How to Give a Great Commencement Speech

With graduation season upon us, I’d like to invite you to imagine the following.  You get a call from your college president. “Hello [insert your first name]” she says. “You’ve achieved a lot in your life. We think you’d do a great job speaking to our graduates at their commencement.”

“What should I talk about?” you ask.

“Whatever you’d like,” she responds. “It would be nice if you could keep it to no more than 15 minutes.”

You agree and then hang up.

Then what? Most likely you panic.  Few things are more difficult than delivering a commencement speech.  Graduates expect these speeches to be inspirational. They want a peak experience to mark their graduation. But, unless your name is Oprah Winfrey, Tony Robbins, or Zig Ziglar, chances are that you don’t really see yourself as an inspirational speaker. 

In fact, I’ve had several successful business people come to me anxious about how they are going to inspire graduates. Here’s what I tell them: “Forget about trying to inspire.  Instead, use your own story to tell them something that they will find helpful in achieving their goals.”

I worked recently with a very successful businessman who had been asked to speak to the MBA graduates of his business school. “I’m too young,” he told me. “I don’t really have any advice to give people. Plus it all seems a little pretentious. I really have no idea what to say that won’t come off as completely trite.”

But I asked him what these graduates were interested in. “As MBAs, most want to run a business or at least be very successful in a business.”  

I then asked him to name three things he thought were important to reaching those goals.  His answer? “Gaining the proper background and experience. Mastering the culture of your company. Passion for the work.”

I then urged him to tell some personal stories illustrating those points.  He told his own stories and those of people he knew. He then practiced like crazy, rehearsing more than a dozen times.  He did great and received lots of compliments. It was a huge success.

He succeeded by avoiding the tendency to rely on inspirational clichés. Instead, he simply thought about what the audience was interested in achieving and used his own experience to help them get there. And he delivered the message with passion.

You Tube has hundreds of commencement speeches. Most of them are terrible. The best I’ve found is still the one delivered by Steve Jobs to the graduates of Stanford University in 2005.  He made a few points and told his own story.

 

 

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