Commencement Speeches: Advice From The Experts


Graduation season is upon us which means my favorite kind of presentations is being delivered in high schools and colleges nationwide: the commencement speech.  In March of 2013, I compiled some expert advice on graduation speeches in this article.  Even further back in August 2012, I posted “5 Best Practices for Commencement Speeches” including my advice to prepare, know your audience, keep it short, avoid getting too emotional, and inspire in an unexpected way.

This graduation season, we have a whole host of commencement speech experts we can learn from.  In NPR’s “Anatomy of a Great Commencement Speech,” Cory Turner and the NPR Ed Team analyzed hundreds of speeches dating back to 1774 to come up with a few important rules: 1) Be Funny, 2) Make Fun of Yourself, 3) Downplay the Genre, and, most importantly, 4) You Must Have a Message (Source).  Read or listen to the article in its entirety here.



Decker Communications gives us “The Commencement Speech: How To Rock It” with three tips on effective content preparation.  Citing famous graduation speeches from Conan O’Brien, Bono, and Steve Jobs, Kelly Decker’s advice is spot on.  Check it out here.

Entertainment Weekly shares 2014’s best celebrity commencement speeches along with video of each presentation.  From Sandra Bullock to Charlie Day, you’re sure to learn presentations lessons from watching these actors and musicians delivering this year’s graduation ceremony speeches.

Along with celebrity star power, political figures are always big on the podium at graduation day.  “10 Things To Learn From This Year’s Best Graduation Speech” proclaims Admiral William McRaven as this year’s champion of commencement presentations.  The NAVY Seal who commanded Operation Neptune Spear (Google it) spoke at the University of Texas at Austin, and Inc. says we can learn a lot about life and happiness from the Admiral’s speech.  These ten life lessons are a must-read.  Check them out here.

What was your favorite commencement speech of 2014?  What public speaking advice did you glean from watching that graduation presentation?


Commencement Speeches


Graduation is rapidly approaching, and with two months left, now is the time to begin preparing your commencement speech.  If you’re a valedictorian providing a speech to celebrate your successes and to honor your graduating class or a keynote speaker delivering advice to young people ready to conquer the world, the links below will allow you to craft a speech that impacts your audience and truly resonates.



The TED blog featured a post back in 2012 called “Commencement 2012, Flipped: Lessons from Great Grad Addresses.”  Each of the three commencement speeches have been “flipped”… turned into TED Ed lessons.  Check out the post here.

Maria Popova of Brain Pickings, one of my favorite websites of all time, writes “5 1/2 Timeless Commencement Speeches to Teach You to Define Your Own Successes.”  This collection of five (and a half) keynote commencement speeches includes Ellen DeGeneres and Aaron Sorkin among others.

Back in August of 2012, after watching a particularly terrible set of commencement speeches, I wrote “Commencement Speeches: 5 Best Practices.”  If you’re set to write a speech, this is the article for you.  Don’t make the mistake and try to “wing it” during one of the most important speeches of your life!

Last, but not least, be sure to check out my favorite commencement speech of all time by Bill Cosby.  What a perfect graduation speech!

Commencement Speeches: 5 Best Practices


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!


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