speeches. Despite what I do for a living, I’m basically kind of shy. But about a little over a year ago, Larry, you know Larry, Larry called. We traded phone calls and I finally reached him and he was on his sailboat. He said to me, “Listen, I want you to give this speech in 2008.” And I had just started at the Today show and everything I read said the show is going to tank now that Katie was gone. I said, “Listen, Larry, I could really screw up my job and then you’re not going to want me here giving the commencement address. He sort of laughed and he said, “Don’t worry about it.” And then I said, “Plus, I don’t even know what I would say to these students.” He said, “Oh, you’ve got a year to think about it.” And then there must have been a gust of wind because his voice sort of trailed off and the last thing I heard him say was, “Speak from your heart, Meredith.”
So for the past year I’ve been trying to think of what I should say to you."

BILLY COLLINS, POET LAUREATE
Collorado College
“This is not the first commencement address I have ever given. But the task of dispensing advice to a group of young strangers, and, worse, the job of reassuring them about the future does not get any easier with time or practice. Current events are no help, as usual, when it comes to dispensing optimism. The commencement address is also an open invitation to pretend to know more than you do, specifically how in the world you got to the point in life where you were seriously considered as a commencement speaker. Ask any high school or college classmate of mine and they will tell you that I would be a serious contender for the Most Unlikely Ever to Be Invited To Give A Commence Address Prize."

Let’s tackle the question of what should a commencement speech include? Tradition has it that a commencement speech typically contains life advice, words of wisdom, lessons learned, ideas on how to be successful, insights on how to be happy, and what really matters in life. Phew. Still here? No pressure, right?! It seems indeed that it all boils down to one timeless question: How to be happy and successful? Don’t we all want to know this?! Unless your middle name is Zen Master you too are probably still searching for the answers. To make this question more palatable you might want to frame it as what you wished you knew when you were 21? We’ll get to actual, possible answers, or themes in the next chapter but for now let’s again give it to past speakers to tell us, from their own research, what they found out a commencement speech ought to be. Oh, and we have some speakers that ended up using email or social media to ask the graduates themselves what they would like to hear in the speech.

SUE MONK KIDD, BEST SELLING AUTHOR
Scripps College
“About all a commencement speaker can really do is to suggest a couple of things that she believes really matters. “

CARLY FIORINA, BUSINESSWOMAN
MIT
“I sent out an email to all the graduates, asking you not only where I should focus, but what I should avoid. And I must say, you are both a prolific and a diverse bunch. I received hundreds of messages.
...
The longer I looked at the messages, however, certain patterns began to emerge and slowly it became clear to me what I think you really wanted to hear. You wanted this address to be based on my life experience, not esoteric theory. You wanted to know the best way to make the decisions you'll need to live life, to build a career, and, with that one exception, of that nameless aforementioned gentleman, you actually did want to know how a leader can lead in this new landscape that's emerging from the mist. And, oh, I must also add, that on one point there was complete unanimity: please don't run over your time. On that last point I do promise to be brief.”

RAHM EMANUEL, POLITICIAN
George Washington University
“So on this beautiful day, before these eager, wild-eyed graduates, I want to share a few stories and the lessons they have taught me when I faced tough times, when I stumbled, and when there has been an extreme rare occasion that I’ve made a mistake. “

SUMNER REDSTONE, BUSINESSMAN
DeVry University
“I’ve attended enough of these ceremonies to know that commencement speakers are always scheduled relatively early in the line-up. There's a reason for that. It's what Mark Twain called the "live frog" principle. Twain used to argue, and quite convincingly, that one should swallow a live frog at the beginning of every day. That way you'd know the worst part of your day was behind you.
...
That said, I do have a mission to accomplish here. It is up to me to utter those words of profound wisdom and inspiration ... That your mother will remember ten years from now.”

DAVID BROOKS, NYT COLUMNIST AND AUTHOR
Sewanee University
“This may be your first college commencement, but you probably know commencement addresses have a certain form. The school asks a person who has achieved a certain level of career success to give you a speech telling you that career success is not important. Then we’re supposed to give you a few minutes of completely garbage advice: Listen to your inner voice. Be true to yourself. First, my generation leaves you a mountain of debt. Then we give you career derailing guidelines that will prevent you from ever paying it off. Well, when I appear before fresh graduates, I do always ladle out some advice, but this is grade A material, tested with the scientific method. My advice is going to be about what to worry about and what not to worry about. My job here is not to eliminate your worries. My job is to make sure you are worried about the right things. First, let me tell you about the things you should not worry about.”

JOHN GREEN, BESTSELLING AUTHOR
Butler University
“The whole idea of this commencement speech is that I’m supposed to offer you some thoughts on how you might live a good life out there in the so-called Real World, which by the way I assure you is no more or less real than the one in which you have so far found yourselves.”

BEN BERNANKE, ECONOMIST
Princeton University
“So I thought I would use my few minutes today to make Ten Suggestions, or maybe just Ten Observations, about the world and your lives after Princeton. Please note, these points have nothing whatsoever to do with interest rates. My qualification for making such suggestions, or observations, besides having kindly been invited to speak today by President Tilghman, is the same as the reason that your obnoxious brother or sister got to go to bed later--I am older than you. All of what follows has been road-tested in real-life situations, but past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

GEORGE SAUNDERS, BESTSELLING AUTHOR
Syracuse University
“Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you). And I intend to respect that tradition."

JIMMY IOVINE, MUSIC PRODUCER
University of Southern California
So the question of the hour is what can I teach you? How can I help you even in the slightest way to be ready for whatever comes next? So I asked myself, how did I get here? After a lot of thought, I realized there have been two life lessons that changed everything about me."


2. A Survey of Possible Themes

Truth be told, the answers to the question of how to be happy and successful have been thought for a very, very long time and it’s likely that human beings will continue to do so for as long as we will exist. Now, I am far from pretending that I can supply you with answers, but what I can certainly do, and did was to compile a list of the advice and wisdom most often shared with graduates in the inspirational speeches I curate. You might end up using different words but basically the advice, one way or the other, boils down to one of these 15 themes that I gathered after sifting through all 140+ commencement speeches in the Graduation Wisdom Collection. I recommend you go over the list but remember to continue with the rest of the article to the important part of selecting the format of the commencement speech that works best for you.
  1. Find and Follow Your Passion
  2. Get Better at Trusting Yourself and Learn to Be Bold
  3. Do Not Let Others Define Who You Are
  4. About Those Big Dreams...
  5. Take Initiative and Get in the Game
  6. Be As Persistent As you Can Be and Do not Give Up
  7. Learn To Fail or Fail to Learn
  8. You Do Not Need To Be Perfect
  9. Use Your Imagination and Your Creativity
  10. Remind Yourself To Be Present
  11. If You Think and Believe You Can, You Can
  12. Nudge Yourself To Take More Risks
  13. If You Cannot Embrace Change, At Least Give It a Hug Once in a While
  14. Work Hard and Keep Walking the Road
  15. Try Selflessness and Give Back

Going through this list might inspire you to pick the themes that you find most important. Do not worry about the fact that it has been all done before. Remember you are the one selected to be the speaker, it is your task to inspire the graduates. Most importantly, consider these two things. First, for advice to work it needs to be continuously reinforced. So it is your job on graduation day to reinforce the message. Yes, it’s true, they graduates already heard such meaningful advice from their parents, from teachers, from wonderful books starting with the book of their childhood and on to their young adults lives, from museums and works of art. But on that day, you and only you have the one great opportunity to inspire them. Take it on with enthusiasm!

Second, picking the theme is almost less important than picking really good stories to illustrate the theme. Are you surprised? Think about this example: consider you will talk about the importance of working hard. After all, everyone, and I mean everyone, knows that working hard makes one more likely to succeed. Simply listing this advice without a powerful story or great metaphor will fall flat and go directly into the boring, let’s get over with, graduation speech. On the other hand, you can spend the time needed to enhance your advice , as coach Woody Hayes did, for a successful speech: “You'll find out that nothing that comes easy is worth a dime. As a matter of fact, I never saw a football player make a tackle with a smile on his face. Never.”

Now, if you feel it is too hard to come up with your own metaphors for the whole speech, I hope you find comfort in that it is perfectly acceptable to use quotations by your favorite authors or other personalities to make your point stand out. Our graduation quotes collection might come handy here. Just remember, you can’t make your whole speech a list of quotation. It would feel depersonalized.


3. How to Structure a Graduation Speech

In this section I describe four main options for how to structure a graduation speech. These categories are not the only ways to organize a speech however ,after reading and scanning through scores of such speeches, these four patterns emerged among the best of the graduation speeches. The hope is that having a framework for how to organize your speech it will be a little bit easier for you to write it. While helpful examples are used to illustrate these, it’s important to not get discouraged when you read the speeches. Do not put yourself down. Believe you were asked to do the speech for a reason. Moreover, for every great speech here, there are literally thousands of others that were instantly forgotten less they were so bad or boring that people could not forget them even if this is all they wanted to. Lastly, simply the fact that you came to the Graduation Wisdom site and are reading these tips on how to write a speech tells me you’re on to something good.


I. A Handful of Themes Illustrated with Personal or Other Non Fictional Stories

In this category are the speeches that have anywhere between two to five themes and the speaker introduces them early on. Most of the speech is divided equally among the chosen themes and stories are used to make the message stick. (Read more about the power of stories in the story section).

Steve Job’s famous 2005 Stanford commencement speech is one of the best examples. No further than his first paragraph he states : “Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That's it. No big deal. Just three stories. The first story is about connecting the dots.”

Another straight forward sample graduation speech of this type, and equally famous, is Harry Potter’s author, J.K. Rowlings’ 2008 Harvard University commencement speech. Here is how she skillfully introduces her two messages: “I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that has expired between that day and this.” she continues: “I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.”

I understand, you might not quite be one of the most famous CEO’s or authors on this planet. Fear not! One of the best speeches, actually in our top ten list for the longest time, is given by a teacher. Mark Lewis, Professor of Clinical Psychology gave a fantastic commencement speech at University of Texas. 14 years later now, this speech remain truly a gem meant to inspire generations to come. Here is how professor Lewis starts his main part of the address: “I want to tell you three true stories this evening. Together they make a point that I consider one of the great secrets of life and I hope you’ll remember these stories, because I promise you that you’ll need them at some time or another.“ A fabulous speech and a good example for this category that uses examples from the real world other than his own personal experiences. I consider this to be especially helpful as inspiration for the valedictory speakers who are probably the same age as the graduates and hence have had less personal experiences to use in their speeches. But not necessarily. Back to Lewis’s speech, he is a great storyteller. He also managed to produce some of the best lines that became one of my favorite graduation quotes: “The person who you’re with most in life is yourself and if you don’t like yourself you’re always with somebody you don’t like. “ So simple, so true, and so beautifully put into words.

But let’s return to the more common scenario of speeches with personal stories as speakers reflect back on their own lives and try to highlight the experiences and stories that shaped them. Another great one, also in top ten, is from director and movie producer (Airplane) Jerry Zucker given at University of Wisconsin in 2003. He not only shared great advice but also managed to be funny - a much welcomed bonus if you can pulled it off. Everybody likes a joke or two and you might be surprised, but given that the occasion is festive and the audience is in such a happy celebratory mood, the jokes take off easier than you might otherwise think. Don’t be afraid to try a couple unless you’ve known all your life you never pulled a joke in which case you might want to lighten up. Just kidding.

Let’s review a few more examples. TV host, Professor and Author Melissa Harris-Perry at Wellesley College in 2012 has an interesting one as she adds a twist to her themes. She phrases the message in unconventional terms. She says: “I've got three things I want to ask you to be as you move forward, and I think these might be kind of counterintuitive, particularly coming from a political progressive who is unashamedly feminist, concerned with racial and economic and environmental justice, but here are the three things I'm going to ask of you: Be ignorant. Be silent.Be thick. “ This inverting techniques reinforces the stories in that it tells you something contrary to the general believe and consequently it draws you in by awakening your curiosity.


II. Six to Ten Plus Themes Illustrated with Anecdotes and Short Personal Stories

This type of graduation speech allows the speaker to share a larger number of ideas and tips with the audience. The themes themselves are not announced at the beginning. The authors only mention how many pieces of such advice they will give. You can pick this category if you feel that a longer list works better for you, for example if you find yourself having a hard time narrowing down the advice to just less than five ideas. Moreover, with a longer list but shorter time to support the advice, it is perfectly fine to alternate between personal examples and anecdotes. A recent favorite of mine in this category is the speech given in 2013 by Australian musician and comedian Tim Minchin at University of Western Australia. The speech is funny, passionate and inspirational and contains “Nine Life Lessons”.

Another speech I loved for years, ever since I discovered it, was given at Wheaton College back in 2000 by yet another non celebrity, in case you were worried about that. Author and art historian John Walsh proves that fame is not what matters after all. His speech eloquently shares his 8 things that he wished he has been told at his commencement and the advice stands as relevant today as it was over a decade ago.


III. One Autobiographical Narrative

The speakers in this case have chosen to open up more than in any other type of graduation speeches. The audience will learn quite a lot about their personal lives and experiences as the transcript reads like a mini memoir. While similar to the first category in that the speakers share a handful of lessons learned, these speeches read like one life’s story in 12 minutes. Moreover, the advice is not clearly stated at the beginning. The speakers might start their stories by talking about they way they were brought up or jump to the time right after finishing school, and gradually highlight what they learned along the way. The whole speech is one glued together narrative as opposed to a few snapshot stories from different times in the speaker’s life.

I have chosen three great commencements speeches to illustrate this category and will add more as I can. Movie producer Michael Uslan, the originator of the Batman series gave one of these addresses at University of Indiana in 2006 and made it in the Top 10 Speeches list.

More recently, in 2013, music producer and entrepreneur Jimmy Iovine swept me away with his advice and the way he could open up in his graduation address at University of Southern California. Also from 2013, comes the speech by actor and comedian of The Office fame, Ed Helms. His talk to graduates at Knox College has the story since he was 8 years old and along the way shares this outstanding advice:“ Don't be afraid of fear. Because it sharpens you, it challenges you, it makes you stronger; and when you run away from fear, you also run away from the opportunity to be your best possible self.”

Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage opens up and shares with the audience his path to becoming a successful actor in the 2012 commencement address at Bennington College.

One of the advantages of focusing on your life story is that you will do less reading of the speech since it is much easier to recall the details of our own life and the speech appears less scripted.


IV. One Main Topic with Hardly Any Personal References

Last but not least we have the speech that focuses in its entirety in driving home one main theme. In my opinion, this type is the hardest to pull together to create one outstanding commencement address. But hard as it can be, it does seem to pay off. Short of any scientific evidence, it appears that these speeches are the most likely to help the speaker land a book publishing contract. At least this is what happened in recent years with the speeches I will highlight here.

First, there was David Foster Wallace’s speech, going by the title :”This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life” first published in book form by Little, Brown and Company in 2009. The iconic speech was given at Kenyon College in 2005 one year before I started this website and having much to do with my decision to look for more amazing such speeches. I remember I had it all printed out and underlined, and pulled out my office desk from time to time to be reminded of the importance of paying attention to what is. Granted, from a brilliant author we heard a brilliant speech.

Another amazing speech, by another best selling author was famously reprinted in The New York Times this year. George Saunders’s convocation speech at Kenyon College has all the ingredients to stand the test of time. With outstanding insight and beautifully crafted sentences he inspires us all to “"Err in the direction on kindness". An expanded version of the speech is set to be released in the spring of 2014 by Random House.

Type in Google “You Are Not Special” and you’ll be flooded with links to the speech that went viral in 2012 with the same title by David McCullough Jr. , a high school teacher. The speech, given at Wellesley High School graduation ceremony is likely the best high school commencement speech ever. The speaker, son and namesake of the famous historian, tells the graduates : “the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself.” The book based on the speech is also set out for release in 2014 by HarperCollins Publishers.


4. The Power of Storytelling

Stories have the power to bring the advice to life and make it stick. Speakers can connect and better engage with the audience through stories since human beings, turns out, respond emotionally to stories.

Neuroeconomics pioneer Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies and author of The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity studies how people respond to stories. He discovered that even the simplest narrative can call result in a strong empathic response by triggering the release of neurochemicals like cortisol and oxytocin.

So if I were to give you just one single advice, it is to really spend time and search for good stories or anecdotes to support your themes. Be creative! You can do it! Make sure to include this sentence or a similar one, “ I am going to tell you a little story about how…” and I will guarantee you’ll take your speech to the next level!


5. How Long Should a Graduation Speech Be?

“I am going to speak for 13 minutes. I think you deserve to know that this will be a finite experience. It is well-known in the world of public speaking that there is no pleasure you can give an audience that compares to the pleasure they get when it is over, so you can look forward to experiencing that pleasure 13 minutes from now. All the pre-law students just looked at their watches.” - Billy Collins at Collorado College

Keep it short. I can’t reinforce this enough. Anywhere between 10 to 15 minutes, with target for 12 minutes is the best length, I found out. It will allow you to maintain the enthusiasm and focus of the audience. Attention spans, it seems, are going down so much more these days so I might need to update this recommendation soon.


6. Cliches and Platitudes

"Cliches are trite, stereotyped expressions, sentences or phrases, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea that have lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse. Overuse, my friend. In other words, quite possibly tried and true. The worst thing about clichés, as eyeroll-inducing as they are, is the fact that they are often plainly true." - Porochista Khakpour , Author and Professor

To give such an address is also to walk through a mine field of clichés. Most of which I don’t believe anyway. I am not, for example, a big fan of working hard to achieve something. I prefer the attitude of Max Beerbohm who said that "the ant sets an example for us all, but it is not a good one.” - Poet Bill Collins

Below is the beginning of a list of cliches you might want to avoid. They would not add anything to a speech. If you already wrote the speech you can check to make sure they are not included. I will add more in time, I just started with the ten most obvious one.


7. Quick Tips

It is my great hope that these suggestions will help you prepare and deliver the an amazing commencement speech. Good luck!

You can contact me at: cnegrut@graduationwisdom.com

Bookmark and Share


© 2013 Graduation Wisdom