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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Five Ways to Beat Stage Fright

1. Rehearse. Practice your presentation so many times that you could do well if a bomb went off.  I practiced the speech for my son’s Bar Mitzvah 35 times. I was nervous but I did fine.

2. Remember that it’s not about you. It’s about helping your audience. Most presenters are worried about what the audience thinks about them. But presenting is not about you. It’s about how you can help the people you’re speaking to with your ideas.  Whenever I’m really nervous I say to myself “Today, I’m going to do everything I can to help these people.” It helps me. 

3. Walk around the block. Flush out the adrenaline with exercise. Billy Crystal does push ups. 

4. Work the room.  Introduce yourself to as many people as possible and make small talk. “Where are you from?” “How long have you been with your company?” Say anything that will break down the barriers between yourself and the audience.

5. Practice some more.  Don’t even talk to me about your stage fright until you’ve gotten in the habit of practicing extensively.  Can you deliver the presentation with the television on?  If you can nail the presentation with the distraction of The Larry King Show, then you’ll nail it with the distraction of your nerves.

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Can Your Sales Pitch Top the Cutco Knife Pitch?

One of our neighbors’ kids is spending the summer after her freshman year at the University of Georgia selling Cutco knives door-to-door.  We heard her pitch tonight and she did a nice job. The knives are impressive. We bought several.

But it struck me that most sales presentations in business are no more sophisticated than my neighbor’s Cutco pitch.  She brought out the knives, talked about them, and did a little demonstration. My kids and I particularly liked the one where we try to cut through a piece of rope.

When it was all done, she took out an order form and asked if we wanted any knives. 

Of course that’s fine for a door-to-door knife pitch.  But many sales presentations, for far more sophisticated products and services, do the exact same thing. They show you all their stuff and then ask “Do you think you’ll need any of this stuff?” 

Great sales pitches don’t start by talking about the stuff that you have to offer. The best sales presentations start by showing that you understand your prospect’s business problem. Then you present a solution to that problem.  Great sales pitches focus on nothing other than proposing a specific solution to the prospect’s specific business problem.

For example, start by detailing how you understand that your customer is losing lots of money in shipping costs. Then propose a solution to help them save that money.  The body of your presentation should then be a demonstration of how your software will save your customer lots of money.  Do that well and your audience will hang on every word.

By the way, we bought the small chef’s knife, the kitchen shears, the vegetable peeler, and the bread knife.  The total cost was $344.  They aren’t cheap. But they come with a lifetime guarantee and never need sharpening.



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What Should You Do About Your Accent?

“I sound like such a redneck.”

That is what one of my clients told me today upon seeing himself on videotape.  He was shocked by his prounced southern accent.

In fact, we get a lot of people who wonder what they should do about their accents. We tell them that accents are great. They make you unique. The only issue is whether your accent is so strong that it makes it difficult to understand you. If that’s the case, then you might consider accent reduction therapy. 

Otherwise, celebrate your accent.

Here is a video of an aspiring actress who has gotten a lot of publicity over her ability to imitate many accents.


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Why Is This Dog Smiling?

 Before we leave the topic of smiling . . . .

Have you ever wondered why we all love our dogs so much? Part of the reason is that they’ve learned to connect with us on a human level. 

Like humans, they look us in the eye and seem to know what we’re thinking.  Researchers in Hungary have discovered  that our dogs really do connect with us through eye contact.  For example, they can find hidden food by watching our eyes and gleaning clues to the hiding places. 

No one’s studied this yet as far as I know. But I’m convinced that dogs have also learned to charm us with a smile. How can you not love a dog that looks at you and smiles?

Stone-faced business people take note.  Would you approve this dog’s budget request?

smiling dog


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Neuroscientist’s Stroke Speech is True Stemwinder

If you want to give a great speech, tell a personal story.  It helps if it’s about your ability to experience nirvana.

The speech was delivered in February by Harvard neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor and has become an internet phenomenon.  The talk, in which she describes her stroke, has been viewed more than 2 million times and is continuing to be seen at a rate of about 20,000 a day, according to TED, the Technology, Entertainment, Design conference that sponsored the speech.

As of this writing, an article about Ms. Taylor in Sunday’s New York Times was the newspaper’s most emailed story. The speech is an amazing story of a neuroscientist’s personal experience having a stroke. She delivers the message with lots of passion. And there are mystical elements about her ability to experience “nirvana.”

To my mind, however, what makes the speech great is the personal nature of the story. How often do you get to hear someone who knows so much about the brain discuss her own stroke? 

The public speaking lesson here is that personal stories hold an audience.

By the way, Professor Taylor actually does a two-minute “show and tell” with a real human brain. So if you’re squeamish, don’t watch. I found it fascinating.


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To Beat Nerves: Practice Like Mad. Then Jump

To overcome stage fright, practice like crazy and then go for it.

A female financial executive for a large financial services company once called me for help on a presentation to a major trade conference. She told me she gets so nervous that her mind literally blanks out. “I can’t remember my name,” she told me. “I’m just a terrible speaker. My nerves just overwhelm me.”

We had her rehearse her 10-minute presentation 25 times in the two weeks leading up to the conference. When the day came, she was nervous. But when she stood in front of the group, her practice kicked in like a form of mental muscle memory.  She nailed it.

In fact, she did so well that she has now been identified as one of her firm’s top speakers. She speaks all the time now, always taking care to practice extensively.

There are a million little tips on how to overcome your nerves. But none are better than simply being extremely well-prepared.

Of course, lots of preparation doesn’t mean that you won’t be nervous. It just means that you’ll be ready to do well in spite of your anxiety.  

Going forward in spite of the anxiety can pay huge rewards. That’s something that Paul Potts learned on a huge stage.


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Can You Fake a Genuine Smile?

One of my favorite episodes of “Seinfeld” is the one where Jerry needs to know how to fake out a lie detector.  So he turns to George, who is presumably the best liar on the planet. George looks at his friend and, with an air of mysticism, says something like, “It’s not a lie if you believe it’s true.”

I tell you this because I am struggling with how to justify what we do with our clients in light of my previous post.  When I woke up this morning, I was a little disturbed at what I had written.

Surely it is not a good idea for a public speaking coach to tell the world that smiling can be bad for your health.  We spend a huge amount of time urging our clients to smile. 

In a workshop with some lawyers this week, I confess to using the following words. “As you do this exercise, I want you to force a big, fake, phony smile. I know it’s going to feel odd. But I want you to do it anyway.”  And of course, when they watch themselves on video, they see that they look great.

How can I reconcile that statement with the idea that phony smiles can make you sick?  Because (and you have to imagine me doing my best George Constanza impression) a forced a smile isn’t phony if you really mean it.

I’m not suggesting that you smile when taking abuse. I’m not suggesting that you suppress emotions of rage. Rather I’m simply trying to get you to realize that smiling is a great way to connect with your listeners.   And with training and practice you can learn how to turn on that smile naturally when you get in front of people.

To be sure, it will feel forced when you’re not used to it. But a golf swing also feels forced when you’re just learning. If you practice smiling, you’re going to learn how “turn on the charm” when you need to. And that charm won’t feel phony at all.

And besides. How can we not urge you to smile? As Louis Armstrong knew, smiling is the best and most natural form of connection we have available to us. 



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