Commencement speakers strive to inspire, entertain

Expectations are high for this year's commencement speakers at Maryland universities — an august crew that includes the Obamas and their team of writers as well as funnyman Bill Cosby and Hollywood director Jason Winer.

But to stand out — or simply be remembered — isn't a guarantee, no matter how high the profile of the speaker.


"The commencement speaker has to perform. He or she has the responsibility to inspire both students and graduates to make something of their lives" without falling back on cliches, said Steven D. Cohen, managing director of the oral communication program at the University of Maryland. "No one wants a speaker who's boring, who drones on and on."

Among those hoping to inspire: President Barack Obama, who is set to speak at the U.S. Naval Academy on May 24, and the first lady, who will talk at Bowie State University on the 17th. Cosby is expected to regale University of Baltimore graduates on the 21st. Also set to speak this graduation season are Hall of Fame Orioles infielder Cal Ripken Jr. at the University of Maryland, College Park on May 19 and Gov. Martin O'Malley at St. Mary's College on Saturday.


Winer, who has directed episodes of TV's "Modern Family" and the 2011 remake of the movie "Arthur," delivered his speech, "Want More, Learn to be Satisfied," on Friday at Stevenson University. He said he spent days pacing around his office and dictating "bits and pieces" of his talk in preparation for the event.

He doesn't remember the commencement speech given at his own graduation from Northwestern University — and hopes his performance doesn't meet a similar fate.

"I just remember being very hot," he said. "I'm hoping to make more of an impression on this graduating class than that speaker made on mine."

Some of the best commencement speeches have several things in common, Cohen and others said: They're short, they're personal, and they're thought-provoking.

Steve Jobs' famous 15-minute address at Stanford University in 2005 was widely lauded because the Apple founder opened up about his life, talked about setbacks and frankly told students to remember they will be dead one day, so "follow your heart."

Author Barbara Kingsolver won kudos in 2008 with a moving talk at Duke University about "how to be hopeful."

And a speech that Charles Wheelan gave at Dartmouth College in 2011 warning students that some of "their worst days lie ahead" not only went viral, but earned the public policy expert and writer a new book deal. "101/2 Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said" came out last spring, just in time for graduation season.

"It wasn't the conventional, light, upbeat, airy kind of speech," Wheelan said of his 2011 address, which detailed six things "no commencement speaker has ever said" at his alma mater. "I wanted to give the speech I wished somebody had given to me 20 years ago."


He told students their time in frat house basements was well spent, to not make the world worse, to marry up when it comes to intelligence, to balance work and play because we live on "borrowed time," and that the future is uncertain. The tenor of that speech was the opposite of the traditional commencement speeches he wrote right out of college as a speechwriter for Maine Gov. John R. McKernan.

"I knew what they were supposed to look like," Wheelan said of those talks years ago.

But for his own speech, the traditional didn't feel right for the occasion. His best advice for Maryland's crop of speakers is to highlight the negative.

"Students love to hear about failure, and I'm dead serious in that. Anybody speaking has turned out just fine, so it's really failure with a silver lining," he said. "A 50-year-old's talk about all the great things that happened is just not going to resonate with a 22-year-old who has no idea what to do with their lives. Oddly enough, talking about the failures is more reassuring than talking about the success."

Winer described his speech as being about failure in a very positive way — sort of like when a job interviewee cites being a perfectionist or workaholic as a so-called flaw to a potential boss.

His ambition sometimes overshadows his pride in achievement, Winer said in an interview, and he hoped his speech might keep others from a similar fate.


"It's very personal for me, honestly," said Winer, a 1990 graduate of the Friends School of Baltimore. "I feel that I've been very ambitious in my career, and I'm trying to share that and present that as a good quality. I think the mistake that I've made repeatedly is not enjoying success, not enjoying [individual] successes."

One way to be memorable is to be original, but not so original that you get into trouble, said James Helmer, coordinator of the Oral Communication Center at Hamilton College in New York.

During the 2011 graduation ceremony for the University of Maryland University College, character actor Richard T. Jones gave a brief speech that was widely posted on the Internet under the heading "worst commencement speech ever."

He appeared unprepared and claimed every analogy and quote he'd planned to use was taken by the speakers before him.

"So this is going to be good," he said. "I'm glad I looked up a word called improv, 'cause that's what's going to happen here. An improv, what I have for you today."

Helmer said students "are looking for some freshness, and they want to have some fun and a little substance to take away as well." But he cautioned speakers "to remember, under each of those robes is a smartphone, and to respect what it can do for you or against you."


At Queens University in Charlotte, N.C., this month, the commencement keynote speaker — Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation, which promotes media innovation — put those phones to good use in an experiment of "flash philanthropy." He showed the audience short video pitches from charities for Knight funds, then directed the graduates to choose via text a winner to receive a $50,000 donation.

"That strikes me as fabulous," said Kathleen J. Turner, director of oral communication at Davidson College in North Carolina.

Novelty goes a long way in these speeches, Turner said.

"You've got to face the fact that you have an audience of really tired students because they've been through a lot and they've also been partying," she said. "If you fall back on tired cliches, you're going to lose your audience."

Kathleen Koch, a former CNN correspondent who wrote a book about how her hometown recovered from Hurricane Katrina, is set to speak at Notre Dame of Maryland University on May 25. She finished her speech last month, she said, giving her "lots of time to ruminate."

"This is really a milestone moment in these graduates' lives," she said. And she wants to accomplish the same thing that many speakers want to accomplish: moving the graduates in some meaningful, lasting way.


"Some day in the future … when they hit a rough patch," Koch said, "I really hope they hear my words playing back in their head and think 'I can do this, I can get through this, I'm not going to quit.' "

Graduation speakers

•Gov. Martin O'Malley, St. Mary's College of Maryland, May 11

•Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, University of Maryland University College, May 11


•Archbishop William E. Lori, Mount St. Mary's University, May 12

•First lady Michelle Obama, Bowie State University, May 17

•Retired Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, University of Maryland, Baltimore, May 17

•U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Morgan State University, May 18

•Hall of Fame Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., University of Maryland, May 19

•Comedian Bill Cosby, University of Baltimore, May 21


•President Barack Obama, the U.S. Naval Academy, May 24

•Journalist and author Kathleen Koch, Notre Dame of Maryland University, May 25

•Journalists Al Hunt and Judy Woodruff, McDaniel College, May 25