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2017 Commencement Speakers: Dirty Jokes from Helen Mirren, a Serenade from Will Ferrell and the Foreshadowing of a Surprise Political Career

Graduation season has arrived with more than 3 million college students receiving degrees this spring. It seems like every college is now competing to see who can nab the biggest name commencement speakers that include politicians, movie stars, authors, military leaders, and executives.

And graduation speakers do not come cheap. "Hidden Figures" actress Octavia Spencer, who gave a 25-minute speech at Kent State reportedly received $100,000, while Arnold Schwarzenegger who gave the commencement speech at the University of Houston turned down the $40,000 fee.

This year's first-timers include Helen Mirren (Tulane University), Will Ferrell (University of Southern California), Pharrell Williams (New York University) and Steve Levitan, creator of "Modern Family" (University of Wisconsin). And of course, there are the obvious choices - President Trump (Liberty University and the US Coast Guard Academy), Former Vice President Joe Biden (Cornell and Colby College), and Hillary Clinton (at her alma mater Wellesley). Oprah Winfrey is making the rounds this year to nine colleges as nine of her former students from the Oprah Winfrey Leadership School in Africa are now graduating from US universities. So far she has spoken at Smith College, Skidmore College, and Agnes Scott.

CEOs spreading inspiration and wisdom include Tim Cook of Apple (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Howard Schultz of Starbucks, Adena Friedman of Nasdaq, Michael Bloomberg of Bloomberg (Villanova University), and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook (Harvard University).

Commencement addresses are a rich tradition, full of nuggets of wisdom for those entering the workforce, but also for those of us who are well into our careers. I have watched many commencement addresses over the years and more than a few this month. There are lessons on how to give a good speech and inspirational advice from the speeches themselves.

Take-Aways from Successful Graduation Speeches:

First things first: Learn to speak in public. One cannot watch YouTube videos of successful commencement speakers without marveling at their ability to articulate and hold an audience's attention. Sure, the average graduation speaker had help or even a ghost writer, but with a little work on your own, you can improve your ability to speak, whether it is in a departmental meeting or before your company.

Find common ground. Nasdaq CEO Adena Friedman who addressed her alma mater Vanderbilt's Owen Graduate School of Management related to the graduates, "My career path started when I sat where you sit today. That was the beginning...growing and learning and striving every day - every bit as much as I did when I was a brand-new Owen graduate."

Acknowledging a connection at the outset seems like an easy thing to do, but so often we are so focused on the business or the transaction that we forget that all business goes smoother if there are common ground and a connection with teammates, business partners, and customers.

Make your audience feel special. Even speakers who are not alums make their audience feel special. Octavia Spencer, speaking at Kent State said "I know many of you are filled with relief, exhilaration and perhaps a bit of nervousness for what tomorrow brings. To the family and friends here supporting this remarkable class, take a moment to look at them. Each of them. They all have an undeniable beauty that's carried them to this moment."

Relate to the audience on their level. Almost every successful speaker makes some joke about the college's unique customs and popular hang-outs on campus and works them into their speech to elicit a few cheers. Dame Helen Mirren was no different:

"And to the students. You did it! All those classes, all those essays, all those discussions and lectures, all those nights at the computer...and perhaps a greater test of endurance, all those nights at the Camellia Grill, the F&M, and all those parties."

That said, a couple of speakers took it a bit too far by mentioning every campus hangout as if they spent every Friday night there. You can find common ground without pretending you are a student.

Develop a sense of humor. Most of us are not going to be Will Ferrell, Ellen DeGeneres or Amy Poehler, but it is fascinating how a well-timed quip or self-deprecating remark can connect the speaker with an audience, diffuse tension and make people listen to the more serious stuff you have to say.

Comedian Will Ferrell, speaking to the University of Southern California, opened by saying, "I'd like to thank the graduates for the warm welcome. I'd like to apologize to the parents sitting here who are thinking 'Will Ferrell? Why Will Ferrell? I hate Will Ferrell. I hate his movies. He is gross'"

Ferrell ended his speech by singing Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" to rapturous applause and laughter. That was an ending that will stand the test of time.

Helen Mirren said she researched how to give a good commencement speech: "The second point about commencement speeches: Talk about your journey and connect it to everything you have in common with the audience. So, today's speech will contain advice for any of you born in England who decide to become Shakespearean actresses and end up doing nude scenes in ten films. I mentioned that just to see if any of your fathers are getting out their cell phones now to Google me. Dads. Stop. Inappropriate. Put it away. I mean the phone!"

To be honest, this year's class of speakers seems not as strong on the humor side as in previous years when sound bites and jokes quickly went viral. Perhaps it is the times in which we live.

Talk about your own challenges. Everyone has a story. Share yours. Tim Cook spoke passionately about growing up in the segregated South, Sheryl Sandberg shared the pain of losing her husband at age 45, Octavia Spencer talked about being stereotyped as she strived to establish her acting career, and Howard Schultz spoke of growing up poor, living in public housing. By sharing something of yourself, you create interest, you become human, and everyone can relate to struggles. It is a common denominator.

Offer inspirational advice. Graduation speakers usually end their speeches with advice and congratulations. Advice ranges from the practical---floss your teeth, eat right and exercise, to the idealistic-- be true to yourself, ask for help, question the status quo, give back and find the intersection of what you are good at and what you love. And let's not forget to learn to be a good global citizen.

Take-Aways from This Year's Speakers:

Frankly, my head is swimming from all of the advice these speakers gave-albeit all good. While much of the advice is geared to a college graduate, perhaps nervous about what she or he will do, there are always nuggets that are universal and apply to those of us in the middle or later stages of our career.

Here are my three favorite nuggets from this year's speakers.

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, spoke at Virginia Tech, gave a tender, vulnerable and emotional speech reflecting how she developed hope and resilience after the sudden death of her husband two years ago. And who could have been a better speaker for a school just marking the tenth anniversary of a shooting rampage that killed 22 students? Sandberg's voice broke and her eyes filled with tears as she said "When tragedy or disappointment strikes, know that you have the ability to get through absolutely anything. I promise you do. As the saying goes, we are more vulnerable than we ever thought, but we are stronger than we ever imagined."

Cory Booker, U.S. Senator, New Jersey, spoke at the University of Pennsylvania, saying "How we live our days, is how we live our lives. And as we're chasing after our destinations, our goals and our dreams, it actually is those small things we do every single day that define us." He continued, "You're going to have tough days. You're going to fall. You're going to fail. But I see you, and I love you." to a standing ovation. He concluded, "May your vision and your love not just change the world but make a world of change for everyone that you can."

Mark Zuckerberg spoke at Harvard University, where he famously dropped out to start Facebook. Zuckerberg said, "To keep our society moving forward, we have a generational challenge to not only to create jobs but a renewed sense of purpose." He added "Change starts locally. Even global changes start small. In our generation, the struggle of whether we connect more, whether we achieve our biggest opportunities, comes down to this-your ability to build communities and create a world where every single person has a sense of purpose." After hearing Zuckerberg's speech I found myself agreeing with many who believe he will enter politics. Not today. Maybe not in the next decade, but his speech left no doubt that his purpose may be larger than Facebook.





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Jane Howze

Jane S. Howze

Managing Director