Delivering a graduation speech is a nearly impossible task.

Think back to your college graduation. It was likely outside. The students were likely excited, boisterous, maybe even less than sober. If you were attending as a guest, you just wanted it to be over. You were prepared for boredom. And, if you graduated in the last 10-12 years, you were on your phone texting, surfing, or posting on social media.

Now imagine being a speaker seeking to capture and maintain your attention for 15 minutes or more.

I feel graduation speakers’ pain. I’m a pastor, and I’ve officiated numerous weddings. It’s a difficult task, especially when it comes to my short sermon near the beginning of the wedding. The couple just wants to get to their honeymoon. The attendees just want to get to the reception (or the bar), so they can eat and drink for free.

As difficult as these tasks are, they aren’t impossible. In fact, the same secrets to success in those settings apply to every other speaking engagement.

Lessons from the Best Graduation Speeches

You may never be asked to speak at a graduation or officiate a wedding. However, you will likely have to speak publicly at some point in the future. Despite public speaking sitting at the top of the list of our greatest fears, I believe each of us can deliver speeches and survive to tell about it. We can overcome these fears.

What can we learn from successful graduation speakers about how we communicate in a way which gets remembered?

Keep It Short.

TED talks have redefined the public speaking category. When industry leaders and icons who are known worldwide can communicate transformative ideas in six or eighteen-minute ideas, we shouldn’t feel entitled to long speeches to communicate. One way to ensure we’re asked to speak again is ending before the time limit we’re given. We’ve heard many terrible long speeches; we haven’t heard many terrible short ones.

If you can, be funny.

Humor is a powerful communication tool. Humor endears us to an audience and creates openness to our message. Even if you can’t tell a good joke, self-deprecating humor is available.

In his graduation speech at MIT, actor Matt Damon used humor well. He said, “Let’s just put that out there. I mean, I’ve seen the list of previous commencement speakers: Nobel Prize winners, The UN Secretary General, President of the World Bank, President of the United States. And who did you get? The guy who did the voice for a cartoon horse.”

Be vulnerable.

People don’t connect to our perfection; they connect to our imperfection. We become more human through pain, struggle, weakness, and failure; not victory, achievement, and strength. Telling a vulnerable story – even one where we’re more the villain than the hero – can get people leaning in to listen.

In her graduation speech at UC Berkeley, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg publicly addressed the death of her husband for the first time. Instead of sharing clichés and merely positive vibes, Sandberg took a different approach. She said, ““The easy days ahead of you will be easy. It is the hard days—the times that challenge you to your very core—that will determine who you are. You will be defined not just by what you achieve, but by how you survive.”

Keep it simple.

When a communicator can simplify their message down to a phrase, and they repeat it strategically, they usually ensure their audience remembers it. Think MLK with “I have a dream,” JFK with “Ask not what your country can do for you…,” Donald Trump with “Make American Great Again,” and Winston Churchill with “Never, never, never give up.”

Steve Jobs gave his famous commencement address at Stanford University in 2005. He had one simple idea – “Do what you love.” It was memorable, repeatable, and portable. Sure, it bordered on the cliché. But his personal stories fleshed out the idea and made it real.

People rarely remember more than one idea. So, keep it simple.

Practice your introduction and conclusion.

I often get asked for speaking advice since I give 40-50 original presentations per year. I have a few standard tips, one of which is “practice your ending and beginning.”

It’s hard to recover from a bad ending, so if you can start well, it’s easier to keep the momentum going. And people remember your final words. I’m not sure who said it first, but “last words are lasting words.” When Steve Jobs ended his speech at Stanford by calling graduates to “stay hungry, stay foolish,” it was an iconic moment.

Even if it was a less than perfect presentation, a good ending can leave a positive final image in your audience’s minds.

Speeches Change Lives

Carmine Gallo is a public speaking expert and the best-selling author of Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. In an article he wrote about Steve Jobs’ Standford commencement address, Gallo shared a story of the speech’s impact on a man who wasn’t even there.

“A few years ago I met an entrepreneur who had given up a lucrative job to pursue an idea for a tech company. He was making a very high salary, and I asked him where he had found the courage to quit. He pulled a paper from his bag and passed it across the table. I immediately recognized it as the printed text of the Jobs commencement speech. ‘This gave me the courage to follow my heart,’ he said.”

I doubt Jobs expected the speech to be watched by tens of millions of people. But it changed the life of one man who wasn’t graduating, nor sitting in the seats that day.

When we stand up at a graduation, business meeting, church service, or even a wedding reception toast, we stand on the edge of a profound opportunity. Our words could change someone’s life. We could transform someone sitting in that room or someone who watches a video of the moment halfway across the world.

As I think about graduation season, I’ve changed my mind. Sure, a lot of people will be checked out. But someone is listening, waiting to be moved and inspired.

Graduation speakers and reception toasters, you can do this!


Have you been tapped to give an important speech? Scott Savage shares tips from the best graduation speeches to make your preparation a little easier.