The art of graduation speeches is hard to master [Commentary]

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I always feel bad for people who are giving graduation speeches. I honestly feel like it's one of the hardest tasks there is.

Unlike some other times in life, when people are actually excited about hearing a speech, those who are about to graduate are, generally speaking, not exactly waiting with bated breath for the speech portion of the ceremony.


I was thinking about this while reading a pretty great column in the Washington Post, called "Will Harvard grads remember what Oprah said?"

(Apparently Oprah spoke at the campus Thursday. Did everyone in the audience get a brand-new car?)


Anyway, it made me think about what actually makes for a great graduation speech. I didn't know, because I don't think I've ever really heard one.

In the handful of graduations I attended for myself and relatives, and the numerous ones I covered for The Aegis, I've definitely heard speeches that were perfectly agreeable, well-written, maybe a little inspiring.

I can't say I've heard a speech that really changed my life or stood out in my mind.

I don't remember a single thing said by any of the speakers during either my high school or college graduation.

I honestly don't even remember who any of the graduation speakers even were.

I remember being confused by the line-up of smiling elected officials at my high school graduation, because I had no idea who any of them were and didn't even really know what a county council was.

(At University of Maryland, the main commencement speaker when I graduated was Tom Ridge, the head of the new homeland security department at the time, but I opted out of the big, super-impersonal commencement for the individual-college one.)

The Post column mentioned a graduation speech by John F. Kennedy, at American University exactly 50 years ago, that I had never heard of before.


It was apparently pretty significant at the time, so I decided to watch it online.

One thing I noticed was JFK (I hope it's OK to call him JFK on second reference) didn't resort to any of the tactics I usually see in graduation speeches.

He wasn't giving a collection of advice ("Be nice to your parents; do what makes you happy"), quoting song lyrics ("As Katy Perry said in 'Firework'"…) or telling a series of stories.

He didn't try to seem friendly or excited for the graduates. JFK did not say, "The Eagles are in the house tonight!" (referring to America's mascot).

In fact, he didn't seem to be talking to graduates at all. He was deadly serious, and he was talking to society at large, about "the most important topic on earth: peace" - and nuclear weapons, which seems appropriate for 1963.

To me, it was interesting to hear a graduation speech that was so serious and deliberately dry.


JFK didn't seem to worry about being liked, which I think a lot of speakers do. He didn't worry about being preachy, which he certainly was.

This made me think a graduation speech can stand the test of time if it has that same aura of greatness and solemnity. In other words, if it's not trying to be "just a graduation speech."

Another good speech that was sent my way lately is called "This Is Water," by David Foster Wallace, who, like JFK, had a tragic death.

Wallace delivered it at Ohio's Kenyon College in 2005, and now it's gone "viral," apparently.

While the JFK speech is societal, Wallace's is totally psychological. He is talking about how to survive, basically, in day-to-day life and in adult society, which he tells graduates is completely different from how they imagine it.

It inspired me in a way, although it's hard to say how I might have reacted as a tired student about to graduate.


Anyway, I'm in no position to give advice on how to give a speech. My only time delivering a speech was during a college communications class, and the professor's only comment was to tell me how many times I had said "like" and "umm" (it was a lot).

But maybe those two speeches could be of interest to someone who doesn't find anything especially memorable from their own graduation speeches this year.