Great commencement speeches seem to contain the same elements.
The wise and accomplished speaker regales a stadium of youngsters with life wisdom, humor and personal anecdotes.
Or as George Saunders quipped:
What makes a great commencement address? According to veteran speechwriter Nathan Osburn:
A good metaphor for a strong commencement speech is a flashlight. A graduate might have one or two steps planned out, but the rest is hazy. This might sound a little lofty, but with a flashlight—powered by a commencement speaker’s memorable personal story—they might be able to make better personal and professional decisions.
Communicators, speechwriters and executive communicators alike can learn from these speeches:
1. Sheryl Sandberg – UC Berkeley – 2016
Facebook’s COO opened up about her husband’s unexpected passing, and the long process of overcoming profound challenges.
Takeaway: Don’t be afraid to get personal. As a Facebook executive and bestselling author, Sandberg had a wealth of professional experience to draw from, but focused instead on the personal—with great effect.
Memorable quote: “The question is not if some of these things will happen to you. They will. What I want to talk about today is what you do next.”
2. Daveed Diggs – Brown University – 2017
Diggs’ conversational tone departed from the gravitas of more traditional speeches, but his address did not give up any of the inspirational elements that are hallmarks of the occasion.
Takeaway: There isn’t a “right” way to deliver a powerful speech.
Memorable quote: “This is for anyone who has ever gone to sleep—hand outstretched—reaching for something that hits deep.”
3. Jim Carrey’s – Maharishi University of Management – 2014
The actor and comedian’s address to business graduates made headlines for its combination of comedy and anecdote, including reflection on his family’s struggle with poverty.
Takeaway: Don’t be afraid to show your speaker’s human side.
Memorable quote: “You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”
Bonus quote: “The effect you have on others is the most valuable currency there is.”
4. Randy Pausch’s – Carnegie Mellon University – 2008
Randy Pausch was a professor and best-selling author of “The Last Lecture,” an reflection on one of his life philosophies as he suffered from pancreatic cancer. The commencement address focused on traditional graduation themes of passion and purpose, with the added gravity of a speaker who would pass away a few months later.
Takeaway: Your audience need not be like you to relate to you.
Memorable quote: “I’m glad to be here today. Hell, I’m glad to be anywhere today.”
Bonus quote: “Find your passion and follow it. And if there is anything I have learned in my life, you will not find that passion in thing, and you will not find that passion in money.”
5. Tim Cook – Duke University – 2018
Cook is not the first Apple CEO to give a commencement speech, nor the most dynamic, yet he made up for some of his shortcomings by channeling the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.—and yes, Steve Jobs.
Importantly, he did not shy away from bringing up divisive topics like climate change and inequality.
Takeaway: Be true to your message, even if your audience may not all be on the same page.
Memorable quote: “Whatever drives your passion, be the last to accept the notion that the world you inherit cannot be improved.”
6. Ellen DeGeneres – Tulane University – 2009
Ellen opened up about the burden of being a closeted star in entertainment, and the devastation coming out had on her career. The speech had all of Ellen’s signature charm, topped off with a genuine and timely story of perseverance to inspire the graduates.
Takeaway: Even heavy speeches can be made to feel light.
Memorable quote: “It was so important to me to lose everything, because I found out what the most important thing is: To be true to yourself.”
7. George Saunders – Syracuse University – 2013
The bestselling author’s speech is loaded with anecdotes, imagery and self-deprecation.
Takeaways: Personal anecdotes are gold—especially those highlighting a speaker’s regrets.
Memorable quote: “What I regret most in life are failures of kindness, those moments when another human being was right there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded sensibly, reservedly, mildly.”
Bonus: John F. Kennedy Jr. – Rice University – 1962
While not a commencement speech (and therefore not officially on the list), JFK’s address was at a university and it certainly was memorable.
Few might remember the context, but nearly all would recognize the line “we choose to go to the moon…not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Takeaway: Don’t shy away from big, bold ideas when the moment calls for them.
Memorable quotes: “The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.”
Bonus quote: “Man in his quest for knowledge and progress is determined and cannot be deterred.”
What are your favorite commencement addresses?