Graduate Zander Moricz delivers his commencement address. (Dan Wagner/Herald-Tribune/USA TODAY Network)

Five All-Time Favorite Commencements

And what today’s speakers can learn from them.

West Wing Writers
5 min readApr 2, 2024


A great commencement address can be timeless — inspiring not only the students in their caps and gowns gathered before the speaker, but generations of graduates about to embark on the next chapter of their lives. In that spirit, we asked five West Wingers to share their all-time favorite commencements and what communicators of all stripes can learn from them today.

Here are five lessons from five speeches:

Build familiarity.

George Saunders’ take on the commencement has all the hallmarks of the form: a tender story about a personal failing, a meditation on the human condition, a vision of what it means to live a good life and some recommendations on how to do it. Yet his remarks never read like a capital-S speech. The language is casual, the anecdotes are ordinary, and the tone is relentlessly self-effacing.

In a way, these choices make the speech and the speaker feel small; Saunders comes across like someone you already know, rather than a luminary behind the podium. But that smallness also builds a sense of trust and familiarity, which in turn make space for big ideas. When Saunders tells the graduates, “that luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been,” you believe him.

By their nature, commencements create distance between the speaker and the audience. But the best ones collapse that distance down to zero — turning a formal address into something that feels more like an intimate conversation.

Casey Davis-Van Atta, Senior Director

Level with your audience.

My favorite thing about this speech is that in classic Didion fashion, she doesn’t pretend to have wisdom she doesn’t. I appreciate how she pushes against the conventions of commencement speeches — “I’m not going to give you the usual Commencement line about how you stand on the brink of something. I don’t know what that means.” — to deliver remarks that are very real (and very her). Her speech is a model of leveling with your audience, of building credibility without pretending to know it all — because you don’t!

But at the same time, she doesn’t shirk the responsibility of a commencement address, which is to leave graduates with some nugget of wisdom for their post-college lives. She does this simply — and well — near the end, never losing sight of the fact that good advice does not require flowery language:

“I want to tell you to live in the messy world, throw yourself into the convulsion of the world. I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it.”

Annabelle Long, Associate

Use humor to your advantage.

One of my all-time favorite commencement speeches comes from fellow Northwestern University alum Seth Meyers, who had graduates, family members, and faculty alike giggling and guffawing while facing the burning, bright, hot Evanston sun back in 2016.

Meyers’ use of relatable, smart, and mildly chaotic humor is not only masterful, but memorable. Many commencement speakers acknowledge that graduates won’t remember their speeches (and they’re not wrong), but few are able to successfully use humor to ensure their words stick well after the ceremony is over. Meyers certainly fits into the latter category; his speech is chock-full of funny and nostalgic references to quintessential Northwestern experiences — from roasting/being roasted by your friends against a gothic backdrop, to being pursued to the ends of the earth by NU Alumni Relations, and of course, using the power of “propracticenating” (practicing and procrastinating) to finish assignments in adrenaline-producing proximity to their deadlines.

Meyers might have delivered his speech a few years before I graduated (rude!), but it easily and hilariously resonates across graduating classes — landing it a place in my brain forever.

Brianna Willis, Director

But don’t forget to be sincere, either.

Conan O’Brien has given several great commencement speeches — at Stuyvesant High School, Harvard, and Harvard again. But the one that sticks out most to me is one he gave in 2011 at Dartmouth.

The remarks are, of course, hilarious. He addresses elephants in the room, he self-deprecates, he connects with the graduating class by drawing comparisons between his lifestyle and that of a college student. But as much as he made the crowd laugh, Conan proved to be just as skillful at the sincere closing turn.

A year earlier, Conan, in his words, “experienced a profound and very public disappointment:” losing his position as host of The Tonight Show. And in this speech, Conan used that story of failure — and the career reinvention that followed — to relate to his audience’s anxieties and encourage them to accept that failure is not just inevitable, but necessary for self-actualization:

“It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique…through disappointment, you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.”

So if you want to give a great commencement speech, consider trying and failing to emulate what Conan did.

Chandler Dean, Senior Director

Lead through action.

It started off like any good graduation speech. Zander congratulated his classmates, thanked the families, teachers, and staff who supported them. He highlighted how his class came together — for important protests, and to petition Pitbull to perform at their school.

But most of his speech was less straightforward. “I must discuss a very public part of my identity,” he started, solemnly taking off his cap. “I have curly hair.” He spoke about previously hating his curly hair, trying desperately to straighten it — and then growing to accept and love it.

The speech, of course, was not about hair. In 2022, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed what is known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law to “prohibit[] classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Really, Zander employed a classic writing trick: show not tell. Instead of simply telling his classmates to be courageous, to stand up for their beliefs, and assuring them they’re already old enough to make a difference, Zander did them one better. He showed them.

Hannah Kahn, Director

In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.

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West Wing Writers

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