Far too often, commencement speeches follow the same boring pattern: The speakers talk about their success and then tell the graduates to “never give up,” “follow their dreams,” or some other trite piece of advice.
Rather, I’d much rather hear the following in any commencement speech:
Be humble and authentic
A commencement speaker doesn’t need to tell graduates that the road ahead is going to be easy only if they work hard. No, it will be hard but might be made easier for those graduating with both a trust fund and diploma in hand. Share your failures with your students — your false starts, your embarrassing moments, your worst and best days.
Quote someone else other than Frost, Gandhi, Dr. Seuss, JFK, Steve Jobs, or anyone else who appears on a motivational poster.
I like quotes from others that match the theme of a speech. Look to your family, favorite books, favorite songs — at least it won’t be the “Oh the places you’ll go…”
Brevity: 15 minutes — up and down.
No one wants to sit in the hot sun and then wait even longer before 300 or 500 or 2000 names are called. Keep it short and sweet and no one will hate you for it.
Tell them good stories.
Rather than fill a speech with platitudes, share stories of your life. Share moments that were turning points in your career: the moments that shaped you.
Tell them what drives you.
Why do you do your job each day? What’s motivated your career? Maybe it’s been different things at different times — that’s OK. Graduates want to know that.
What you were thinking about when graduating vs. what the real world brought you.
You don’t have to dash hopes and dreams but a little bit of realism is OK. Maybe you wanted to be an astronaut but decided on a literary career instead. Maybe you thought you’d make it big on Broadway but are now an accountant (and love it!). Connect with your audience’s own hopes and fears on graduation day.
Advice that you would have wanted to hear when you were graduating.
Imagine sitting where the graduates are and getting advice. What would have been beneficial to hear? What warning signs would you have wanted? What would you have wanted your graduation speaker to tell you?
Graduation speeches can be tough — you have to give a 15–20 minute talk to a semi-engaged group of graduates all baking in the oven of their graduation gowns under an unrelenting sun. They all just really want to walk across the stage to get their diplomas and be done with it all. The best route to take is to open up and share personal stories that show that you are human and can lend a few lessons that might just make the difference in the graduates’ lives.