You’ve been asked to give a graduation speech. It’s an honor, you know. If it’s a high school graduation, you might be a valedictorian, senior class president, or an influential member of the community. If it’s for university graduation, you may be an influential member of the greater society: an actor, a writer, a newscaster or politician. But actually, it’s just you, a person with a daunting task of preparing something memorable to say that won’t put an entire stadium full of people to sleep.
If you decide to research how to write a graduation speech, you’ll find that there is very little unique or even original advice. All the articles tell you close to the same thing. Inspire. Motivate. Talk about the future of possibilities. Talk about the hard work to get to this point. Standard, boilerplate topics can be a good thing. Even when trying to be creative in your speech writing, it’s nice to have a tried and true template to start with.
That sounds like a very basic question, doesn’t it? But the bigger your audience, the more generic it gets. Who is in your audience at a graduation?
The graduating class is who you should be focusing on, your primary audience. Your job is to motivate or inspire them. But are they going to focus on you? More likely, they are thinking about what’s next. Next could be dinner with their parents and grandparents, the graduation party tonight, or what they are going to do with the next week, year or decade. Or possibly they are thinking back on the last however many years with a feeling of nostalgia already taking bud in the back of their mind. In short, your primary audience has so many things to think about on this auspicious occasion, and getting and keeping their attention for any length of time will be unlikely.
So if it’s going to be difficult to gain and hold the attention of the graduating class, focus on the secondary audience: all those parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends out there. Unfortunately, their minds are preoccupied as well. The family is at this graduation to watch Susie or Billy walk across that stage to be handed a diploma. This secondary audience is also letting their mind float to the past or future life of the graduate. Except perhaps for Uncle Stan. He is concerned about all the traffic trying to get out of the parking lot when the ceremony is over. If his niece’s last name is at the front of the alphabet, he could be pulling out of the parking lot before those with last names starting with W ever get to the stage.
Don’t be discouraged about the lack of tuned in audience. Instead, use it should lesson your anxiety. Your speech is important. You are the sprinkles on the top of the cake. These graduates have been working for years to earn this cake and ice cream. You are just the pretty decoration at the top, the unnecessary but pleasing final affect.
What it does mean is that your audience will be casual listeners. It means that if you mess up a joke, miss a key point, or stumble on your words, Susie and Billy will still walk across the stage and the family and friends will still be happy. This day is not about you, so ease up on yourself. Just enjoy the opportunity to add some final advice to those whose attention you can hold on to.
Every May and June there are tens of thousands of graduation ceremonies. Each ceremony has several speakers: graduates, faculty, and special personality. But with all these speeches, the themes tend to be fairly limited. Common topics will be reassuring the students about the future, advising them on life’s lessons and opportunities, or a reminiscence of all their successes to get to this point. Be all you can be and you do not need to be perfect.
So if the topic is fairly cracker box, how can you be unique? Decide on your main points and then use personal experience as your filler. There could be thousands across the nation using the same topic as you, but you are the only one with your stories and antidotes. And once you decide what stories from your life you are willing to share with this crowd, figuring out the words should be a breeze. Afterall, you’ve been telling these same antidotes at family gatherings for years. As you practice your speech, becoming comfortable with your script, look for places to add wit to your experiences. A touch of humor works magic on a crowd and in turn, and their chuckles can ease your nerves.
Enough is Enough. How Long Should your Graduation Speech Be
Probably when you were asked to give the graduation speech, the requestor probably gave you some preferences or instructions. Usually those instructions will give you guidelines for the amount of time built into the schedule for you. But when instructions are not given, 10-15 minutes is a reasonable guideline. You have done enough public speaking to know that when you get on stage, your speech takes about half the time to give as it did when you were practicing. So there is no problem when your speech goes about 20 minutes during practice sessions. You’ll have some note cards, or even a full-fledged script, but you can count on speaking faster and missing points when you are actually standing in front of the audience.
When you do walk up to the podium, time is another thing that you really don’t need to worry about. You are not going to lose points or get a bad grade if your speech is not long enough. In fact, a large share of your audience is hoping you will go short. Because you are probably the last hurdle before the procession of students begins.
So graduation is over, your speech is done, and you’ve shaken the hands of more strangers than you can count. They all told you what a wonderful speech you gave, it was inspiring, it was motivating, it was everything they were hoping for. And you’ve learned that it wasn’t so horrifying to give the graduation speech.
- You were not the reason the audience was there. With everything else on their minds, your audience would have been happy with whatever you had to say.
- Your topic was simple, no acts of intellectual babbling needed. Just talk about personal experience and add in some self-depreciating humor. An easy combination to pull off even in the most difficult circumstances.
- No matter how inspiring an orator you are, they were waiting for your conclusion. They are shaking hands after the ceremony, you were a grand success.
Keep in mind that in a speech to the 2005 Stanford University graduation class, Steve Jobs told the graduates:
And his speech is listed as one of the all-time greats! Surely you can be more motivating than that.
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