4. Speak about yourself for more than three minutes
A commencement speaker should refer to himself or herself only for as long as is needed to establish credibility. Brief anecdotes that illustrate the key message are also tolerable. When introduction morphs into autobiographical dissertation, students respond with the merited verdict; they yawn, then they text.
The distinguished speaker invited to address this year’s seniors could hardly be accused of lacking a captivating story. Humanitarian physician, he helped build one of the largest hospitals in Haiti. The audience greeted him with initial enthusiasm but lapsed into palpable frustration when, instead of converting his adventures into useful advice, he meandered through detailed intricacies of battles with local and global healthcare bureaucracy. Even in the last three minutes of the speech, when he finally reached out to a now mentally disengaged student body, the doctor managed to include the name of the organization he founded, Partners in Health, in the “take-home message”:
All your successes in life depend on partnership.
One student summed up the speech as “a humble brag.” The graduating class felt used for what was perceived in final analysis as a sales pitch.
One who should be absolved from this sin is Stephen Colbert. He referred to himself more times than could be counted in his Northwestern commencement speech but in the service of two great causes: making the students laugh, thus easing their agony; and driving home a truly profound message about their need to serve what they love if they are to be successful.