Graduation is a big day for graduates, their families, and teachers. If you are called to give a graduation speech, you want to make it special. I want to share with you what makes a good graduation speech and give you tips on how to write one that will make an impact.
As we begin, you need to wrap your mind around two main things:
- Most people do not remember the graduation speeches they hear, but they do remember the feeling they got in the moment–inspired, bored, challenged.
- The more you tap into shared memories, the more meaningful the speech will be for those listening.
There are two main types of graduation speakers, the student speaker, and the headline speaker. At one college at our university, there is a speech contest to be the graduation speaker and at another college, it is someone who has been nominated by a faculty member. How you get there varies from place to place At the local high school, the valedictorian is often the speaker. I recently went to high school graduation and they had seven valedictorians so they had seven speakers–yes, it was as long as you can imagine.
When thinking about giving a graduation speech, you have to ask, “What does the audience need from me?” They need you to reflect on the past, celebrate the present, and focus on the future. This chapter will walk you through the essentials of giving a graduation speech and then give you several example speeches as samples of key elements.
Gather the Details
- How long will you speak?
- Who will be in attendance?
- Who will introduce you?
- Are you the only speaker?
- Will there be a microphone?
- Can you use speech notes?
- Brainstorm with Friends
This is the fun part. Sit down with friends and make a list of all the things that come to mind about the college experience. When brainstorming, write down everything you think of and don’t try to judge whether it should be included, just go with it. There is an entire chapter on how to brainstorm here.
- Food, dining halls, local restaurants
- Hangouts on campus
- Social events
- Notable classes
- Significant memories
- Current events
- Shared college experiences (on our campus it might be buying scantrons, hearing the bells of Old Main, and using Blackboard.
Most all student graduation speeches include the past, present, and future format.
- Present: Opening statement and the thank you.
- Past: The shared memory.
- Future: The challenge and a closing statement.
Most student graduation speeches are in manuscript format. That helps you from getting overwhelmed at the moment and that also gives the school a chance to censor– I mean to approve of–your content. There is an entire chapter on writing a manuscript that you can refer to here.
Pick a Theme
Many graduation speeches use a theme. Here are some of the most common graduation themes.
It can be helpful to pick a theme and connect a metaphor to your theme. There is an entire chapter on how to do that here.
“There is no such thing as failure.
Failure is just life trying to push you in another direction.”
Oprah Winfrey, Harvard University Commencement Speech
Start Your Speech with an Introduction
Most introductions acknowledge the occasion, offer thanks, and lead into the main idea. Shutterfly suggests these as openings.
- “Thank you [person who introduced you]. And thank you to the students, teachers, parents, and staff who made these four years everything that they were.”
- “It’s my honor today to deliver the commencement address for this incredible student body.”
- “It is my pleasure to welcome students, families, and faculty to graduation day at [school’s name]. Every one of you has made an impact on the graduates who sit here today.”
- “I stand here before you, looking back on four years of legacy we’ve all made together.”
Use the Principles of Good Ceremonial Speaking
I have written a chapter on each component of ceremonial speaking and you can reference those you need:
- Tell a story
- Use identification, narration, and magnification
- Use colorful language
- Use metaphor, simile, and theme
- Put your speech in manuscript format
Look for Stories that Celebrate Common Experiences
Notice how Jaclyn Marston reflects on specific classes and memories. (Watch starting at .54 seconds).
Watch how Lin Manuel Miranda references the familiar and the obscure in his address to the University of Pennsylvania (start watching at 1:12).
Use a Theme
Notice how she uses the theme–“What do you want to be” when you grow up and alters it to “What do you want to do?” She opens with this and wraps back around to this same idea at the end.
Notice how this speaker admits his shortcomings. We feel like he is honest and vulnerable so we hang on his everyword.
Headline Speaker Sample Speeches
Headline speakers are usually someone famous or notable. Speeches by those individuals almost always include stories and challenges. I have included several here. Pick two of them to analyze.
Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories. Steve Jobs
These highlights of Lou Holtz’s graduation speech is full of great challenges and life lessons.
“One: Be micro-ambitious. Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you. You never know where you might end up.
Two: Don’t seek happiness. Keep busy and aim to make someone else happy and you might find you get some as a side effect.
Three: Understanding that you can’t truly take credit for your successes nor truly blame others for their failures will humble you and make you more compassionate.
Four: Exercise. Take care of your body: you’re going to need it.
Five: Be hard on your opinions. Be intellectually rigorous. Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privileges.
Six: Even if you’re not a teacher, be a teacher. Share your ideas. Don’t take for granted your education.
Seven: Define yourself by what you love. Be demonstrative and generous in your praise of those you admire. Send thank you cards and give standing ovations. Be pro stuff not just anti stuff.
Eight: Respect people with less power than you.
Nine: Finally, don’t rush. You don’t need to know what you’re going to do with the rest of your life.”
As you can see, graduation speeches can be serious or lighthearted; they can be personal, motivational, and informative. The key thing is that the speech should be authentic. It should be as unique as the speaker.
- Graduation speeches should reflect on the past, celebrate the present, and inspire towards the future.
- Consider the needs of the audience and find commonalities.
- Tell a story.
- Use a manuscript.
Jaclyn Marson describes the process of how she wrote her Graduation Speech.
Dunham, A. (2019). Valedictorian comes out as autistic during speech. [Video] YouTube. https://youtu.be/GtPGrLoU5Uk Standard YouTube License
Holtz, L. (2017). Lou Holtz’s inspirational speech. Commencement speech.[Video] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3LOo_Ccyws Standard YouTube License
Jobs, S. (2008). Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address. [Video] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF8uR6Z6KLc Standard YouTube License.
Jostens, (n.d.). Celebrate high school memories. Inspire your grad community. https://www.jostens.com/resources/students-and-parents/graduation-guides/how-to-write-a-grad-speech
Marson, J. (2020). How to write an amazing graduation speech–Jaclyn Marson podcast Ep 1. [Video] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5CUSzp9SrM Standard YouTube License.
Marston, J. (2016). Beautiful and moving graduation speech 2016. [Video] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_F3K3Z_5CEE Standard YouTube License.
Minchin, T. (2013). 9 life lessons-Time Minchin UWA Address. [Video] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoEezZD71sc Standard YouTube License.
Rosen, L. (2019). Leah Rosen: “The power of this place,” Duke University 2019 commencement student speaker. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4N Standard YouTube License.
Shutterfly. (n.d) How to start a graduation speech. https://www.shutterfly.com/ideas/graduation-speech/
Stewart, M. (2020). Student speaker. Commencement 2020. University of Utah. [Video] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZFJnZvuQIo Standard YouTube License.
University of Pennsylvania. (2016). Penn’s 2016 commencement ceremony- Commencement speaker Lin-Manuel Miranda. [Video] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ewHcsFlolz4&t=0s Standard YouTube License.
- Graduation Photo © Lynn Meade is licensed under a CC BY (Attribution) license