This is the graduation season. The president and first lady are giving graduation speeches, and so are many others. I have sat through many graduations in my day, and I will this year, too. Most of the time they are deadly. The graduation I attended yesterday was no exception.
Colleges often invite influential trustees or even donors to speak. Often it is someone who has made it in business, or science or war. Rarely they do they choose someone from the arts, although I went to a high-school graduation last year with the keynote delivered by a well-known comedian. A Stanford University commencement ceremony featured a poet whom no one had heard of. He knew that and used the speech to talk about the role the arts in people’s lives. It was very well received. Usually a graduation speech is preceded by a student speaker from the class who gives a funny speech directed at the graduates. Rarely does the student speaker mention his or her own accomplishments.
The B speakers high schools, smaller colleges and universities feature usually start out with their own resume. No one needs it. The introducer or the graduation program usually contains the bio. That doesn’t stop the speakers from talking about their own life ad nauseam.
I could just imagine yesterday’s speaker’s wife as he was preparing his talk. He made a vague attempt to weave in “advice” while telling stories of his ability to manage others. He was clearly mighty proud of himself as he talked about giving young people a chance and of his great ability to motivate the millennial generation. His grand piece of advice was that “second best was a terminal disease.” The person sitting next to me loudly asked, “Don’t they make a silver and bronze in the Olympics?”
I was thinking what about the students who did not graduate cum laude. What were their parents thinking when he said that?
As everyone was looking at their watches, another woman in back of me said to her husband, “I bet no one ever lets this guy talk.” It had to be true because if he talked to anyone like he did to the graduates, they would be running for the hills. Why don’t they give some of these speakers a few simple rules?
I propose that graduation speakers be given some basic guidelines. If they won’t agree ahead of time to follow them, then they shouldn’t be taking the time of a captive audience. Here are some suggestions:
1. Speak for no more than 15 minutes. Take a page from broadcast television. Unless it is a funeral or inauguration, segments do not last more than 15 minutes without a break.
2. Don’t speak about your experience. Unless you landed on the moon, climbed Mount Everest or invented the computer, no one is really interested. They can buy your book, see your movie or listen to your music on iTunes.
3. Find out about the people you are speaking to. If it is a large class, then do some research by speaking to the class president, the faculty and some individual students. Find out what has been taking place in the last four years, on and off campus. Were there student plays, athletics, faculty and students events that will be memorable for years to come? What were the high and low points in the past four years?
4. Where are students going from here? What has happened to them in their job or further education applications? Make reference to what the class will be doing next.
5. If you are a generation older, find out what have been the defining moments of the generation that will be hearing your speech. What has been news to their parents? What struggles and funny times have they had to undergo in raising this generation?
6. Be funny. If you can’t laugh with your audience than politely decline the invitation to speak.
7. Do your homework. Find out what kind of advice they want to get from the speech. Ask them.
8. Ask yourself what you would like to hear. Do you want a short speech geared toward you, or do you want to hear about the highlights of someone’s resume?
If the graduation speakers would spend time doing audience research instead of having an ego fest, then graduates and their families would leave the room on with “contact high” instead of a graduation speech low. Wouldn’t that be a better way to help young people to navigate the world?