How to Give a Great Commencement Speech

05/29/2015 03:47 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2016

I pretty much talk for a living. And while that probably denies me much sex appeal, it has the advantage of making me something of an expert on what to say on various occasions. Graduation commencements are one such set of occasions.

I've heard many great speeches. I've also suffered many awful ones. The interesting thing is that the quality of the speech seldom relates to the stature of the speaker.

Nobel Prize-winning novelists, adventurers and captains of industry sometimes bore people to death. Timid high school students and seemingly average Joe's sometimes bring everyone to their feet.

That happens because a good idea, well delivered, is a powerful idea--and that's what can make a commencement speech great.

So here are a few tips on delivery:

1. Make it about you and your journey.

That sounds horribly egotistical. However, the fact is that someone has asked you to speak because he or she thinks you have something to share. And the most valuable thing you possess is the story of your journey to you.

No one wants a lecture. No one wants a public service announcement. No one wants some Hollywood-like statement that's meant to be inspirational but is really some abstract, cheesy sounding meme that assumes the audience is a herd of sheep.

What people want to hear is a story that explains why you--and not someone else perhaps more interesting looking than you--is up on that podium speaking.

2. Keep it short.

Few things are more torturous than being excited, scared, hot and probably a bit stressed, in a cap and gown or in a suit or a dress, waiting for some long-winded speaker to finish blabbing. That's why you have to keep whatever you say short and to the point.

I like to sketch out what I'm going to say, then cut it in half. Then, before I prepare myself for the speech, cut it in half again. That way I feel like I'm taking one for the team. I'm sacrificing my selfish desire for verbosity to appease all those people that don't want me to just drag on talking about my journey.

3. Make it a conversation.

Really stiff people look up to JFK's, "Ask not what your country...," speech in the hopes of saying something memorable. What those people fail to realise is that part of JFK's charisma was his ability to make speeches feel like conversations. Churchill was the same. People felt like those statesman were talking to them personally.

You can do that also. Without becoming so informal that people think you're tipsy, you can offer your story in a direct way that makes it seem like you're speaking to someone over a latte at Starbucks. "You wanna' know how I lost this leg?" or "Are you curious as to why I was such a loser...?," are just a couple of teaser-type lines that get people feeling that you're talking to them.

4. Keep it short.

Read Rule 2 again.

5. Try not to read from a paper.

I know, nervousness can drive you to cling to every word on a written page for fear that you'll clam up and freeze. Instead, you should embrace that sort of fear. Let it drive you! In fact, tell everyone about it.

I once told an audience, "If you see me run off stage, please headlock me and drag me back on, because I'm that scared!" Or, "I'm not important enough for someone to throw shoes at me, but I don't mind seeing an occasional sneaker or a flip-flop, if that will keep you all awake."

People laughed when I said these silly things--not because they were funny--but because I said them in a way that made them empathise with my stressful situation.

To be on the safe side, however, just memorise your (very short) speech, making allowance for things you might forget. That's easiest to do, if you focus on one, simple point...

6. Have a simple, simple, universal point.

Too many times I've watched people run through a list of takeaways, without emphasising any one, primary point. That's a no-no. People don't come to a commencement speech with a pad and pencil. Nor do they don't come for a lecture (see Rule 1.)

People come to commencements to honor their families and friends or get some free food, or both. And, if a commencement speaker can sweeten those efforts with some beautiful words, all the better. Thus, the point of your speech should be simple and intuitive--even if your field (or your life's journey) is complex.

Your message should also be universal. You might love baby seals and want to tar and feather people that club them; however, that might not be a universal sentiment or concern. Instead, pick something fundamental to your journey that other people have also seen, felt, touched or understood at some important point in their lives.

In a recent speech, for example, I offered the simple message, "Our biases can ruin our lives." I then talked about how much I came to love Serbs after a long period of believing every bad thing people said about them. From there I mentioned how many of us embrace our own hangups and how that can lead to really bad things (e.g., rogue traders, broken marriages, financial crises, violence, war, etc.)

My message was simple, but it was also universal. And since I was brutally honest (knowing some Serbs were there) it made people realise that I was sincere. Which leads to the next point...

7. Be sincere.

To be honest, I am often stunned that people put so much support in politicians when I seldom see any of them make sincere speeches. Lawyers and office jockeys running for office, roll up their sleeves and loosen their ties as they try to pretend they understand "John Deere" men.

It would be better if they just said that they can't relate and then explained that they'll do what needs to be done, nonetheless.

That's how you should approach your speech. Don't worry about being something you're not. Be who you are and sincerely that person. All the while, recognise that you're a frail human being like the rest of us and it is through those frailties that we relate and build strength, together.

8. Keep it short.

(See Rule 2. again.)

9. Make it humorous.

If you've no chance to tell a joke about yourself during that first, nervous 30 seconds, then try to frame your speech with colourful examples that you suspect will get people to chuckle. The best target for ridicule, of course, is you.

For example, I often like to use analogies related to my horrible driving habits. I'm oblivious to other people on the road, completely judgmental of how they drive and flabbergasted that any would dare to honk at my straddling the center line while texting.

I know that's always good (safe), humorous material because most of us do those things or hate people that do them.

10. Don't sample your work, unless that's the context.

I know, Maya Angelou (former Poet Laureate) was a fantastic speaker, and she would typically read from her poetry at some point during the delivery. However, she would usually precede that sort of demonstration with a story about the hard life she once lived, including her time as a prostitute.

Thus, to transform her audience's horror at her surprising and "indecent" revelation into something sweet, Madame Angelou would read from her beautiful poetry. That poetry expressed her pain as well as her healing. It thereby helped her audience to also heal. It was brilliant! It was beautiful!

But we're not all Maya Angelou's. For the rest of us mortals, we should refrain from offering excerpts from our scientific findings, our company's annual reports or our latest trash novels, unless those readings offer powerful, contextual punctuations to the things we've just said.

11. Keep it short.

In case you missed Rules 2., 4. and 8.,...