A graduation speech is part entertainment, part inspiration — and the best way to win over any audience is to show your understanding of what entertains and inspires them.
So start to prepare your commencement or graduation speech by thinking about your audience.
Step One: Know the Graduates You’ll Be Talking To
If you’re the valedictorian of your class, you already understand your classmates’ hopes, fears, expectations, opportunities, and attitudes.
But if you’re not well-versed in what today’s high school, college, and graduate students are thinking about and facing, now’s the time to find out. So do your research before you brainstorm and write your actual speech:
- Ask People in Your Target Age Group for Information. Nieces, nephews, kids, grandchildren, and their friends are a great source of insights. Just don’t forget that the young people you know may live in very different circumstances than the young people you’ll be speaking to.
- Hit the Internet. Find out whether anything important has happened this year at the school where you’ll be speaking. If the event was positive, you can congratulate the school community; and if there’s been a recent tragedy, you’ll at least know (whether you choose to mention it or not) that your audience may still be coping with sadness or shock.
- Talk to People Who’ll Be In Your Audience. This is easy to arrange and incredibly eye-opening. Ask whoever invited you to speak to suggest some graduates you can contact, and have a list of questions ready for them. Take notes on these discussions, and end each conversation by asking, “Is there anything else I should know about what’s on the minds of your graduating class?”
Step Two: Think About Why You Were Invited to Speak
Whether you’ve been invited to speak for a personal or a more general reason, think about what you can bring to the party with your commencement speech. Based on the conversations and research you’ve conducted, what part of your life, your success, your story, or your wisdom will mean the most to this particular audience?
For example, Tom Hanks, who spoke at my daughter’s college graduation, was invited because he’s Tom Hanks. Yet in spite of not having a personal connection to the school, Hanks had obviously taken time to think about his audience (for instance, he joked that he wished he had as many social media hits as the class’s singing star Sam Tsui). He kept his remarks focused on the graduates, and our friend Jeremy — pictured in his “cap” and gown — praised Hanks’ “thoughtful and heartfelt advice” and hopeful message.
On the other hand, if you do have a connection to the school or students (if you’re there to serve as an example for them), you can tell a much more personal story. My client, Celebrity Chef Marc Murphy, was invited to speak to the graduating class at The Kildonan School because, like Kildonan’s students, Marc has dyslexia — and his story about building success through drive, creativity, relationships, and resilience had a special meaning for this commencement audience. (P.S. If you haven’t been to any of Marc’s great restaurants, treat yourself soon!)
Step Three: Collect Ideas for Your Speech
Now that you know more about your audience, and have thought about what you can offer them, you’re ready to start capturing actual ideas.
Whenever you find yourself thinking, hearing, reading, observing, or talking about something that might have a place in your speech, take notes on a pad or on your phone. If the idea or comment came from somebody else, write down that person’s name and where or when you heard their comment (do this both so that you can credit them, and so that you can track down other clever or insightful things they might have said).
Collect all those nuggets in one place, and when you’ve got a good pile of them, sit down — by yourself, or with a friend who writes well, or with a speechwriter/speaker coach like me — and see what you’ve got:
- Are there stories you can tell your commencement or graduation audience? If so, do you have a central story, or a series of smaller ones?
- Is there a key message (central point) that comes through in your notes? If so, do you want to persuade the audience to do, think, or believe something in particular?
- Is there a particular emotion you want them to feel, or thought you want them to leave with? You can clarify this by imagining what you would like to hear if someone comes up to you later and says, “Your speech was great! It made me really ______________________.”
Step Four: Write or Plan Your Actual Speech
I’ve written a public speaking workbook that guides you through how to structure a speech, and a book on interviewing skills that shows you how to tell good stories. And while I’m not going to try to reproduce them here, I’ll tell you that the hardest part of putting any speech together is knowing what you want to say — and you’ve already done that part!
So think of your speech as a jigsaw puzzle, start moving the pieces around — or, if you’re using a model like the Instant Speech, put your big points in the right buckets — and it should come together pretty easily.
If your speech doesn’t come together easily, that’s usually a good sign that you’re trying too hard; or that you’re trying to accomplish the wrong thing (you might be trying to impress people, for instance, instead of just sharing what you think); or that you need help (in which case, I hope you’ll contact me!)
And just for inspiration, here’s one of my favorite graduation messages; it’s simple, colorful, and clear, and though it hails from the “My Space” era, the message is timeless: