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Have You Been Asked to Give a Commencement Address? This Cheat Sheet Will Help You Nail It!

05/13/2014 04:25 pm ET | Updated Jul 13, 2014
  • Christina Pesoli Family Law Attorney (Noelke Maples St. Leger Bryant, LLP); Author (Break Free From the Divortex: Power Through Your Divorce and Launch Your New Life)

So, you've been asked to give a commencement address. Congratulations! That's quite an honor. But whatever you do, don't let it go to your head. There are lots of ways commencement speakers can (and have) gone wrong. And although mistakes often make the best teachers -- you don't need to give them tenure.

In order to help you ace this, I've prepared a cheat sheet to refer to when preparing your remarks. Think of it as CliffsNotes for commencement addresses. Study it, and you're likely to succeed. Ignore it, and you risk ending up in a dunce cap -- or worse yet, a viral video.

It's their day, not yours. Yes, it's flattering to be asked to give a commencement address, but that doesn't mean your remarks should amount to an acceptance speech. The fact that they asked you to speak proves they already know who you are and what you've done. Resist the urge to rattle off your credentials, tout your accomplishments, or highlight the hardships that you've overcome.

True, the point of the ceremony is to celebrate accomplishments, but the focus should be on the graduates' successes, not your own. Stick to the cardinal rule of cocktail party conversation: If you want to make a good impression, put the spotlight on the person you're talking to, not on yourself.

Make it quick. There is only one thing anyone is interested in at a college graduation ceremony: the walk across the stage. No one cares about the benediction, or the special awards, or the musical interlude. And unless you're rockstar famous, nobody even cares about you. You are just a line item on the program -- something that has to be endured before the fun can begin.

When I graduated from law school in 1991, Jane Pauley was the speaker for the university-wide commencement. She was a famous enough news anchor and she was married to Doonesbury creator Gary Trudeau. That all seemed promising. But the only thing I remember about her speech is that a graduating senior interrupted her by yelling, "I love you, Jane!" at the top of his lungs. And if memory serves, she replied with, "I love you, too!" In other words, Pauley nailed it. I'm sure she said other things, also, but she didn't have to, and no one remembers, anyway. And that's my point. When you're a commencement speaker, your success is not determined by whether your remarks are meaningful or moving -- the bar is actually much lower than that. Success is determined by whether you manage to avoid putting the crowd into a boredom-induced coma or otherwise making an ass of yourself. The shorter your speech, the higher your chances are of being successful.

Keep it light. It's a celebration, not a funeral. Rather than trying to be deep, aim for funny instead. Sure, this is a major milestone, but it's a happy milestone. And yes, there are important decisions to be made about the future, but the biggest decision anyone will make today is whether to stick around for dessert and after-dinner drinks with Mom, Dad, Grammy and Grandpa, or head on over to Kyle's house for one last raging kegger.

The problem with trying to be profound in your commencement speech is that anything you come up with is only going to be a variation of a theme that has been done a million times before. Carpe Diem. Giving is better than receiving. Family first. Listen to your heart. Aim high. Follow your zzzzzzzzz. Oh, sorry! I dozed off for a second. And so will the entire stadium if that's the kind of Hallmark pablum you're dishing out.

Don't be a crusader. Don't use the graduation ceremony as an opportunity to preach about your pet project or proselytize about your politics. Not only will you end up alienating the folks who don't agree with you, you'll even irritate the ones who do, because graduation is neither the time nor the place for that sort of nonsense.

When my son graduated from Colgate University in 2006, the commencement speaker was Eliot Spitzer. At the time, Spitzer's official job was attorney general of the State of New York, but you wouldn't have known that from listening to him. He was already campaigning to be governor, so he used the graduation ceremony as a chance to give a stump speech -- and not even a good one.

His remarks were neither entertaining nor inspirational. And even though I'm a lifelong Democrat, I was annoyed. My irritation grew to full-blown resentment years later when I learned that he actually had volumes of page-turning material at his disposal. If he was hell-bent on hijacking my son's college graduation to talk about something that had nothing to do with the occasion, he could have at least made it worth our while. Some honest dish about his personal demons wouldn't have been funny, but it at least would have been refreshingly honest.

For examples of commencement speakers who have gotten it right, check out Ellen DeGeneres' address to Tulane University in 2009, Jon Lovett's remarks to Pitzer College in 2013, or Ed Helms' speech to Cornell University in 2014. (I realize that Cornell's graduation is still a couple of weeks away and I have no idea what Helms intends to say, but given the set-up, there's no way he can go wrong.)

On the flip side, if you want an example of what not to do, check out Matthew McConaughey's acceptance speech for Best Actor at the 2014 Academy Awards. It's not exactly apples to apples, but in case I haven't convinced you of the perils of waxing philosophical, McConaughey's musings about chasing the hero that is himself 10 years from now will scare you silly. Sure, McConaughey can pull off a speech like this, but he's a special breed. The rest of us mere mortals don't stand a chance.

Now that you have the answer key to writing an A-quality commencement address, here's one last tip for extra credit: If you find yourself experiencing jittery nerves on the big day, don't resort to the tired old trick of picturing the audience in its underwear. Instead, simply imagine McConaughey playing the bongos in the buff and everything will be alright, alright, alright.