What makes a great graduation speech?

Not a bad little speaker
  1. Listen What makes a great commencement address?

    Midmorning‘s Kerri Miller with Tony Balis and Drew Grant

It’s graduation time, and today MPR’s Midmorning took a look at some of the best commencement speeches — and what makes them great.

In her intro, host Kerri Miller complained:

“So many of them are so darn boring. I can’t remember mine.”

But she said she and her guests would be exploring some of the wonderful ones out there, and she asked listeners to chime in on what wisdom they’d like to give the Class of 2011.

Miller’s guests:

Here are my notes on this morning’s conversation — they’re not verbatim — and I’ve included videos of speeches they’ve mentioned:

Miller: (Harry Potter) author J.K. Rowling’s speech to Harvard in 2008 is one of the best. (Rowling talks about about her failed marriage, being jobless and a single parent.) It must have startled the graduates, which is the hallmark of a memorable speech. I mean, here’s this phenomenally successful writer talking about failing. And it resonates because it’s authentic — and humble.

Grant: That’s the hallmark of any good speech, especially a commencement speech. It’s about failure. These kids are going into the world for the very first time, and usually they hear, “It’s gonna be OK,” or “Oh, the places you’ll go,” or other Dr. Seussian wisdom. And that’s OK, but they also need to know that failure is a part of the life. One of best is Conan O’Brien’s speech to Harvard, in which he talked about failing several times.

M: She must have surprised people in the audience. I wonder, did they expect her to talk in such a very candid way? It was very humble.

Balis: She connected, because she was authentic. She got their attention. She was speaking to an audience that probably was not sure how to react to a  British author because she was so self-revealing,

M: I can’t even remember my commence speaker, but you say they can be important. Why?

B: It can be enormously important. It’s a chance for someone to share their wisdom about the issues of the age. The best ones connect with the audience of the day. But the only real way to judge is to be there and see how they connect to the audience. Many are very predictable, and the inspiring ones are few and far between. But they’ve been available on YouTube, are more attentive to current issues, and are inspiring.

M: Drew, you have not been impressed recently, but you say you can have some key moments in your speech.

G: You have to think about what you’re saying in that moment. “Changing the world” is a very broad statement, for example. And that scene from The Graduate,  where Dustin Hoffman is told, “I’ve got one word for you: plastics.” It’s quoted at a lot of commencement speeches. But a lot of students don’t get it (because it’s before their time.)

Listener: My graduation speaker told us, “Get a library card.” It’s a great message to students who think they know everything.

B: I think the tougher messages are the better ones, where they confront some of the comforts of that generation and challenge them to investigate harsher truths they wouldn’t otherwise pay attention to. For example, E.O. Wilson’s address to the University of North Carolina. It was interesting to hear his beautiful, spare message: Your generation has to figure it all out, or you’re gonna wreck the place.

But (there’s a risk.) In an editorial in the (student paper) the next day, someone wrote, “Why did we have to listen to another environmentalists talk doom and gloom. We’ve heard that for the past four years.” But I happen to like the tougher ones.

K: We’re going to play Bono’s speech at the University of Pennsylvania in 2004.

(He urges students to “pick a fight” for a good cause. He says the future is not fixed, but fluid. It’s more malleable than you think. It’s not like a house you inherit. You have to build it yourself. )

B: He calls for bold measures, and is directly challenging students. It’s a speech that is very self-revealing and so connects with the audience. It’s one of best parts of one of best commencement speeches.

G: That’s a great speech.

B: There’s a phrase when Bono quotes poet Brendan Kennelly: “If you want to serve the age, betray it. ” It invites so much questioning on the part of the audience.

Listener: I was a law school graduate 30 years ago, and the speaker was Garrison Keillor. Many of us were going to be studying for the bar the next day, but he gave us a deeper message: There’s more to life than being a lawyer. We need to be part of that life, too. It was very memorable.

Listener: A great speech is David Foster Wallace’s, and his take on the now-cliched clichéd phrase, “Learning How to Think.”

Miller: That’s amazing

B: One of the toughest and the best.  He talks about what we are really paying attention to. It’s the antithesis of all those (usual) speeches of “Let’s go out and change the world.” He’s saying we need to be totally connected to to other people in our lives.

M: The best thing is that it’s timeless. It’ll be relevant 25 years from now.

G: He also talks about Hummers and SUVs, so maybe not that part. But when he talks about the mundane elements of life, it’s one of the most moving and illuminating commencement speeches.

Listener: My pearl of wisdom after 20 years: Build a life, not just a resume.

Listener: My advice: What you think life is going to look like is going to be vastly different and probably not even recognizable, but that doesn’t mean not good or that it’s not meant to be that way.

G: Some of the best speeches are by comedians. They’re so good because there’s such a disconnect between what you expect and what you actually get. They can hold an audience’s attention, but also what they’re often saying is essentially the harsher truths. Other people can’t say them because they’re giving messages of hope and inspiration, but comedians can cloak (the harsh truths) in a humorous light.

M: Tell us about Sacha Baron Cohen.

G: At Harvard in 2004 he gave his speech as his Ali G character (a dim, London hip-hop wannabe). His whole speech comes off like a joke, but there’s stuff he’s saying in there that still rings very true. He says the important thing is that we all come from the same place – your mother’s … you know.

M: He offended quite a lot of people, didn’t he?

G: Yes. I don’t know if a lot of people understood a lot of what was going on.

B: There’s always a place for humor. That speech may have been more of a Class Day speech, like Conan’s.

Listener: My advice: Work hard. Be honest. Be fair. Use your assets (wisely).

Listener: Or Steve Forbes at the Carlson School of Management, who ended with: “Remember, it’s not who you know. It’s whom you know.”

Listener: I’d encourage them to think outside their own two-foot circle and do whatever they can every day to make someone’s life better.

M: It seems many of these speeches are for wider consumption than for just that audience.

B: Yes, and we’ve been looking at commencement speeches for more than 25 years. Each of us commences every day into a new part of life, a new understanding. The best of those (commencement) remarks are useful – keenly so, to all of us.

M: That (Apple cofounder) Steve Jobs speech went viral on YouTube.

What struck me is that he had this very interesting experience in college. He dropped out and then just took classes he wanted to take. He (essentially) said, “Don’t let what other people think get in the way of your creative pursuit.”

B: It’s nice that these can go viral now, whereas they couldn’t 25 years ago. It’s a clear, beautiful speech, and (he admits he) didn’t go to college.

Listener: I’m a quadriplegic. I’d tell kids: Take nothing for granted. Appreciate everything you have.

Listener: Create your own life vision. Work it. Read, read, read. Stay informed. Stay involved.

Listener: Where else would you rather be than right here, right now? Live in the moment.

G: I’m not sure whether those at graduation are actually savoring the moment, where it’s hot, and they’re in this itchy gown. But there is nothing scarier (for them) than graduating college without a job. I think I’d say, “You’re going to fail, and it’s going to be scary, and there are ways to cope with it.” It’s something that those kids fear.

(So what would Balis tell graduates?)

B: We are all in this together — no matter who you are, or what career you’re envisioning, or your fortune. The main thing to keep in this mind is that we’re all riders on this earth. We need to be conscious of that in the decisions we make.

(Closing with 2004 Wellesley College commencement speech by Toni Morrison)

  • One of the best & always inspiring: Anna Quidlen’s speech from Mount Holyoake in 1999. http://amandamakulec.com/2011/01/28/a-speech-worth-reading/

    • Afriedrich

      What did you like about it?

  • I just graduated from Washington University in St. Louis and we had Elie Wiesel speak. He was overall pretty good, but our student speaker did exactly what a commencement speaker should not. He started out like every ‘clever’ commencement speech and said he wouldn’t tell us that we need to ‘change the world.’ He then went on to speak about how we needed to ‘change the world.’

    • Anonymous

      What was Elie Wiesel’s message?