Every year hundreds of college students complete their study programs, and their friends and family come to support that a special ceremony. Probably the most important part of the ceremony is a speech given by a well-known or important person to mark the event. But what makes any one of these speeches better than another?
Graduation ceremonies are the emotional end of four very hard-working years for most students.
They will sit among hundreds of young, hopeful graduates, wearing long robes and square-shaped hats with a tassel that keeps getting in the way. Family and friends will sit behind, many of them emotional, too.
It’s graduation time. And most graduations are punctuated by a speech that hopefully sends graduates forth on the road of life.
Toastmasters International trains people in public speaking in about 145 countries. Dilip Abayasekara, a former president of Toastmasters International, says speeches have been an important part of graduation ceremonies in the United States and other countries for about 100 years or more.
Colleges and universities carefully choose who will speak at their ceremony. Schools often choose people who are well-known and successful, in fields like entertainment or business. They plan the ceremony to be one final lesson to the students, he says.
“Perhaps the public at large will get a glimpse into the forces that shaped this person,” Abayasekara said. “And they will also get a glimpse into what kind of message this person wants to leave in the hearts of the next generation of leaders.”
How to make a speech memorable
Some famous commencement speakers in 2016 were film director Steven Spielberg, who directed E.T. the Extraterrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Men in Black, and Transformers, and businessman Peter Theil, who founded the online money-transfer service, PayPal.
Most speeches offer advice such as believing in oneself or never giving up when life becomes difficult. But what makes a commencement speech truly great and memorable?
John Gabrieli is a professor of neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies memory. Gabrieli says memories are created from moments when a person experiences a strong emotional reaction, like graduation.
Gabrieli says he has seen many commencement speeches, but admits he cannot remember any of them well. Most commencement speeches are too similar, often just celebrating the students and thanking the people who have supported them. This does not make for strong memories, he says.
“What we remember, besides emotion, is what is unexpected,” he said. “So a commencement speaker has a challenge, if it’s going to be memorable, to say something unexpected.”
Gabrieli notes that truly memorable speakers make challenging statements or change the way the speech is typically given.
For example, former First Lady Michelle Obama reminded graduates of the City College of New York in 2016 that every days she “wake[s] up in a house that was built by slaves.” She was referring to the White House.
Former VOA Director Geoffrey Cowan adds that a commencement speech can fail if they are too lofty. Cowan, a professor of communications at the University of Southern California, says speakers often forget that public speaking should build a connection with the audience.
“The worst thing to do is to talk down to the audience,” Cowan says, “and there’s often a tendency to do that, or to talk in a mechanical way.”
Another commencement-speech fail is when a speaker loses her or his place and the speech becomes incoherent.
What people can learn from a great speech
Cowan says the best commencement speeches center on a single idea, like a personal story from the speaker’s life. Apple founder Steve Jobs told Stanford University graduates in 2005 about how he left college without completing a degree program. Jobs also spoke about dying of cancer and how that changed his worldview.
Cowan adds that the best speeches challenge students. In 2008, writer J.K. Rowling asked graduates at Harvard University not to fear failure but learn from it. And in 2005, writer David Foster Wallace asked graduates at Kenyon College to try and understand and value other people’s points of view.
If a commencement speech is truly great and memorable, it will not only serve to inform and inspire the graduates, says Cristina Negrut, who operates a website called Graduate Wisdom. Since 2006, her website has collected the best commencement speeches and advice on how to write them.
Before the internet, many of these speeches could easily disappear with the graduate’s memories, she says.
“Now, with social media, the speaker … ends up giving the speech not just to the university and the audience they have in the stadium,” she says, “but to the world.”