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5 Ways to Ruin a Commencement Speech

Thumbs down to these narcissistic, cliched, predictable speakers.

by
Jeanette Pryor

Bio

June 22, 2012 - 7:00 am

5. Use, in any capacity or form whatsoever, the expression “change the world”

Yes, it really happened. Not a kindergartner filling out the ”What I Want to Do When I Grow Up” form, but a world-renowned physician actually employed the exhausted derivative of the middle-Paleolithic cliche “take on world hunger.” Another speaker fell from linguistic grace by reassuring students that she did not expect them to “change the world.” Oddly, this reassurance failed to elicit audible sighs of relief, almost as if none of the students were laboring under the impression that universal salvation would figure in their future job descriptions.

This is not to say that students should approach life in a selfish way or eschew the desire to better the society in which they live. What is objectionable is resorting to tired platitudes devoid of actual substance. If $200,000 worth of history teaches students anything, it is that most people who set out to “change the world” usually exterminate large portions of its inhabitants. Substantive role models, those who ought to be presented in place of vague ideals, are those who set out to better themselves, improving the lives of those with whom they come in contact by developing their own talents. Broad improvement in society is almost always the consequence of taking personal responsibility for what is at hand. Speakers should focus on specific objectives: ennoble yourself, strengthen your family, contribute to your neighborhood. Borrowing from Bill Walsh, the “god” of football coaches:

Strive for the standard of perfection, the score — in this case, the world — will take care of itself.

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