A President's Reflections

Advice to Commencement Speakers

Posted on April 6, 2012

It is Commencement season again.

I have been through three of my own, attended others for family and friends, spoke at two, and presided over 15 as a president, first at Marlboro College and now at Southern New Hampshire University.  I fashion myself a student of commencement addresses and recently found myself advising someone who has been asked to offer an address next month.

Here are my suggestions:

1. It’s typically a tough audience.  It’s a very big crowd and while ours are always polite and gracious (because somewhat smaller at 8,000 people or so), my advice is to try to never, ever do stadium graduations at big state universities.  Beach balls, air horns, the occasional smell of pot wafting over the crowd, and general lack of attention make it an almost impossible situation.  These are not for the week or the meek and while there are some people who pull it off (see Steve Jobs at Stanford or Bradley Whitford at Wisconsin), it is a challenge.  Get up, be funny, be short, and get out as soon as you can.

2.  Remember why the audience is there.  The families are really there for their kids and to see them walk across stage — the moment they want to see; the moment we project on the jumbotron.  The point here?  No one ever complained about a short commencement speech, but they sure have complained about long ones. Eight to ten minutes is ideal.

3.  Then there is the tough balance between sounding preachy/pedantic (“Here are life lessons as you go off into the world.”) and going off on another topic in which the audience has no interest (”I know it is your graduation, but let me talk about the topic of my next book.”).  A little of the former is okay and none of the latter is really acceptable.  Tell stories — narratives speak to us.

 4.  Have the school provide you with  the names and stories of inspirational students and weave them in.  An audience loves to hear about itself and it shows you got to know them – it kills every time.

5.  Some of the most moving moments have been when speakers talked about their own struggles or shortcomings (see the end of #3 above).  I know it sounds weird, but it draws empathy from an audience and it takes you off the pedestal (the school honoring you will have you properly elevated with the initial reading of your citation).  Bill Shore, the founder of Share Our Strength, thanked SNHU for the praise and then opened by saying that every other weekend he gets on a bus to visit his son who is serving a lengthy prison sentence.  You could have heard a pin drop.  Jim Smith, Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, talked about not getting a promotion he thought he deserved and how life always throws you curve balls and not to be fooled into thinking a plan is anything more than a hope (it got more uplifting after that, in both cases). 

6.  Talking about the special challenges this generation faces is pretty standard.  It works better when you can describe the special gifts they bring to those challenges (again, they like to be celebrated). 

7.  Self-deprecating humor works really well.  And not the kind that is really a back-handed way of letting them know how special you are.  This generation has a keen radar for the inauthentic.

 8.  It probably goes without saying, but partisan political comments never fly.  We have not been shy about having politicians speak and that included Jon Hunstman last year, when his candidacy was alive and still promising, and before that Senator Barak Obama in 2007.  Both delivered messages full of hope, celebration of the graduates, humor, and vision and also managed not to sound political.  Both were great hits.

9.  Unless you have a plane leaving for China, are having a heart attack, or desperately need to pee, stay for the whole thing (ignore that very last bit in item 1 above).  Telling the graduates how happy you are to be with them and how humbled you are and then rushing for the exit three minutes after delivering your speech just looks bad.  Ambassador Huntsman was on the campaign trail when he did our Commencement last year and his staff pressed to have him leave early, but he insisted on staying.  We loved him for it.

10. Try to say nice things about the President of the university.  Okay, probably not a key to success, but I couldn’t resist.

Among the best Commencement addresses I’ve heard:

Billy Shore’s speech, mentioned above.  Full of humility, pain, and ultimately resolve and hope.

Clay Christensen of HBS spoke about how to live one’s life and was unusually frank about faith, values, and family.  People either loved it or found it far too pedantic, but we never had so many requests for copies after a Commencement address.

President Obama.  The then senator was already a very viable candidate and had exhilarated the nation with his oratory.   The speech was very good, but it was more the sense of being in the presence of greatness that puts this one on the list.  He had the “it” factor and it really captivated people. .  By the way, Mr. President, you promised a return visit within your first term — let’s not make that an empty campaign promise now…..

Ann Bancroft, the arctic explorer (not the actress).  She told the story of an expedition where everything was weighed to the last announce and they even had to cut the handles off tooth brushes.  She persuaded the expedition leader to let her bring a book, but had to promise to first remove the cover and use the pages for toilet paper.    Then, as they huddled through a week long blizzard, trapped in their tents, that book helped her through and members of the team traded pages  and shared as she finished sections.   She crafted a story about the power of language, books, and narrative and how they can help us through our challenges.  She was amazing (and for a little woman had a hand shake that could crush one’s fingers!).  Also, she and I rode to the ceremony on my motorcycle, gowns flapping in the wind.  My favorite arrival.

My unquestioned favorite was Emmy Lou Harris, a friend and supporter of Marlboro College.  No honorary degree recipient seemed more genuinely honored and moved.  She had never graduated from college and was humbled.  She spent extra time on campus to meet students and when she came out onstage she said she was overcome and had no words for those who used words so masterfully, so said she would speak to us in the only way she knew how.  She then retrieved her guitar from behind a curtain and sang an acoustic solo version of the Beatles’ “There Are Places I Remember.”  It was amazing and the memory gives me goose bumps still.  Not a dry eye in the house, she returned to her seat on the platform to a standing ovation.

I will say this: even the most jaded speakers usually come away feeling really great about participating.  Especially if you can spend a bit of time meeting students before and after.  Education remains a transformative experience for so many people and in a culture that eschews formality and ceremony, it’s one of the few we hold onto and do well.  Take your role to heart.  It really is an honor.

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