5 Ways to Ruin a Commencement Speech
Every spring millions of Americans make the near-ultimate sacrifice for a loved one. Facing often mind-numbing torture, devoted friends and family prove their unconditional devotion by attending a college graduation ceremony.
The essence of graduation is the conferring by an institution, and the reception by a student, of a diploma. This supposedly guarantees that said individual "is worthy of the degree for which he/she is presented." Unfortunately the lords of "these hallowed halls" have taken advantage of the hostage-like circumstances in which graduates and their guests find themselves and purposely place diploma distribution at the very end of the festivities.
Sadistically transforming the whole business into "Academy Awards for Smart People," deans, chairs, and others clad in the trappings of antiquity first bestow upon one another honorary degrees and the wherewithal to enlarge mothy hood collections.
The apex of agony, though there have been memorable exceptions, is usually the commencement address, final words of wisdom imparted after the president of the alumni association welcomes the graduates into the ranks of donors-in-perpetuum.
The commencement speech should honor the accomplishments of those completing their education and impart succinct advice for navigating the world they are about to enter as true adults.
Northwestern University's 2012 ceremony was a welcome departure from the usually bleak norm. Students devoid of cynicism, pithy Dean "Morty" Schapiro -- whose well-earned status among students borders on that of a rock-star -- and a dearth of superfluous awards succeeded in rendering the event pleasant.
In spite of this, several addresses offered perfect illustrations of what NOT to do when giving a commencement speech. Remember them. Avoid using them the next time you are called upon to send thousands of America's best educated young men and women into the real world. Or pass some fun time scouting for them the next time you have to prove your love by attending graduation.
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.
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.
3. Insult a large portion of the audience
More absurd than exhorting the students to go forth and conquer the planet for justice was deriding an entire division of the university. In the course of enumerating his accomplishments, the doctor mentioned journalists. Enthusiastic cheers erupted from the graduates of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. This display of pride was met with the retort:
Okay, okay, just don't miss the wind-up to the next war.
The baffled stadium fell silently to communal head-scratching, trying to discern the reason or meaning of the guest's taunt. Had Medill's students failed to inform the world of an impending conflict? Were they targets of the speaker's dislike of journalists? Who knew? What the graduates did know was that they had been publicly castigated by a famous humanitarian.
Making cryptic jokes at the expense of your audience does not dispose it to retain the pearls of wisdom you deign to cast.
More common than this rather boorish rebuke are statements based on the assumption that the audience, like all thinking people, shares the speaker's ideological convictions. Such presumptions should be avoided, especially since the young men and women who hear them are about to leave their professors and discover that humans do exist who do not share the monolithic world-view of those policed by academic freedom.
2. Don't bother to find out who's actually going to be in your audience
Nothing tells students "I came prepared because I respect you and your prestigious school" like a mid-speech shout out to the medical school when none of the newly minted doctors are part of your audience. One understands that if you are a physician it would be nice to bond with peers during your address. It helps if they have not already graduated a week before your big day.
The best speeches are not "speeches" at all, but conversations. How long do people remain engaged once they discover that their interlocutor doesn't know or care to whom he is speaking, so long as someone is listening?
The heart of communication is the speaker's desire to impart an idea to his or her audience. A graduating class, especially one ranked twelfth in the United States, merits a unique message. A class will detect instantly if the speaker has failed to take the trouble to discover their story, the characteristics of their particular educational odyssey, or, at the very least, their identity.
1. Transform graduation into a political rally
This rule applies not only to the commencement address, but to all aspects of the graduation.
One of the few recipients of an honorary Northwestern degree this year was a Harvard Law professor. A somnambulist in the planning committee decided to single out, as the woman's supreme achievement, the fact that President Barack Obama once credited her with "changing his life."
When the doctor stepped forward to be recognized, a lifetime of accomplishments was brushed aside to proclaim instead her proximity to Obama. Obama's name hung expectantly in the air, greeted by short, sparse applause and a low murmuring groan that sounded dangerously similar to booing, then dissipated over the stadium walls, leaving in its wake the realization that nobody cares anymore.
Attempts to elicit enthusiasm for your favorite candidate or incumbent not only perverts the purpose of the commencement address, but also might counter-productively reward you with gaping yawns or, more appropriately, scorn. Such a stunt will be particularly humiliating if you try to rouse people who, four years ago, were adoring your darling in Hyde Park.
All politics should be banned from graduation ceremonies. It is fairly certain that 90% of the students are Democrats and will rightly be offended if Republican politics are praised. And a sizable chunk of those paying for their Democrat dependents' education, parents and grandparents, will be Republicans and resent odes to socialists.
Graduates deserve a day to celebrate their own triumph as each student represents four, sometimes as many as eight, years of determination and toil. Speeches that necessarily alienate anyone in the student body are inappropriate. Save it for when you win an Oscar.
If Northwestern's 2012 graduation provided examples of communication foibles, it also bequeathed a near-perfect specimen of what a commencement speech could be. Senior Tucker May, a theater major, delivered a humorous oration that all but brought the stadium to its feet. This worthy representative of the Class of 2012 avoided all five of these errors but one, and this he transgressed only to drive home the most profound lesson of the day. Paraphrasing this masterpiece would be a sin so you will have to enjoy Tucker May's "Address to Northwestern Parents and Guests" for yourself.
Thumbnail image courtesy shutterstock / RATOCA