Graduation speeches: The good, the bad and the mediocre

Commencement addresses of various levels of quality provide lessons—positive and negative—for speechwriters.

The familiar refrains of “Pomp and Circumstance” have faded. Mortarboards and gowns have been carefully put away. The class of 2011 has (mostly) left the auditorium, in search of jobs and new apartments. All of which means it’s time again to commit ourselves to a reckoning of the best, the worst and the merely mediocre commencement speeches of 2011.

This year’s speeches—from luminaries, CEOs, actors, and secretaries of this department or that—were largely “B” work. Most were filled with the typical fluff and pith: follow your dream, be passionate, don’t be a cynic, we need your talents more than ever, etc. But most of the ones I read tended to be shorter than usual, so there wasn’t much room for the speakers to get into real trouble by going too far afield or losing their audiences in a reckless ramble of thought.

That’s actually an improvement over past years when it was easy to find several true stinkers without really trying. In fact, I had to read many dozen to find a couple that were so off-the-mark as to qualify as examples of “please-don’t-do-this” primers.

So here’s a sampling of this year’s commencement speeches and what we speechwriters can learn from them for next year. These aren’t the best of the best or even the worst of the worst. They’re only the ones I tripped across and thought we could learn something from. If you found a great example we can learn from, post it below in the comments section.

First, some of the best in no particular order:

1. Robert Cargill, Fresno City College. This nice speech does several things right. First, all speakers like to tell a bit of their life story but few have the skill to pull it off like Cargill. He doesn’t bore the audience with his life history, but collects his life’s ups and downs into a short, snappy segments punctuated repeatedly with “I am you, 18 years from now.”

It’s an effective way to remind the audience that life is unpredictable but survivable. This speech is also short with a solid structure that respects the fact that the audience has better things to do than listen to a commencement speaker.

The big lessons? Keep the language engaging, the length short and the structure simple.

2. Denzel Washington, University of Pennsylvania. My confession: I picked this one because I was sure that the actor—like so many other celebrities—would flub this one by focusing only on himself. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Washington begins this with some great “insider jokes” that all the grads would get.

Specific comments about the food on campus, the squirrel population and a guy named “kweeder” all show he did his homework. Audiences appreciate that. (OK, it probably helped that his son is a Penn student but what the audience hears is “I care.”)

Two things make this speech a real success, though. First, his language is natural and uncontrived. It’s comfortable to hear. Second, he uses a very brief personal anecdote to segue into his main point: “Don’t fall back; fall forward.”

The big lesson? Find a short, memorable theme and stick with it. Be yourself. It works.

3. Robert Krulwich, University of Berkeley School of Journalism. Another surprise. I picked this largely because it was eight pages long, single-spaced! I knew it would be a first-rate example of speaking too long, disrespecting your audience, etc. Alas, it turned out to be a first-rate speech, my personal favorite, and probably the most appropriate one I found for the audience. Krulwich is a radio and TV journalist, and he hit the J-school grads where it hurts:

“How these days does anybody get a good job in journalism?” he asked. Given the rapidly changing world of journalism, you know it has to be on their minds. He provides an optimistic answer and along the way tells a host of good stories. For any other audience, this would be a misguided approach. The safe course is to get into the speech and get out. Be the apocryphal body at an Irish wake and all of that. But journalism students—like most speechwriters—love a good story. And Krulwich manages to tell several relevant stories without losing his audience.

The big lesson? Know your audience and write appropriately.

4. Sheryl Sandberg, Barnard College. The COO of Facebook delivers a solid commencement speech. It’s virtually a how-to all by itself. She uses short anecdotes from her life to make larger points. Her language has nice rhythms—short sentences, long sentences. She doesn’t make it a “Sheryl Sandberg” speech or a “Facebook” speech or a product ad (unlike Steve Ballmer of Microsoft who clumsily dropped in references to Microsoft products in his talk at the University of Southern California). Most of all, she has crafted a speech exquisitely appropriate for the audience of female grads: how to succeed in what is largely still a man’s world.

The big lesson? Having something interesting to say—a real point of view—will take you a long way.

And now for the rest …

Here are the not-so-good, off-the-mark speeches that make you want to pick up the phone and offer your speechwriting services. Or at least some counsel.

1. Sylvia Earle, Smith College. OK, it does make sense for speakers to pull from their lives and tell stories from their own realms. Business leaders talk about succeeding in business. Doctors talk about treating the ill. But the best commencement speeches use these anecdotes as short parables. They’re tools to find the universal theme the graduates can learn from.

Unfortunately, Earle—an oceanographer—offers three full pages (about three-quarters of her talk) on how terrible the oceans are. What a bummer. On a day that should be celebratory!

The big lesson? No one wants to hear the negatives on a day of triumph. Keep it positive, and focus on the graduates.

2. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Notre Dame. This was a great example of a fine speech, but a terrible commencement speech. Technically, this is as sound a speech as you would expect from Gates, someone whose speeches I’ve always admired. It moves quickly. The language is competent if not inspiring. The biggest problem is that it really doesn’t relate to the occasion. The speech is all about defense policy. Boring … for this audience at this time. A better approach might have been to share a few “observations” from his vaulted position—very appropriate considering he’s announced his retirement—and what that means for the grads entering the big, bad world. Tell them what he has learned that they can use.

Read the transcript here.

The big lesson? Give the audience a reason for listening.

3. Jo Ivey Boufford, Pace University. Another example of taking yourself and your job way too seriously. Boufford is president of the New York Academy of Medicine. You get the feeling she didn’t have time to write a commencement speech and instead grabbed the first old policy speech she could get her hands on. There’s nothing here for the audience to listen to. Yes, I get it: Health care is important. And she’s president of a medical association.

But is it really appropriate to tell a bunch of grads, “Just last week, the first-ever grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to improve indoor air quality and eliminate household environmental conditions that exacerbate asthma symptoms was awarded to a faith based community organization Little Sisters of the Assumption with deep roots in East Harlem, a low-income, minority neighborhood where asthma is a leading cause of school and work absences, emergency room visits and hospitalizations”?

Makes you pine away for a good, old-fashioned Mahatma Gandhi quote, doesn’t it? Plus, that was a 60-word sentence! I’m kind of surprised she didn’t faint just trying to deliver that one line and have to be revived on the spot. Unlike the rest of the speech, at least that would have been memorable.

The big lesson? Lighten up a little, OK? Graduations are supposed to be fun.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach for commencement speeches. I do know—and this year’s speeches reinforce this—that if you want to fail: talk about yourself, talk about your company, talk about things the grads can’t relate to.

Success is more fleeting. Humor works. Brevity is an advantage. Having a real point of view helps. Using language that engages the audience and is fun to listen to is a real bonus.

But perhaps the biggest lesson from this year’s offerings is the simplest. Once again, I’m reminded of my favorite mantra I try to deliver at every conference and every workshop: It’s not about the speaker. It’s not about their life’s work. It’s all about the audience. To paraphrase former Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca, if you begin with a deep respect for the audience, everything will fall into place.

Fletcher Dean is Director of Executive Communications and Chief Speechwriter at Dow Chemical Co. He blogs at www.thespeechwriter.com.

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