I teach workshops on public speaking and approach commencement addresses with caution. Many of them are well-crafted and well-delivered. Some are excellent. A few are cringe-inducing and self-centered.
This year's commencement speeches have been delivered and the caps and gowns have been returned. Here is my advice for the commencement speakers of the future:
- Keep it brief. You are part of an event. You are not the event. No graduate ever said it was a shame that the commencement address wasn't longer. Have there been great commencement addresses that were lengthy? Sure, but those are exceptions.
- Have a theme. The theme should be a message that will be beneficial to the graduates. It may be centered on some life lessons that you've learned or obstacles you've had to overcome. Your audience is always asking, "What's in it for me?" Give them something they can use.
- Stay away from politics. This is a commencement speech, not a political rally. Don't abuse the fact that you have a captive audience. A large portion of those present won't agree with your political opinions. Many of those who do agree will find it inappropriate to inject politics into a day which should be unifying. [If you want to give your political opinions, rent a hall and see who shows up.]
- Keep it classy. This is not a night club or a locker room. Dicey stories or language should be jettisoned. If something feels wrong, leave it out.
- Keep your own voice. You are you and not one of them. You may be of a generation that is distant from that of the graduation class. That's fine. Solid values and lessons cut across generational lines.
- Give them hope. The graduates are moving into a new stage of life. Reassure them. Let this be a moment of optimism and not despair. You may note challenges but your overall tone should be upbeat. They'll encounter life's stomach punches soon enough. Don't let your speech be a preview.