Our favorite commencement addresses of the last year include those delivered by (from top left, clockwise): Hamdi Ulukaya, Abby Wambach, Stacey Abrams, Reshma Saujani, Taraji P. Henson, Elizabeth Bonker, Pinky Cole, Miranda Kerr and Evan Spiegel, Zander Moricz, and Congressman Jamaal Bowman.

Commencements Worth Ovations

What this year’s graduation speeches can teach us about effective communication

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.”

Keep it Concrete

Once you’ve formed that message, bolster it with tangible solutions.

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.”

Embrace Vulnerability

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.

…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.

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.



A progressive communications-strategy firm led by former Clinton, Obama, and Biden Administration speechwriters.

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West Wing Writers

A progressive communications-strategy firm led by former Clinton, Obama, and Biden Administration speechwriters.