May 16, 2017

Graduation Speeches, Humor & Personal Experience

Public Speaking , Seen|Read|Heard , Presentation Tips , Storytelling

"To give such an address is also to walk through a mine field of clichés. Most of which I don’t believe anyway. I am not, for example, a big fan of working hard to achieve something. I prefer the attitude of Max Beerbohm who said that ‘the ant sets an example for us all, but it is not a good one.’"

– Billy Collins, making a commencement speech at Colorado College

An honor? An unenviable assignment? Every year, brave souls accept the challenge of delivering a commencement address. Some speakers, remarkably, even leave us with speeches to remember.

The problem, of course, is that the commencement speech itself is a cliché in addition to often being filled with them. Jimmy Kimmel recently showed this mashup of graduation speeches by President Donald Trump and Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods, and it captures the problem.

We may bemoan it all, but the commencement speech marches on. Graduation speech expert Cristina Negrut has identified the four primary ways to put together graduation speeches, catalogued the sentiments they need to convey, and provides a formula for making them. She also keeps track of the best of the lot and provides links to them here.

Because of the form’s expectations, two wonderful elements for any speech are especially appreciated—humor and personal experience.

The Buckley School has always urged speakers to use wit and humor whenever appropriate. "We steer them away from canned jokes," says school director Karen Kalutz, "and toward humor that either comes from the subject matter or from the speaker’s experiences."

The school also teaches that personal experience can be great for illustrating a point. "An audience may take issue with your opinion, or even your facts," Kalutz say, "but they can’t argue with your personal experience. That’s yours. You own it."

Because it’s yours, it has even more value in a commencement speech, where the sentiments tend to be the same from podium to podium, year after year. Your personal experience will be new to the audience, even if it’s similar to stories they’ve heard before. Your details, your reaction, your lessons learned belong to you—so that’s something you bring that they won’t find anywhere else.

In the video below, you can see how Will Ferrell used humor (naturally) and personal experience to give an old message new life. He was a speaker this month at the University of Southern California’s graduation. His message: The good ol’ “keep trying, no matter what ‘they’ tell you” line you’ve heard before. But the thing he keeps trying? That story, most likely, will seem fresh to everyone.

And if you still have a graduation ceremony (or two) on the horizon, you can improve your chances of being entertained with this handy Commencement Speech Bingo featuring the top 24 clichés.

Wired parsed 80+ graduation speeches to find the most often used clichés.

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