I remember the speech at my university graduation only dimly. Something about barely being able to stay awake through it… and wishing the damn thing would end.
That was nearly 20 years ago, and according to Fannie Mae speechwriter Jeffrey Denny â€“ who took us on a ride through the worst and best of commencement speaking in 2005 â€“ they haven’t improved a bit since.
Neither have the audiences. The students would rather be partying with their friends and saying tear-filled goodbyes than listening to your speaker. And this “whatever” generation is skeptical and cynical; they’ve already seen and heard it all. Add in the rotten acoustics typical of most graduation venues, and you have all the makings of a bomb.
Denny doled out mock awards to some of the past year’s most egregious examples.
- The most memorable address for the wrong reasons award, for instance, went to the Pepsi executive whose speech compared the five continents to the five fingers on your hand. Guess which finger represented North America? Pepsi issued a formal apology.
- The most unabashed use of a cliche: A former CIA director started off “Life is filled with challenges and opportunities” and concluded “May the challenges ahead always be opportunities.”
It wasn’t all bad, though. Denny mentioned Carly Fiorina, who had been the CEO of Hewlett-Packard when the commencement invitation landed on her desk and was out of a job by the time the day of the speech rolled around. Her comment (winning the “silk purse from a sow’s ear” award): “If there are any recruiters here, I’ll be free around 11.” (See more here.)
The best opening hook award went to MTV founder Dwight Tierney: “So. A couple of things. Wednesday is visitors’ day at Abu Dhabi prison. The Chinese prefer red wine. And Rudy Giuliani doesn’t know who Green Day is. Bear with me, because I have a point.”
And the best speech of all, Denny suggested, was Steve Jobs’ now-legendary address at Stanford. He tied three memorable stories into a compelling case for following your heart. (You can find the full text of Steve Jobs’ speech at Stanford’s site.)
That address typified the very best in the year’s commencement speeches. They were modest, personal and self-deprecating. They recognized that graduates already had a lot of knowledge and insight, and instead of trying to set out a philosophical worldview, they told stories and offered the lessons the speaker had learned. From his survey, Denny distilled several pieces of advice. Here are a few:
- “First, do no harm.” You will get more publicity from a bad speech than a good speech.
- Write something your own kids would enjoy.
- Keep it short, funny and insightful. And don’t work your jokes too hard.
Want to check out more commencement speeches? Brace yourself… then head to C-Span for a few dozen of them.