How to Spot a Great Graduation Speech

by Vault Education Editors | May 24, 2010

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Let's be honest, Al Gore was right in his 2005 Johns Hopkins University commencement address when, referring to his own speech, he said: "My bet is that 30 years from now you won't have any idea what was said here." It's true--I certainly don't remember what was said at my graduation. But every now and then, someone makes a commencement address that inspires and entertains. And not only do the graduates remember the speech, but it's immortalized on YouTube so that millions of other people can experience it too.

It's hard to say what defines a great commencement speech. Some are full of wit and self-deprecation, others are serious and determined. Last year, Vault ranked the Top 10 Commencement Speeches of all time. They included:

  1. David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College, 2005
    But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line--maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible--it just depends on what you want to consider.
  2. Winston Churchill, Harrow School, 1941
    Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never--in nothing, great or small, large or petty--never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.
  3. Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005
    If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do.
  4. Marc Lewis, University of Texas at Austin, 2005
    ...there is going to come a time in your life when in order to succeed you will have to trust--when you will have to make a big leap of faith--and when that time comes I hope you will swallow your fear and get into the wheelbarrow.
  5. Woody Hayes, Ohio State University, 2002
    [H]e virtually doubled food production in Ohio. On top of that, he graduated thousands of youngsters. On top of that, he helped to feed hungry mouths all over the world. All because that old man back in Iowa said, 'Roy, if you'll go to Iowa State, I'll pay your tuition.' That's paying forward.

The full Top 10 list spans the gauntlet: different centuries, different continents, actors, presidents, real writers and fake ones. But what they all have is advice given with honesty and levity. For example: "Listen once in a while. It's amazing what you can hear," Russell Baker told the 1995 graduates of Connecticut College. "Pick a fight and get in it. Get your boots dirty, get rough, steel your courage with a final drink there at Smoky Joe's, one last primal scream and go," Bono told 2004 University of Pennsylvania graduates. "For as long as you have the strength to, say yes. And that's the word," Stephen Colbert told 2006 Knox College graduates.

However funny or serious the commencement speech, there are the top five rules that will make it crush and immortalized:

  1. Support your advice with personal experience. If you're advising them that failure is good, as JK Rowling did in 2008, then talk about how you've really failed. If your biggest failure was wearing the wrong dress to the Academy Awards, no one will take you seriously, no matter how valuable your advice. Be honest.
  2. Don't talk about current events unless you're JFK. Even Winston Churchill discusses the Second World War in general-ish and timeless terms in his Never Give In speech. Current events won't be current forever and your words will cease to resonate.
  3. Forced funny is worse than not funny at all. If you're not a comedian, your listeners don't expect to laugh roll with laughter. It's better to be honest and true to who you are and why you were chosen to speak.
  4. Consider yourself at 22 years old. What were your fears? Your dreams? Most people are dreaming and worrying about the same things at graduation, whether they graduated in 1910 or 2010. Were you scared because you didn't already have a job? Were you excited to live on your own for the first time? The people you're talking to are too. Give advice that you would have wanted. Or simply reassure them--tell them your story, how you went from scared recent grad to where you are now. Tell them there are many, many different kinds of success and happiness, and that they are attainable.
  5. Congratulate them! This is one of the happiest and most exciting times in a young person's life. Recognize the meaning of the day to the graduates and their families, and recognize the meaning of the day to you. It's a big deal!

Here are some more great commencement speeches that we think will stand the test of time.

Conan O'Brien, Harvard University, 2000
Fall down, make a mess, break something occasionally…know that your mistakes are your own unique way of getting where you need to be. And remember that the story is never over.

J.K. Rowling, Harvard University, 2008
Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of me.

Bill Gates, Harvard University, 2007
Finding solutions is essential if we want to make the most of our caring. If we have clear and proven answers anytime an organization or individual asks "How can I help?," then we can get action--and we can make sure that none of the caring in the world is wasted.

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