Thursday, April 2, 2015

Commencement Addresses that Don’t Overstay their Welcome

A version of this blog post first appeared on PR, Pure & Simple on April 28, 2014:
Over the years, I’ve ghostwritten several speeches but only one commencement address.  My client was an accomplished business executive who was invited to provide the commencement address for his Alma Mater.

To prepare for the speech, I relied on my own experience and capabilities as a speechwriter, but I also studied other speeches.  Then, I did what most speakers or speechwriters would do in a similar situation.  I tried to remember the commencement speech from my own graduation.

Remembering the speaker was easy.  My commencement speaker was Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers fame.  I’d be lying if I told you I could remember what he said that day.  I don’t.

I’ve talked to quite a few people over the years and asked them what they remember from their graduation ceremonies, and most have similarly vague recollections of their commencement speeches.

This all leads me to wonder what can reasonably be accomplished with a good commencement address.  Can the speech connect with the new graduates in such a way that it can influence their life direction?  I believe so, but it takes the right combination of speaker, remarks and a very receptive audience.

Can a commencement speaker make a good impression with the graduates and their parents?  I think this is much more doable across the board.  If you’re the speaker, you just have to know that while they may like your speech very much, they may not remember the words.  Graduation ceremonies are a form of information overload for everyone in attendance. 

However, on the content side, the commencement speaker may be able to make a more lasting impression.

Consider one of the greatest speeches ever given, The Gettysburg AddressWhen President Abraham Lincoln actually delivered the remarks, he was not the keynote speaker and live reaction was mixed, to say the least.  However, the speech itself gained traction in the days, weeks and months to come when the words of the speech were reprinted in newspapers and other publications.

Fast forward to today.  A commencement speech now can gain traction on social media and possibly through traditional media coverage.

In other words, while the targeted audience for the speech – the graduates in their caps and gowns – may not always react the way the speaker wants during remarks, the speech itself has a chance of gaining a second life thanks to technology and the media. 

Ironically, some of those same graduates who may be too busy taking selfies or texting while during the commencement address could find themselves actually paying attention to the speech later when someone tweets to them a link to a YouTube video of the speech.

So, what makes for a great commencement speech?

Based on my experience and research, here are four tips for commencement ceremony speakers: 

Try to avoid clichés.  Do a scan of your draft and question whether any of the following words and terms really belong in the speech: “dreams;” “don’t be afraid to fail;” “don’t be afraid to succeed;” “be yourself;”  etc.  It’s not that this isn’t good advice.  In fact, the concepts are very good. But if you want the audience to listen, the key is to find another way to convey the thought. 

Don’t waste too much time telling them what you’re going to tell them or telling them what you told them.  The first thing we learn in Public Speaking 101 is to “tell them what you’re going to tell them.”  That’s good advice, just not for a commencement address.  Graduation ceremonies are marathon speech events, combined with a tedious diploma ceremony.  If you want to win this audience, get to your point quickly, make your point, and thank everyone who needs to be thanked, and then sit down. 

Tell a story.  Graduation day is a rite of passage. Rites of passage are emotional events.  Nothing can tap that nerve like a good story.  Tell a story that illustrates the point you want to make.  Take your time in telling that story.  It’s better to tell one good story, than to try to fit two or three smaller ones into a longer speech.  Just make sure that the story you tell is one that resonates with you on an emotional level.  If it does, there’s a better chance it will resonate with the audience as well. 

Make it personal.  Perhaps the most important tip to the commencement speaker is to make your speech personal to you.  Tell a story or deliver remarks that only you can deliver with credibility.  Base your remarks on your own personal life story and you stand a much greater chance of getting and holding the audience’s attention.  Even when we write speeches for others, the content should be rooted in the speaker's personal experience and perspectives. 

Dr. Seuss Goes to College 

Theodor Seuss Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss, said this at Lake Forest College on June 4, 1977:

“My uncle ordered popovers from the restaurant’s bill of fare, and, when they were served, he regarded them with a penetrating stare…

“Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom as he sat there on that chair: ‘To eat these things,’ said my uncle, ‘You must exercise great care.  You may swallow down what’s solid, but, you must spit out the air.’

“And, as you partake of the world’s bill of fare, that’s darned good advice to follow. Do a lot of spitting out the hot air. And be careful what you swallow.”

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