Here is Ellen De Generes, giving the commencement speech at Tulane in 2009.
Talking about the honorary degree she is receiving, she plays with the languages of her audience: I thought that you had to be a famous alumnus – alumini – aluminum – alumis – you had to graduate from this school.
David Foster Wallace took the liberal arts cliché by the horns in his 2005 speech at Kenyon College, telling the audience: So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about “teaching you how to think.” Wallace then used that to suggest a new perspective—that education is about choosing fame, tricked up the death theme at Wesleyan in 2013, opening with a reference to the horror genre and the live-life-to-the-fullest cliché: What I’d like to say to all of you is that you are all going to die. Keep it short Unless you are a national leader using the speech to announce a major policy, you won’t need more than 20 minutes, tops. The average speaker reads about 120 words a minute, so that’s about 1,400-2,400 words or 9-15 pages (double spaced, 16 point font).
Sitting in the sun, the students, families, and faculty will all appreciate brevity. Above all: relax and enjoy yourself To do well as a commencement speaker, you need gentle humor, Shakespearean universal accessibility, something memorable for each audience, both a theme and relatable examples, an awareness of clichés, and brevity.
For those of you giving commencement speeches or listening to them, here’s my advice: 1.
Be just funny enough The best speakers are knowingly wry and a bit self-deprecating. Compare that with President Kennedy, speaking at Yale in 1962, who invoked the Cambridge-New Haven rivalry to tease his hosts a bit: Let me begin by expressing my appreciation for the very deep honor that you have conferred upon me.
She speaks to both the people who are not quite sure of the singular of, and to those who are. Think about bite-sized ideas Your speech is likely to come up as a topic of discussion later in the day at lunch or dinner, if only to deflect attention from other topics like job interviews and loan repayment.
What will the different audiences take away from your speech?
Then again, presidents can get away with that sort of thing, but most speakers can’t. Be like Shakespeare Keep the diversity of your audience in mind.
You are speaking to students, but the students are not all the same.