Graduation is one of the greatest milestones in a person’s life. This ceremony marks the student’s transition from being a learner to being an active contributor to society. Family and friends gather to celebrate it. So do professors who have witnessed and guided their student’s growth. Naturally, graduation speeches are the second most-awaited part of the Commencement exercises. A heavy burden rests on the shoulders of those invited to speak.
If you were invited by a school, or by your school, you are probably someone who has achieved a degree of success or fame. Regardless of your doubts, you are someone your school perceives to be worth looking up to and someone who can give aspiring insight into life outside the walls of the school or university.
Some people have compared graduation speeches with TED Talks. Both impart knowledge, or at times, wisdom to an audience. However, a graduation speech ultimately aims to encourage people to aspire to a degree of success or to a certain path; whereas a TED talk generally aims to inspire the audience with new ideas.
Graduation speeches therefore tend to lean more towards wisdom and powerful adages. Speakers want to make their time on the stage worthwhile, and make an impression on the graduating class. Everyone wants to be remembered in a positive way.
We surveyed some of the most memorable and inspiring graduation speeches throughout the years, and these are the most memorable graduation speech ideas you can steal.
Most memorable graduation speech ideas for a memorable talk:
The inspiration: Conan O’Brien at Dartmouth College, 2011
Failure has become a cliché in the realm of speeches. Year after year, students have been told to not be afraid of failing and to embrace their failures. Nevertheless, it remains a relevant topic because it is true that these graduates will soon experience failure. As with any topic or theme, you can talk about failure in a refreshing way. The topic could be more memorable if, like Conan O’ Brien, you ground it on an experience, whether it’s your own or someone else’s. O’Brien somehow did both in his 2011 graduation speech. He demonstrated that even great individuals experience failure and it has often led them towards their greatness, thereby making it realistic and relatable for the graduates. He talked about how his own failures steered him to do things that gave him conviction. He also mentioned some great comedians who managed to turn their failures around.
2. Insecurities and achievements
The inspiration: Natalie Portman at Harvard University, 2015
Natalie Portman offers insight into how she dealt with her insecurities and challenges from the moment she started acting to the present. Portman’s success extends beyond the film industry—she is also a distinguished scientist—but she does not dwell on her awards or published research papers, neither did she focus on her hard work. Instead, she emphasized how she looks at her work and makes decisions on what to do next. Her advice to the graduates: don’t focus on the goal, instead enjoy the experience of doing something.
Soon-to-be graduation keynote speakers can learn a thing or two from Natalie Portman. It’s easy to get lost in the many insights you have gained that you will fail to realize you have put yourself on a pedestal. Before you know it, your graduation speech has become a litany of your hard work and successes. Surely, you wouldn’t want to sound like a bitter old person telling young’uns how hard you had it and how easy their lives are now.
3. Carve your own path
The inspiration: Neil Gaiman at the University of the Arts, 2012
There’s a reason this topic is commonly talked about at commencement exercises: it’s true, young adults need to carve their own paths. Young adults who are just starting with their lives and careers can easily get lost into thinking that there is a formula for establishing a career, even when there is none. Neil Gaiman, a successful writer, expunged this notion by sharing with the graduates how he achieved success. He did not have a clear goal or a path, but he did what he wanted to do—things that excited and challenged him. This is a useful reminder or outlook adjustment for graduates who have probably been bombarded with the most famous interview question “how do you see yourself in 10 years?”
4. Death and life
The inspiration: Sheryl Sandberg at the UC Berkeley, 2016
Death is not commonly welcome in celebrations like a graduation. Graduates and their families are celebrating a milestone and the start of another chapter in graduates’ lives, after all. Yet, death is what Sheryl Sandberg talked about at her UC Berkeley commencement keynote speech in 2016. To be more specific, she talked about what she learned from the death of her husband. She shared how facing grief and the void, or any challenge, taught her to choose joy and meaning, to continue to hope.
As you probably noticed now, a running theme for memorable graduation speech ideas is to show yourself as human, not a caricature of success. Similarly, although Sheryl Sandberg actually had a positive message, she balanced it off with a hardship that taught her the lesson. There is a balance between the positive or the lessons and the realities of life in her graduation speech, avoiding monotony and tepidity in its optimism.
5. Serving the world
The inspiration: Jim Carrey at Maharishi University of Management, 2014
Jim Carrey is a great reminder that one can serve the world regardless of one’s profession. Everyone can have something to offer if they just made it a point to look for their purpose. He heeded the graduates to find what the world needs that their talent can provide, and like Natalie Portman, not to focus on achievements. He advised the graduates to think about their effect on others.
The theme of how one can serve the world with one’s talents may sound like a cliché to us who have gone through graduation years ago (and perhaps a few inspirational seminars), but for these young graduates, this is probably something new. It is worth noting that Jim Carrey never specified what those graduates should do. Rather, he told them that it is up to them to figure it out—he merely gave them a perspective through which they can try to figure out their life. Ultimately, a time-tested perspective is the most that any keynote speaker can offer the next generation of graduates.
6. Hard-hitting truths
The inspiration: Nora Ephron at Wellesley College, 1996
What was it like when you were studying? What has changed now? Are there challenges that your generation faced then that is still present today? These are the things that Nora Ephron talked about in her graduation speech at Wellesley College in 1996. From these, she wringed out lessons she learned throughout her life about navigating the world as a woman. Like a big sister, Ephron reminded the young women of Wellesley College of the many freedoms they now have, and to exploit it, but she also reminded them to pay heed to the limitations that still lay ahead for them.
With today’s political climate, I’m sure there is a well of things you can talk about with the graduating class of 2019. For Nora Ephron and the graduates of Wellesley College, the most relevant issue was that of the women’s movement. For a college or university that specializes in the sciences or education, a different theme would be appropriate. Look for the truths or issues that are at the core of your devotions.
5 Tips on how to write a memorable graduation speech
- Know your strengths and weaknesses as a speaker—if you’re funny use it; if not, don’t force yourself to be funny.
- Weave anecdotes about your life or others into the insights you want to impart.
- Don’t attempt to project that you know everything or try to find (and share) the secret to success. People appreciate and tend to listen better to people who admit their vulnerabilities and imperfections.
- Go full circle at all times—connect your ideas with your stories and reiterate your point.
- Read your speech as you edit it. That way, you will be able to hear how your essay sounds. This is important since sometimes what looks good on paper may not sound good verbally.
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