What makes a good commencement speech?

I’m being interviewed on Wed on NPR about commencement speeches.

Update: I was interviewed yesterday on NPR about this. You can listen here.

Commencement speeches are the ones given at graduations, usually in the summer and often outside, where the attention spans of young people are stretched to their limits.

Most of my advice about commencement speeches  is similar to advice I give about all speeches. But I wanted to ask all of you if you had particular thoughts on this.

The two most famous commencement speeches i can think of are wear more sunscreen (which never actually was a speech), and Steve Jobs at Stanford. And most lists of the best are done by people who already had considerable fame before they did the speech.


  • Do you remember your high school or college commencement speech?
  • If yes, what do you recall?
  • Looking back, is there anything you wish they had done differently?


17 Responses to “What makes a good commencement speech?”

  1. Karl Sakas

    My commencement speaker at William & Mary in 2004 was comedian Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. I still remember parts of his speech because 1) it was really funny, 2) he was an alum. Unfortunately this was before YouTube existed, so there’s no online video. But there’s a transcript: http://web.wm.edu/news/archive/index.php?id=3650

    1. Scott Berkun

      Karl: you are a lucky man. A few folks have already emailed me suggestion Stewart’s speech as an excellent example to study.

    2. Eric Reiss

      I love Conan O’Brien’s speech at Dartmouth in 2011. Very funny, but ending up with hugely important advice.

  2. theorycraft

    ooh, toughie… Commencement speeches always happen during boring ass commencements… I’m only there so my folks can snap a few pictures and grab the damn diploma. So yeah, I hate the self righteous ones, the ones that try to give a uplifting message about how we’ve made it and these young aspiring minds will change the world of tomorrow–you know the preachy ones. I suppose if I were to imagine a good commencement speech, it would sound like an obituary. Talk about big events in the past few years, how great the institution has served all of us and how no matter where we end up and the different dramas between us, the school has played a big role in our lives and will always be a part of each and every student regardless of where they end up.

  3. Marc

    I had the honor of giving a commencement speech last year. I don’t remember much from the ones I’ve heard, so I went in with that expectation. Naturally I’m still having people comment on it a year later. Around 10-12 minutes seems to be the ideal length. I picked a general theme (taking chances and trying new things) and provided a few brief illustrations from my life tied to academic, professional, and personal pursuits. I attempted to balance humor with some serious points. Also, despite the audience being made up of students, parents, faculty, staff, etc. I focused primarily on delivering the message to the graduating students. If the rest of the audience enjoyed it, great. But my purpose was to give a message to the graduates.

    And of course the biggest advice, which I’m sure you know, be yourself. In preparing for it I watched the speeches given by others, but realized that the style I saw in many of those was not the right fit for me. It’s better to be comfortable with your style than to change in order to fit some mold of what other people think is “right” for the occasion. The institution invited you to come and give the speech. So, you are the one who decides what and how to do it (within reason of course).

  4. Percy

    I remember who gave the speech for my undergrad commencement but don’t even remember the person who did it at grad school. For the former, I remember that the speech was good and that the speaker talked about us becoming “technocrats” but not much else.

    For me, the requirements for a commencement speech are that the speech should be relevant to the graduating class (i.e. not about the speaker), be memorable (so it will be remembered), and short (10 to 15 minutes).

    Commencement speeches I’ve enjoyed reading/viewing include David Foster Wallace’s speech (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122178211966454607.html), J K Rowling’s speech at Harvard, Jeff Bezos’ speech at Princeton (I think), and Atul Gawande’s speech at Harvard Med school.

    I do want to point out that I have read most of these speeches, so I am not sure how different I would’ve felt about them if I were in the audience listening.

  5. John

    I absolutely remember my college graduation speaker. I graduated from NC State in 2003 and the speaker was none other than Phil Donahue. It was a good speech from what I recall (theme: Take a Liberal to Lunch), and was focused on listening to people with other viewpoints. But, he did talk about politics and religion. At one point he said “You won’t believe this because you are smart educated adults, but some people actually still believe in the tree of life, and the rest of Genesis, as a literal historical account”. Large numbers of people walked out when he started to talk about religion. Quite a few graduates took off their robe and stormed out. The yelling was so loud that it was all we could do to hear what he was saying. When he was done speaking, the chancellor stood up and thanked him saying something like: “it is indeed the mark of an educated person that you are willing to sit and listen to another point of view”. Given the topic of the speech and the audience reaction, that was a fantastic line and it calmed the place down almost immediately, although Donahue’s radical speech was the talk of the state for weeks.

  6. Mark

    In the ’90’s, Colby College had a string of high-profile speakers: Bill Cosby, George HW Bush, Charles Osgood, Stephen Breyer… Most of the speakers had children / relatives graduating each of those years. Unfortunately, my class had no famous relatives that could be conscripted for duty. Even Maine’s senior senator (George Mitchell) was too busy. At the last minute, Bob Dole was cajoled into showing up. As you can imagine, liberal colleges and conservative Republicans don’t mix very well. Before launching into his 30 minute stump speech, he did tell a joke that I still remember:

    “Graduation speakers are a lot like corpses at a funeral.
    You can’t have one without the other…
    And you don’t expect them to say too much.”

    At least he got that right.

    Good luck with the interview.

  7. Tim Dellinger

    Here’s what the organizers and attendees of the ceremony want: when asked about the speech, they want to be able to talk about it for three minutes with a smile on their face and say that you had an interesting perspective and repeat one joke. And then a month later they’ll forget all about it unless it was given by a celebrity.

    Thousands of graduation speeches are given every year. The number of memorable ones, or ones that go viral, is a small, small percentage of that number.

  8. Kathi Soniat

    I graduated from college in December so did not attend my commencement in May as I had already moved. BUT as I was majoring in music I remeber the commencement speaker from the previous year – It was John Williams – composer of Star Wars, Olympic theme and many other famous pirces of movie music.

    He not only directed the convert band – and we played better than ever before, but he gave a very motivational speech.

  9. Vicki Hertzberg

    Dr. Ben Carson, neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins, gave one of the best commencement speeches I’ve ever heard at Emory University’s commencement yesterday.

  10. Sean Crawford

    I think you could advise NPR that a speech should include a challenge for the future. I’ve been forever inspired by a guest to our student recreation conference who said, You can be out on the cutting edge of change, where people will take pot shots at you, or you can stay back and play it safe… I forget all the rest, but that stayed with me. (And yes, I have accumulated arrows in my back)

    Scott, if you ever do a grad speech of your own, some day, then you could tell people your philosophy on saying thank you, like in your essay, then some would never forget it even though the rest was forgotten… After your essay, I dared send my mighty CEO an appreciation card and I have never regretted it.

  11. Per Rosing Mogensen

    I’ve never been at a commencement speech, but if I had I would want it to be like Richard Hamming’s talk “You and Your Research” at Bellcore: http://paulgraham.com/hamming.html

    It was targeted at scientist but I think it has universal application, and also as the world is changing faster and faster universally applicable methods, processes, and principles are the only really useful advice today. Specific knowledge, predictions or advise tend to be obsolete within a shorter and shorter time frame. Most people do get a lot of “wisdom” through various sources, but they’re usually without context, like a random fortune cookie, and therefore doesn’t integrate well with people’s existing knowledge and experiences so they are forgotten most of the time.

    I think Hamming’s speech was significant because he used the context and personal experience to relate some timeless principles to the audience’s situation or expectations of future situations. This I am fairly certain helped a lot of them integrate what he said into their own ideas about what was to come and how to go about it, which would help them recall it many years later too.

    Specifically the principles I think he talked about in the speech, that I wish someone would have mentioned to me earlier in life:

    – If you do not work on an important problem, it’s unlikely you’ll do important work.

    – One of the characteristics of successful scientists is having courage. Once you get your courage up and believe that you can do important problems, then you can. If you think you can’t, almost surely you are not going to.

    – What most people think are the best working conditions, are not. Many scientists when they found they couldn’t do a problem finally began to study why not. They then turned it around the other way and said, “But of course, this is what it is” and got an important result.

    – Great scientists tolerate ambiguity very well.

    – The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity – it is very much like compound interest.

    – You find this happening again and again; good scientists will fight the system rather than learn to work with the system and take advantage of all the system has to offer. It has a lot, if you learn how to use it. It takes patience, but you can learn how to use the system pretty well, and you can learn how to get around it.


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