Commencement Speeches: 5 Best Practices

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Today, some of the most precious of the precious angels graduated from Full Sail University.  Congratulating both Entertainment and Music Business graduates meant watching several commencement speeches… some great and some not so great.  Here are five best practices for writing and delivering a stellar commencement speech:

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1.  Prepare:  You’re delivering a speech at a commencement ceremony for one of two reasons: because you’re a very special guest and the keynote speaker or because you are the valedictorian, a special graduate.  No matter who you are, you must prepare for your speech.  If you think, “I’m just going to wing it,” I can assure you, the speech won’t go over well.

Yes, it seems obvious.  No, not everyone does it.

Imagine how many people are in your audience.  Each person is giving up valuable time to listen to you speak.  It’s your job to make that speech worth their time.  In How To Be A Presentation God, Scott Schwertly brings up an excellent point.  Imagine you have 100 people in your audience, and you plan to give a 5 minute speech.  Collectively, that’s 500 minutes of time people are spending with you.  Make sure it’s worth the investment.

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2.  Know your audience:  It goes hand-in-hand with your preparation, yet so many people skip the step.  Imagine who sits in the audience of a graduation.  First, of course, you have the graduates.  Next, you have family and close friends of the graduates.  Last, you have faculty and staff at the educational facility.

Imagine the state of mind of these people.  What are graduates thinking and feeling?  How does the father of a graduate feel?  The mother?  The younger sibling?  The professor?

You may think this speech is all about you.  You’ve worked hard to become the valedictorian; you’ve earned your 10 minutes at the podium.  However, consider this… If you’re lucky, a few rows of that audience is there to see and support you.  Otherwise, that audience doesn’t know who you are, and they certainly don’t care to sit through 10 minutes of selfish talk that has nothing to do with them.  Thinking about who is in your audience will allow you to make a speech that will impact them.  Don’t you want those 10 minutes to be remembered, treasured, and valued?  Then make sure to prepare 10 minutes that will touch the minds and hearts of everyone listening.

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3.  Keep it short.  Let’s get real.  Nobody likes sitting through hours of speeches… this is probably because most speeches suck.  At a graduation, the speeches never seem to end.  The year after I graduated, my high school boasted about 8 valedictorians.  The people who attended that particular commencement ceremony said it was the longest and most boring time of their lives.

People sitting in the audience see the graduation ceremony as a formality.  They enjoy the moment their loved one walks across the stage and receives that diploma; otherwise, the rest of the ceremony is a snoozefest.

Honor the audience’s desire to celebrate; to hug and take pictures with their graduate; and to allow the graduates themselves ample time to mix and mingle with families in attendance.

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4.  Avoid getting too emotional.  At my own graduation many years ago, one speaker spent most of her speech crying over her past mistakes and apologizing to her loved ones.  No one in the audience had any idea what she was talking about, nor did anyone care.  Instead, some of us shifted in our seats, uncomfortable and wishing she would hurry and sit down.  Others leaned close to the person sitting beside us, whispering and gossiping about what she could have been apologizing for.  The scandals we came up with were likely more dramatic than what she was apologizing for in the first place.

A formal setting such as a graduation is not your home; make certain to save any private, personal, overly emotional talk for your loved ones’ ears only.

Now, a few tears can slip out.  You’re graduating!  A bit of emotion is positive!  But crying and bumbling incoherently for 9 out of the 10 minutes you’re speaking is certainly not a good thing.

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5.  Unexpectedly inspire.  You can use a story, a quote, or a bit of humor, but, again, you are addressing happy people.  Inspire fellow graduates to succeed, and make family members proud of those graduates.  Today, for example, one young lady used a Joe Dirt quote to conclude her presentation:

“Life’s a garden.  Dig it” (Source).

My favorite commencement speech of all time was delivered by Bill Cosby, keynote speaker at the Carnegie Mellon 2007 graduation ceremony.  Enjoy!

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Have you watched a commencement speech that resonated with you?  What were the qualities of that presentation?

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3 thoughts on “Commencement Speeches: 5 Best Practices

  1. Hey Alex. I bookmarked this post because I am graduating on 10/26 and at this moment have a 4.0 g.p.a. I suspect that may grant me the title of valedictorian and the honor of giving a speech, something that would bring me great joy. Since I would be flying in from out-of-town, it would be nice to know this ahead of time. An inquiry with my advisor today revealed that I will not be informed of this decision until THE DAY OF GRADUATION. I guess that means that I will prepare a speech “just in case.” I think this is crazy. Is this what all the graduates from Full Sail have to do? Prepare a speech with no idea if they will get to give it? Or NOT prepare a speech and suddenly learn that one is expected of them?

    • Hey Debi, 4.0! Oh my goodness! That is so exciting. Email me, and we’ll make sure you have something awesome in mind just in case. I can’t wait to attend graduation and see your hard work pay off on that stage. Best, Alex

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