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What Makes a Good Commencement Speech (From Someone Who Has Seen a Lot of Them)

Now that we are nearing the end of college and university commencement season, the reviews are coming in – the good, the bad, the so-so and of course, the best. Last week the TVP Comms team shared some of our favorite commencement memories, but this week I want to take a look at what makes a good commencement speech.

After working nine graduations at the College of the Holy Cross, plus attending my own, my siblings’, my siblings’-in-law, and most recently my husband’s, I have seen quite a few commencement speeches during my time. Here are a few tips I picked up along the way.

If you’re funny, be funny. If you aren’t, don’t try. If cracking jokes is your thing – go for it. Just make sure you know your audience. A group of 20-something-year-olds might not laugh at what your friends or colleagues think is funny. If you can practice one good joke, and get it right, leave it at that. Most importantly make sure your speech is from your heart and it is genuine. Be yourself.

Tell a story. All commencement speakers are accomplished in their fields. Soon-to-be-graduates want to know how you got to be where you are. So, tell them. But remember to use your elevator pitch, don’t share your life story on stage. Paint a picture. How did you get from that dorm room to the board room?

Make it personal, but not too personal. Talk about a triumph or a struggle. Share how you overcame an obstacle or talk about a favorite professor who was a mentor. Stay away from such topics as death or divorce, unless it’s central to your success story. Yes, I once heard a speaker talk to grads about a divorce, numerous times, throughout the speech.

In the words of Barack Obama’s former speechwriter Jon Favreau “Don’t wing it.” While some celebrities, politicians and thought leaders are asked to give multiple commencement speeches (in the same season!), some only have one chance. Rehearse, practice, make sure the advice you are giving to these young minds is something they can use in the future. Practice your speech in front of your loved ones. They will tell you the truth, even if that means re-writing the night before the event.

Graduation day for students and their families is a major milestone and something they will remember forever. If you give a great speech, you will be part of those memories forever, and may even make history, like these five speakers identified as the most inspirational by USA Today.