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I Analyzed 100 Commencement Speeches: These Are the 4 Tips They All Share
Introducing the Great Graduation Speech Mash-Up
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This month marks the return of mass, in-person graduations for the first time in three years, and already it’s been an inglorious start. The speeches, which everyone expects to be filled with platitudes, have actually been filled with headlines—and not in a good way.
At Duke, one of the class day student speakers delivered a speech last weekend that plagiarized large sections from a similar speech given at Harvard eight years ago. As the Duke Chronicle reported (Brava to student journalist Milla Surjadi!), Priya Parkash hired a crisis public relations firm and admitted that “some of the suggested passages were taken from a recent commencement speech at another university. I take full responsibility for this oversight.”
At the Pine View School in Florida, the senior class president went public this month with claims that he was ordered “not to speak about his experience as a gay student or criticize the state’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law” during his graduation speech next week. If he did, Zander Moricz told the local ABC affiliate, the principal vowed to cut off his mic.
And at the University of Wyoming, Republican Senator Cynthia Lummis did criticize the country’s embrace of the LGBTQ rights, saying, “Even fundamental, scientific truths such as the existence of two sexes, male and female, are subject to challenge these days.” The crowd booed so loud that she had to pause her speech; the university president denounced her; and she, too, had to issue an apology.
Bring back the platitudes!
I’ve been fortunate to give a handful of commencement addresses over the years, and I confess to a fascination with the genre. The Internet has been a boon for this hobby. There are thousands of commencement speeches spread all over the web. Given all the recent controversies, I went looking for patterns. Having analyzed life stories for years, I decided to put some of the tools I use to the test. With some members of my team, I analyzed 100 speeches over the last week. These are the four tips they all contain.
1. Dream Big
Everyone agrees you should reach for the stars!
“I think it is often easier to make progress on mega-ambitious dreams. I know that sounds completely nuts. But, since no one else is crazy enough to do it, you have little competition. There are so few people this crazy that I feel like I know them all by first name. They all travel as if they are pack dogs and stick to each other like glue. The best people want to work the big challenges.” — Larry Page at Michigan, 2009
“We don’t beat the reaper by living longer. We beat the reaper by living well and living fully. For the reaper is always going to come for all of us. The question is: What do we do between the time we are born, and the time he shows up? Because when he shows up, it’s too late to do all the things that you’re always gonna, kinda get around to.” - Randy Pausch at Carnegie Mellon, 2009
"Graduates, we need you. We need you to run companies and make decisions about who has access to capital. We need you to serve at the highest levels of government and determine our country’s standing in the world. We need you to work in our hospitals, our courtrooms, and our schools. We need you to shape the future of technology. We need you because your perspective — the sum total of your intellect and your lived experience — will make our country stronger." - Kamala Harris at Tennessee State University, 2022
2. Work Hard
Everyone agrees you should put your nose to the grindstone!
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it.” - Steve Jobs at Stanford, 2005
“I just directed my first film. I was completely unprepared, but my own ignorance of my own limitations looked like confidence and got me into the director's chair. Once there, I had to figure it all out, and my belief that I could handle these things, contrary to all evidence of my ability to do so, was half the battle. The other half was very hard work. The experience was the deepest and most meaningful one of my career.” - Natalie Portman at Harvard, 2015
“When you're doing the work you're meant to do, it feels right, and every day is a bonus, regardless of what you're getting paid...But make it your life's work to remake the world because there is nothing more beautiful or more worthwhile than working to leave something better for humanity.” - Oprah Winfrey at Stanford, 2008
3. Make Mistakes
Everyone agrees you should get back up!
”Fail big. That’s right. Fail big…. It's a new world out there, and it's a mean world out there, and you only live once. So do what you feel passionate about. Take chances professionally. Don’t be afraid to fail. There’s an old IQ test with nine dots, and you had to draw five lines with a pencil within these nine dots without lifting the pencil, and the only way to do it was to go outside the box. So don’t be afraid to go outside the box.” - Denzel Washington at the University of Pennsylvania, 2011
“The World Doesn’t Care How Many Times You Fall Down, As Long As It’s One Fewer Than the Number of Times You Get Back Up” - Aaron Sorkin at Syracuse, 2013
“My experience has been that my mistakes led to the best things in my life. Being embarrassed when you mess up is part of the human experience of getting back up dusting yourself off and seeing who still wants to hang out with you afterward and laugh about it. That's a gift. The times I was told no or wasn't included, wasn't chosen, didn't win, didn't make the cut, looking back, it really feels like those moments were as important if not more crucial than the moments I was told yes.” - Taylor Swift at NYU, 2022
4. Be Kind
Everyone agrees you should be nice!
“Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.” - Conan O'Brien at Dartmouth College, 2011
“Empathy and kindness are the true signs of emotional intelligence.” - Will Ferrell at the University of Southern California, 2017
“So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it: What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded...sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly. Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth? Those who were kindest to you, I bet. It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.” - George Saunders at Syracuse, 2013
Finally, of all the speeches given so far this year, one stands out above all. It was given last week by Elizabeth Bonker, the valedictorian of Rollins College in Florida. Bonker, who has nonspeaking autism, hasn’t spoken since she was 15. She worked on her speech for months and used text-to-speech software to deliver her address. In the culmination of the talk, she evoked Fred Rogers, Rollins’s most famous alumnus.
"When he died,” Bonker said, “a handwritten note was found in his wallet. It said, 'Life is for service.'
We are all called to serve, as an everyday act of humility, as a habit of mind. To see the worth in every person we serve. To strive to follow the example of those who chose to share their last crust of bread. For to whom much is given, much is expected.
God gave you a voice. Use it. And no, the irony of a nonspeaking autistic encouraging you to use your voice is not lost on me. Because if you can see the worth in me, then you can see the worth in everyone you meet.
Bonker concluded, "My fellow classmates, I leave you today with a quote from Alan Turing, who broke the Nazi encryption code to help win World War II. “Sometimes, it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.”
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