How to Write a Commencement Speech
By: Ji Liu

What is a Commencement Speech?

Picture
barackobama.com
A commencement speech is a speech delivered at the commencement ceremony of a higher education institution by a graduate, an alumnus, a celebrity or a politician to the graduating class, their families and guests. The speech is often written to celebrate past experiences, present accomplishments and future hopes. A commencement speech usually makes up a substantial part of a commencement or graduation ceremony. A broad range of appropriate topics in any nature are acceptable when composing such a speech, but the overall importance of the speech itself, may make writing it challenging.

A step-by-step approach:

Introduction

First, state the value you place on this opportunity to speak on this occasion.  Remember, many of the graduates and their families see this ceremony as a once-in-a-life-time experience, so let them feel that you want to be there, and you want to be with them for that special moment.  Then, if appropriate, begin your speech with an attention grabbing quote, image or simply an anecdote. This is the trigger to draw attention to your key points. You don’t have to quote Greek Mythology or picture a da Vinci art piece to base the expansion of your points on. Be yourself, tell your story, make your story a meaningful lesson and experience for the audience.

Example:

Picture
(Robert Spencer/Getty Images)
"The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you.’ Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honor, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and convince myself that I am at the world’s largest Gryffindor reunion.

Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one, because it turns out that I can’t remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, the law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.

You see? If all you remember in years to come is the ‘gay wizard’ joke, I’ve come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step to self improvement."
                                                                            ----JK Rowling, writer, 2008 Harvard Commencement

Body

Most often, commencement ceremonies are good opportunities to reminisce about the past and look ahead to the future. So a common “Past- Present- Future” structure is followed.  Many speakers adopt this structure to foster the concept that though the past is now bygone, it will be a strong resource bank for the future. In short, the theme might almost seem like a cliché: “Preserving the Past, Enjoying the Present and Celebrating the Future!”

  • Past
          You can start by recollecting stories of the past, both of tears and tribulations. Have a vivid word picture of a significant event or two for the institution; if you are telling a story of your own, a good tip is to connect the elements to draw similarities with the events deep in the memories of the institution or its graduates. 
         
"When I moved to Williamsburg, my hall was in the basement of Yates, which combined the cheerfulness of a bomb shelter with the prison-like comfort of the group shower." Television celebrity, Jon Stewart tried to connect his college era in the 1980s with his audience at the 2004 College of William and Mary Commencement by reminiscing about his first days at college.

  • Present
          Graduation is itself an achievement worth celebration. Bring your audience to think that no matter what they do, be it a high paying job or a voluntary position that they love; they will be making a difference. Encourage them to live in the present and be optimistic about its progress.
           "I'm saying, live in the story of your life. Every moment contains where you're coming from and where you're going. In a novel, after all, though every sentence may be beautiful and every scene may have its own allure, you can't appreciate chapter 25 if you've forgotten chapters 1-24. The meaning of each moment-including this moment-is the place it holds in your entire arc." 
Afghan-American author, Tamim Ansary advised the students at the 2006 Reed College Commencement to live the moment while remembering the past. To him, contributing to the present is contributing to what our whole lives will be: a common good.

  • Future      
       Consider:
            > Local events that are significant
            > State issues
            > National issues
            > International issues

            Incorporate how the lessons learned at the institution are relevant and important to resolving the above dilemmas. Whenever appropriate, make your own catchy phrase to pump the audience with confidence for the future. Also, mention how creativity is a reorganization of current knowledge and the resources one has gained in school will make a difference in the world indefinitely.
            In Irish rock star Bono's 2004 Commencement Speech at the University of Pennsylvania, he made it clear that there are problems to be dealt with and sacrifices to be made. He encouraged his audience to make the first move. "
Every era has its defining struggle and the fate of Africa is one of ours. It's not the only one, but in the history books it's easily going to make the top five, what we did or what we did not do. It's a proving ground, as I said earlier, for the idea of equality. But whether it's this or something else, I hope you'll pick a fight and get in it. Get your boots dirty, get rough, steel your courage with a final drink there at Smoky Joe's, one last primal scream and go. "


Conclusion

First, summarize your three key points in the Past, Present, Future of the body. Second, return to the introduction and restate your original statement or goal. Last, end with a congratulation to the graduates and well wishes for their careers and endeavors in the coming years.

Ideas & Useful concepts

a) The importance of remembering one's roots;
b) Usefulness of mistakes and losses;
c) World as a source of inspiration and motivation;
d) Education as a universal toolkit to create a perfect future;
e) Finding personal principles to live up to;
f)  Never letting failures make you give up

Great Sample Speeches

Picture
(Joseph Meling/ dartmouth.edu)

commencement_speech_genre_analysis.doc
File Size: 33 kb
File Type: doc
Download File

Photos courtesy of barackobama.com, life.com, dartmouth.edu