5 Ways to Make Your Commencement Speech Inspirational

Channel your inner Conan O’Brien or Sheryl Sandberg and follow these five tips to give a truly inspiring commencement speech.

Delivering a commencement speech may seem like a daunting task. After all, yours is the final wisdom these graduates will hear before embarking on their adult lives. How do you make your speech inspirational, honest, specific and universal all at the same time? Not to worry: delivering an inspirational address is much easier than you might think. Here are five ways to make your commencement speech more memorable and meaningful.

1. Say Something New

Your body of work precedes you. Whether you’re a published author, savvy businessperson, or an up-and-coming comedian, graduates will be familiar with your public persona before you open your mouth.

With that in mind, avoid the temptation to rehash your old favorites. The graduates already know what you’ve said to everyone else; they want to hear what you have specific to them. That’s not to say you can’t stay true to your brand. But make it unique. Consider this speech that Theodore Geisel (more popularly known as Dr. Seuss) gave at Lake Forest College in 1977. Lasting approximately 75 seconds, the speech combined Geisel’s distinct style with a brand new poem penned especially for the occasion.

2. Make it Personal

Your own story can truly inspire. In her address to UC Berkeley’s class of 2016, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, spoke publicly for the first time about her husband’s death. While Sandberg’s advice was well articulated, it was her sincerity that captivated the Berkeley grads and caused her speech to go viral.

While you may not want to focus your speech on such a serious or intimate subject, you should strive to make it as personal as possible. After all, out of every possible candidate out there, you’re the one who was invited to speak, and it’s you the graduates want to hear from. Regardless of what you have to say, if it comes from the heart, your audience will be moved.

3. Tell a Story

Stories capture the imagination of the audience. And, as David Foster Wallace reminds us in his famous commencement address at Kenyon College, the use of stories is practically a requirement for the standard U.S. commencement speech. They can range from personal anecdotes to fictitious parables about fish.

Remember, the content of your story is not what’s important, but your takeaway should be. Whether your speech goes on for seventy-five seconds or forty-five minutes, if you offer a clear narrative arc and a universal take away, your audience will remain on the edge of their seats.

4. Be Honest

An audience relates to your authenticity. t’s essential to give the advice you have experienced, not the advice you think your audience wants to hear. In Conan O’Brien’s address to Dartmouth’s class of 2011, for instance, the talk show host made no attempt to sugarcoat the challenges these graduates might face.

“Whether you fear it or not,” O’Brien said, “disappointment will come.” Of course, he ultimately pointed to a silver lining: it is through these disappointments that we find the conviction to be creative and original, to become who we are. If you have been shaped by your failures, speak about your failures. If you don’t have wisdom about the future, don’t try to offer it. Despite their uncertain futures, your audience members don’t want platitudes: they want honesty.

5. Keep it Conversational

Although these soon-to-be graduates are accustomed to sitting through lectures, they don’t want to hear one today. Don’t be afraid to crack a joke, make an aside, comment on the weather, or mention what you had for breakfast that morning.

Try to memorize your speech to the best of your ability so that you can make eye contact whenever possible. After all, it’s hard to connect with a speaker who does nothing but stare at the podium. Remember: while this is your speech, it’s for them; only by engaging them will you inspire them.

Of course, there are plenty of other ways in which you can engage and inspire with your commencement address, but these five tips are a good launching point for what is sure to be an unforgettable speech.

Ken Sterling is the Chief Marketing Officer at BigSpeak Speakers’ bureau – the leading keynote and business speakers bureau in the world. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California and an MBA from Babson College. Ken teaches Entrepreneurship, Marketing and Strategy at UC Santa Barbara. He is a serial entrepreneur, keynote speaker, business consultant and sales & marketing expert. For press interviews, contact marketing@bigspeak.com.