Conquering the Commencement Speech

With commencement season coming up, veteran speechwriter David Meadvin shares tips and tricks for succeeding at one of the most difficult speeches to write and deliver.

Q: Why are commencement speeches so hard to write?

A: When it comes to commencement speeches, there's an unavoidable tension between uplift and cliche. Everyone in the audience -- graduating students, faculty and family -- expects to hear something inspiring, but commencement speakers tell us all the time that it feels like every concept has been done before. It takes real time and brainpower to kick ideas around before landing on a set of themes and stories that feel right.


Q: Given these challenges, how do you work with commencement speakers? Where do you start?

A: There are some speeches that a writer can pull off without spending much time with the speaker.  This isn't one of them.  When we tackle commencement speeches, we make it clear up front that it has to be an intensely collaborative process.  We will usually start with an initial round of brainstorm sessions by phone, but in most cases we spend several hours with the speaker in-person. It's not a linear process; there's not a checklist of questions and answers.

We'll usually start by getting to know each other, because the brainstorm process between speaker and speechwriter requires a level of trust and comfort.  These conversations will often feel meandering, because the goal is to have the speaker engage in a stream of consciousness that gradually gets more specific over time. Speakers often start the process with some notion of key points they'd like to make, but it's not unusual for the speech to stem from a single story or fact that came up unexpectedly during our conversations.  I find that the best speeches are developed serendipitously.


Q: If a commencement speaker chooses to write on their own, how can they mimic this process?

A: Don't try to write your speech alone. That doesn't mean you need to work with a professional, but I strongly recommend collaborating with a trusted friend or colleague. Especially if you plan to deliver a bold message, it's really important to have a sounding board. Also, don't expect to simply sit down in front of a blank page and write. Take time to think, jot down notes and brainstorm. You'll take a lot of wrong turns before finding the right notes.


Q: What tone should speakers take?

A: The key isn't to reinvent the wheel, but to put your own unique spin on some tried-and-true themes. Graduates, faculty and family want to leave commencement feeling energized and optimistic. It's completely fine to challenge them, but it shouldn't come across as stern or accusatory. Sharing lessons in the context of personal experience always makes them feel more personal and less cliche. 


Q: Any tips on delivery?

A: Commencement speeches are challenging to deliver, even for experienced public speakers. Rarely will you speak to such a large crowd, and few speeches are as formal as a commencement. For a truly large setting (a stadium or concert hall, for example), strongly consider using a teleprompter (if you do, make sure to reserve ample time for practice).  If that's not an option, make sure to come as close as possible to memorizing the speech. Also, while acknowledgements are inevitable, keep them as short as possible. The best speakers capture their audience's attention early, and it's easy to lose an audience right up front with too many thank-yous.  Jokes often don't translate well to large audiences. Read slowly!


Q: Where should commencement speakers go for inspiration?

A: The most famous commencement speech of all-time was delivered by Steve Jobs at Stanford University in 2008.  Go back and watch the speech. Notice anything interesting? there is absolutely no poetry to it.  Virtually zero rhetorical flourish. His delivery wasn't polished or particularly memorable. The genius of the speech was that it had the simplest possible structure ("three stories, no big deal") and felt intensely personal. Jobs' advice didn't feel hollow or preachy because it was grounded in his own experience.  And despite his extraordinary success, he found inspiration in his failures, rather than his successes. Vulnerability is one of the most compelling tools in a speaker's arsenal.

To discuss your upcoming commencement speech, drop us a note --  Or, give us a call at (312) 260-0810.