Tommy Giglio
Aug 3, 2015 · 7 min read

What I learned writing my first commencement speech

Writing a graduation speech was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write. And it didn’t help that there were few helpful articles online. So I decided to write one.

Giving a traditional speech — one where it’s just you alone on a stage without the aid of slides or props — isn’t something the average person will do many times in their life. Though it’s an exciting opportunity, it’s a challenging one. First, it’s a sizeable amount of time. I had to fill 15 minutes, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but think of the number of times in your life when you’ve talked for 15 minutes straight. And then there’s the pressure of saying something insightful, something motivating, something memorable to of a sea of people.

I felt that pressure for three months, starting from the day of my high school principal’s invitation. He gave me little direction, all I had was a date, time, and dress code. So you’d think that picking the topic would be difficult. For me, it was actually the easiest part. I knew what I wanted to talk about after hanging up the phone. But everything after picking my topic was much tougher. Here are a number of tips that would’ve made all this easier, broken into four groups: brainstorming, writing, revising, and delivering.

Brainstorming

Do: Research on Speeches — This is the best place to start. I had no idea how to structure a speech, let alone a graduation speech. Hell, I had only seen a handful. Start by checking out GradSpeeches.com and GraduationWisdom.com to watch some of the better college commencement addresses, and read this article on common grad speech structures. This short article on standard speech structure is also useful, as it posits that the first thirty seconds as the most important of your speech, your opportunity to grab the audience’s attention. That means you have roughly 70 words to get your point across (if you speak at 140 words per minute). I did it in the first minute, which worked for me.

I used one line of this page of notes. Listen for it.

Don’t: Read a lot About Your Topic Online — I made this mistake, I read way too many articles, which actually clouded my thinking. I’d have an idea, start reading online, then meander to an article on a related topic, then another, and another. Before I knew it, I’d find myself entirely off topic. If you do online research while brainstorming, maintain sharp focus on your subject, otherwise you’ll end up with pages of notes of unrelated material, like I did.

My little Moleskine notebook. For three months, this was always in my front left pocket.

Do: Take Lots of Notes — Early on, I purchased a small notebook that I could carry at all times. I had a strict rule: nothing in the notebook unless it was speech-related. Whenever an idea came to mind or someone offered advice, in the notebook it went. This tactic was helpful throughout the process, from the early days through rehearsals with friends.

Do: Talk with Lots of People — Bounce your topic off of a trusted group of people. In addition to generating ideas, talking with others can also act as an early alert system. With my topic, a number of friends warned me that part of my argument was too dark, and with that help early on, I was able keep an eye on the tone throughout the process. Try and keep your group of advisors small. Mine was 7 people. I also found it helpful to talk about my speech outloud to myself. Though I’m sure I looked like a crazy person as I walked home from work, it helped to hear how some of the things I was thinking sounded aloud.

Some of the random thoughts and ideas I jotted down.

Don’t: Focus on the Narrative Too Early — How you link your thoughts together isn’t important while you’re brainstorming. I made this mistake, focusing way too much on prose and polish when I didn’t even have an outline. Use pen and paper to jot your thoughts and ideas down. And don’t type; it’s too easy to get distracted by prose on the computer. It’s ok if they are all over the place. You can group them into coherent chunks later.

Do: Make it Actionable — The most influential piece of advice I received was from a friend while chatting about my concept over dinner.

“It doesn’t matter what you say if it’s not actionable. Make it actionable,” he said.

All speeches should have a point, a message, a call to action. That’s a given. A well-written speech given to the wrong audience will always miss the mark. Consider your audience, their needs, motivations, and frustrations as you write your speech. This will help ensure that your speech lands and is actionable.


Writing

Do: Create a Thorough Outline — After you’ve done your fair share of brainstorming, you should start outlining. I tried traditional, high-level outlines, but they didn’t work for me. Instead, I created a thorough outline through grouping similar concepts from my notes and thinking about my speech in high-level chunks. I did this with Post-Its, which worked well because they were easy to rearrange. Keep in mind you’re thinking about concepts, not the actual words. All this will set you up nicely to begin writing your actual prose next.

Do: Get it All on Paper First —After you’ve resisted the urge to write for a while and you have your thorough outline, it’s time to begin writing your narrative. (This was when I first jumped on the computer, but you could write by hand, too.) Your outline is now your to-do list, hammer through each concept and write it all out. Focus on completing your first full draft and don’t stop until you have one. I told my brother as I left for a coffee shop that I wouldn’t come home until my first draft was done. I read it to him immediately after getting home that night, and surprisingly, all the pre-work paid off; my first read-through wasn’t all that terrible. (It wasn’t great, though… 😉)


Revising

Do: Evaluate Every Line — Repeatedly read your script, over and over again, and especially aloud. I used an engineering approach to software testing as I revised my speech. Any time I made a change to a graf, I’d read the entire graf afterward. These were my unit tests. I then read through each section/chunk of the speech on a slightly less frequent basis. These were my integration tests. And finally, before I’d end a speech editing session, I’d run an end-to-end test and read through the entire speech. If you utilize a regimen like this for revisions, you’ll ensure that no change disrupts your work in an unforeseen way, regardless of its size or scope.

Do: Make Every Word Count — If a sentence is important, keep it. If you don’t need it, cut it. Keep things simple and try to get your speech to its minimum viable state. Cutting down your speech isn’t difficult; an affordance of speech-giving is that linking phrases aren’t as necessary as they are in reading. Additionally, intensifiers (e.g. pretty, fairly, really, very, and quite) are unnecessary as well. You can use intonation to enhance your adjectives instead.


Delivering

Do: Practice Reading Super Slowly — determining your public speaking speed is difficult if you’re inexperienced. Practice makes perfect, but you’ll still likely go faster in the moment. For example, I learned that my reading rate was at about 160 word per minute, but on stage, I spoke about 10 words per minute faster than the three dozen times I practiced it.

Don’t: Use Paper to Deliver Your Speech — Sure, you’re not Obama, but you can get close. Instead of the classic stack of paper with double-spaced text, use PromptSmart, a teleprompter iPad app that blows up the size of the text and scrolls your copy as you read it. The app worked phenomenally well for me. It has a speech recognition feature that scrolls the text as it listens to your voice, but I opted to set the app to autoscroll instead. I just didn’t want an extra thing to worry about on stage.

Do: Drink Water Before —Your mouth will undoubtedly dry out during your speech. I made the mistake of going on stage thirsty, so by midway through delivering my speech, my mouth felt like a Mad Max movie. Remember to hydrate. Also remember to pee. Nerves always put pressure on the ol’ bladder.


This was the article I wish I could’ve found online during the three months I wrote my graduation speech. I hope this article makes your time writing a speech just a little bit easier. Break a leg.

Tommy Giglio

Written by

Product Design Manager @ Facebook. Former photojournalist and picture editor. Northwestern grad. Airplane/Airport enthusiast. Bike tourer.

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