Commencements Worth Ovations
What this year’s graduation speeches can teach us about effective communication
After two years of canceled commencements, Zoom ceremonies, and socially distanced celebrations, graduation season has finally returned.
Commencement speeches need to check a particular set of boxes: they have to reach graduates at a similar stage in life, mark their transition to a new adventure, and hold their attention — even during an outdoor ceremony, on an unseasonably hot day, made hotter by impractical hats and polyester robes.
Still, they offer lessons from which any speaker can learn. While the world has changed dramatically since students left their campuses behind at the start of the pandemic, the principles of effective communication still resonate. Here are seven techniques drawn from some of our favorite commencement speeches of 2022 that you can employ to help your own messages stand out, inspire, and stick:
Lead with Empathy
Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya told the graduating class of Northeastern University, “I see some speakers have a list of ten things for graduates to remember…I don’t think we need any lists today. Especially after the last few years.”
Without dwelling on the “unprecedented challenges” these graduates have faced, Ulukaya acknowledged how much they’ve been through since their first day at Northeastern. He met them where they were — and built their trust because of it. Speakers of all stripes should be prepared to put themselves in their audience’s shoes and tailor their message to the moment.
Keep it Concrete
Once you’ve formed that message, bolster it with tangible solutions.
That’s what Olympic soccer player and activist Abby Wambach did in her address to Loyola Marymount University. She urged the graduates to tackle inequality. But then she went one step further: she offered them a roadmap for demanding change. “Instead of being distracted by institutions waving flags of Black Lives Matter, Pride, Women’s History Month, and Earth Day,” Wambach said, “ask them to wave their budgets, leadership rosters, profit reports, and environmental impacts instead.” She grounded the lofty goals in the pursuit of concrete numbers — and that’s what made her message stick.
Flip the Script on an Old Idea
Stacey Abrams told Spelman College that “be fearless” is “the dumbest advice I’ve ever heard.” Reshma Saujani urged Yale graduates to reject JFK’s classic “ask what you can do for your country” and instead “ask what your country can do for you — because I bet he’d agree it should be doing a hell of a lot more.”
Flipping an old adage on its head can grab an audience’s attention quickly. But it’s also an opportunity to offer deeper insights. What has changed in the world? What logic holds up and what should we discard? Speakers can invite their audience to reconsider conventional wisdom with fresh eyes.
These past two years we’ve seen up close that nobody has it all figured out — not even the most accomplished people in the world. Acknowledging the setbacks in your story — like actress Taraji P. Henson did at Howard University, when she shared with the graduates her experience with depression following her father’s death — is a powerful tool for building connection with an audience.
Know Your Real Audience…
A commencement isn’t just about the graduates. It’s about the families, the professors, and the entire school community that made this milestone possible — especially now, when the communities that nurtured the graduates have endured two challenging years of their own. Congressman Jamaal Bowman recognized this during his Manhattanville College commencement address, when he asked the parents in the room to stand up — and then asked their kids to turn around and give them a round of applause.
When you’re speaking to a group, ask yourself: Who really made this moment possible? Take the time to acknowledge the hard work behind the scenes.
…But Don’t Be Afraid To Challenge Them
A Florida high school principal told senior class president Zander Moricz that if he discussed the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law in his graduation speech, the mic would be cut off. Instead, Moricz talked about the “very public part of [his] identity: his “curly hair.” He urged his audience to claim their power and use it to protect those who have less, including “the thousands of curly-haired kids who are going to be forced to speak like this.” His clever workaround was a statement in itself — and it made his speech that much more meaningful.
Connecting with your audience doesn’t mean you have to tell them what they want to hear. The most effective leaders know how to use the podium to push the audience beyond their comfort zone.
Remember: Actions Can Speak Louder Than Words
Sometimes it’s not what you say in the speech — it’s what you do. This year we’ve seen many commencement speakers turn their commitments into actions right on the stage. Model Miranda Kerr and CEO Evan Spiegel paid off hundreds of students’ debts. Business owner Pinky Cole announced that every graduating student would leave with an LLC to help them start their own businesses.
But you don’t need money or resources to make a meaningful impact.
Rollins College Valedictorian Elizabeth Bonker, who is affected by nonspeaking autism, delivered her address about the power of service using text-to-speech software.
Getting up on the stage was a powerful act in itself. But she asked her audience to do something, too: rip off a piece of their program and write themselves a note that said “life is for service,” a nod to Rollins alumnus Fred Rogers. She gifted her audience with a literal takeaway to help guide their journey forward.
No matter how melodious your speech sounds, or how loudly you’re applauded, the best thing your speech can do is inspire action after it ends. By creating a memorable moment — and tying it to an unforgettable idea — Bonker gives a powerful lesson on how creative communicators can make their message last.
— M.E. Ficarra and Hannah Kahn
In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.
Follow Hannah and West Wing Writers on Twitter.