A decade ago when I finished my master degree, I was selected as the student speaker at commencement. I had to submit my prepared remarks to an advisory board for approval. The board issued its approval without remark.
I painstakingly crafted my nine-minute speech. (I had a 10-minute time limit.) I selected each phrase with care. My wife helped me rework clumsy sentences and refine structure. I practiced the speech over and over again to get my diction, intonation, emphasis, and body language just the way I wanted — much as a vocal artist would practice to perform a song.
When the day arrived, I sat on the stage of the auditorium in my graduation robes, surrounded by faculty dressed in similar robes. I noted that others that were to spend some time at the lectern were not wearing their mortar boards, so I waited to don mine until the point arrived where graduates were to move their tassels from one side of the board to the other.
The keynote speaker that day was Rocky Anderson, who was then in his first year as mayor of Salt Lake City. Mayor Anderson’s speech was OK, but it was frankly rather lifeless. He droned on about how those of us that had been so blessed by life had an obligation to give back to the community — a sentiment with which I agree. The Mayor ducked out after his speech.
I could tell from audience response that my speech kept most listeners engaged. Among other things, I talked about the value of learning how to learn. I made a few minor stumbles, but overall the speech went very well. I was so relieved when it was over that I almost failed to appreciate the audience’s magnanimous response.
After the conclusion of the commencement exercises, I received many compliments from faculty, graduates, and other attendees. One seasoned faculty member said that she had never heard such a fine student commencement speech in decades of listening to such speeches.
Many remarked that the quality of my speech dramatically exceeded that of Mayor Anderson’s remarks. I explained that from overhearing a conversation prior to the event, I knew that this was the Mayor’s sixth speech of the week and that he left early to attend yet another engagement where he was to speak. The Mayor’s commencement address was just another speaking engagement on his busy schedule. My speech, on the other hand, was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I was determined to make the most of it.
In this season of commencement exercises, I am reflecting on the various graduation ceremonies I have attended over the years. I can’t remember who spoke at most of these events, let alone remember anything that was said. Have I just amalgamated these various valuable messages into my subconscious, or have most of them been simply vapid platitudes?
I recall one university commencement where one of the speakers was an aged, long retired math professor. I remember two significant factors. One was his explanation of the settling in bushels of tomatoes that occurred when as a boy his family hauled tomatoes from the farm to the market. The height of the tomatoes in the baskets was always lower upon arrival because the jostling caused the tomatoes, which had been touching on an average of five points to the basket and other tomatoes, to touch on six points. The other thing I remember is that his speech went on way, way too long.
I’m really having difficulty remembering much else that has been said by speakers at commencement exercises I have attended. Am I unusual in this, or is this experience more general? If the latter is the case, I think that it would be wise for commencement speakers to focus on three things: brevity, entertainment, and dignity.
While it is actually possible to speak too briefly, there has rarely been a case of this in recorded history. Making your remarks concise will force you to focus on saying the most important things.
Entertainment is more than cracking jokes. It is keeping the audience captivated and engaged. It is charming and delighting your audience. And that’s really what you want to do at an occasion like graduation. There is no need for academia to be dull and boorish.
Despite a general societal trend toward casualness and declining decorum, official celebrations of major life events merit a certain level of respectability. As important occasions lose respectability, people have less reason to regard them with seriousness. It is quite possible to be both entertaining and dignified. Even if society in general is moving away from this model, there is still a broad appreciation for class. Your tasteful speech may not be long remembered, but you will feel better about it.
Many of us will sit through a number of commencement exercises during our lifetimes. If you are ever called on to speak at one of these events, you should at the very least do your best to make the event more bearable for the audience. You can do this by making your remarks brief, entertaining, and dignified. After all, that’s the kind of speech you would want to hear yourself.