Insights

We watched the best graduation speeches in America, so you wouldn’t have to…

Here’s What We Learned

I love a good graduation speech: The audience brimming with hope and excitement while a wise and wizened orator endeavors to entertain, enlighten and inspire in a tidy, twenty-minute package. There's something poetic about the format. Maybe even formulaic. Which begs the question, what makes a great graduation speech?

As they do every year, colleges and universities brought out the biggest names in business, politics, journalism and entertainment to deliver their commencement speeches. Perhaps to justify to tuition-weary parents in the audience that, yes, four years at this university were well worth the money. Or perhaps, as I prefer to think, to do one last bit of direction-setting for their soon-to-be-alumni.

So, what makes a graduation speech great? We combed through the top commencement speeches of 2018, and here's what we discovered:

Find common ground.

Chadwick Boseman, star of the blockbuster movie Black Panther, returned to his alma mater Howard University to deliver the commencement address to the class of 2018. His shared experience with the graduates allowed him to connect with them at a deeper level, giving his message a more meaningful impact. "This is a magical place, a place where the dynamics of positives and negatives shift in extremes... Almost anything can happen here... Howard's legacy is not wrapped up in the money that you will make, but in the challenges that you choose to confront. As you honor your past, press on with purpose."


Make your audience feel special.

Actress and activist Cynthia Nixon, who is currently running for New York Governor, praised the graduates from the Helene Fuld College of Nursing for the critical role they play in confronting the toughest challenges facing society. "Yes, I'm running for Governor of the State of New York, but I'm not here to deliver a campaign speech, I'm here to celebrate you."


Relate to the audience on their level.

Commencement speakers who are not graduates of the school like to connect with their audience by demonstrating a surprising intimacy with local hangouts and traditions. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was no exception, spending almost a minute of his opening remarks to Rice University graduates discussing where to find the best honey butter chicken biscuit and alluding to campus traditions. As a Houston resident, I may have to visit some of the hot spots he mentioned, including the statue of William Marsh Rice that appears on campus. Mr. Bloomberg claims he took a selfie with the statue (#williambloomie), but sadly, a social media search for said hashtag came up empty.


Exercise your sense of humor.

Nothing breaks up the monotony of a commencement ceremony like mixing in a little humor. In years past, comedians like Maya Rudolph (read about her 2015 Tulane University commencement speech) and Will Ferrell (who famously closed his speech by singing "I Will Always Love You" to the 2017 graduates of USC) have delivered memorable addresses, but most of us will never reach their level of comedic timing. Speaking at the Virginia Military Institute, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took his best shot, pulling inspiration I imagine from recent Saturday Night Live skits spoofing his time at the White House. The former chief diplomat and oil executive explained that his favorite position was serving as a division manager for Exxon, overseeing operations in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado. "It was the best job I ever had," he said with deadpan delivery. "It's all been downhill since."


Talk about your own challenges.

Ronan Farrow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who broke the Harvey Weinstein story, spoke candidly to Loyola Marymount University graduates about his doubts and insecurities. While investigating and reporting the stories of the women whom Weinstein had mistreated, he himself was followed, threatened, and even told by his own news organization to drop the story. "I wish I could tell you I was confident. That I was sure of myself. That I didn't care, or I said 'to hell with it,'" Farrow told the graduates. "The real version of this was that I was heartbroken, and I was scared, and I had no idea if I was doing the right thing." He urged the audience to trust their inner voice. "More than ever we need people to be guided by their own senses of principle and not the whims of a culture that prizes ambition and sensationalism and celebrity and vulgarity, and doing whatever it takes to win. Because if enough of you listen to that voice... if enough of you prove that this generation isn't going to make the same mistakes as the one before... then doing the right thing won't seem as rare, or as hard, or as special."


Emphasize the importance of character.

Oprah Winfrey, speaking at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, reminded graduates of the critical importance of being honest in their chosen profession. "When you see something, you say something. And you say it with the facts and the reporting to back it up." Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg also stressed the importance of honesty. He cited Rice University's honor code and contrasted that culture with the current state of American and world politics: "The trend toward elected officials propagating alternate realities-or winking at those who do-is one of the most serious dangers facing democracies. Free societies depend on citizens who recognize that deceit in government isn't something to shrug your shoulders at. When elected officials speak as though they are above the truth, they will act as though they are above the law. And when we tolerate dishonesty, we get criminality."


Inspire.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, speaking at Duke University, offered some profound advice that we all should follow. "Every individual has the tools, potential and reach to build a better world. That makes this the best time to be alive," he said. "The world-class education you've received... gives you opportunities that few people have. You are uniquely qualified, and therefore uniquely responsible, to build a better way forward. That won't be easy. It will require great courage. But that courage will not only help you live your life to the fullest, it will empower you to transform the lives of others."
And finally, let me leave you with these parting words from Michael Keaton speaking at Kent State University, who said simply and brilliantly... "I'm Batman."

Good luck to all the Class of 2018 graduates!


About the author: Kyle Robinson has more than a decade of research experience both in the executive search industry and the not-for-profit field. His searches at The Alexander Group focus primarily on the legal industry, having worked on assignments for senior finance, marketing, communications, human resources, and business development roles with top global law firms.
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Kyle Robinson

Kyle J. Robinson

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