Commencement speeches

A Lasting Impression: A Lesson Once Again on the Power of Stories

It happened once again. I was at my son’s commencement ceremony last weekend and heard two thoughtful and inspiring speakers, Ann Hagedorn and Orlando Taylor. I also heard Jessica Morgan Hall give the senior class address. After the last cap had been tossed in the air, hugs and kisses generously given and photos snapped from every angle, we all wandered down the hill, ending a day that filled our hearts with pride and good cheer. And then someone asked, “What did you think of the speeches?”


  • “I loved the story about the guy who walked a tightrope over Niagara Falls.”  
  • “Wasn’t that a great reference to the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten especially when he said ‘Don’t punch anyone?’”
  • “I loved the James Joyce quote.”
  • “That story about the president walking down the meandering path with his grandson was great.”


Hmmm…funny what everyone remembered and was excited about…and it was barely an hour since the ceremony ended.


It’s a lesson I’ve learned time and time again: There is power in stories, analogies, quotes, metaphors – and the sheer force they impose on the hearts and minds (not to mention the memory) of the listener.


Audiences love stories. The simpler, the more colorful, the more engaging, the easier to understand…the better. Somehow stories bring us together in a unique and reliable way. And even in a large crowd of thousands of people, they create unity and a sense of shared experience and belonging. We all laugh, smile, and chuckle, and then we all remember.


However deep and meaningful the message, whatever important insight is shared, and whatever fancy words are used to encourage action…the message will linger only if it is supported with stories, analogies, quotes, metaphors…and a little bit of humor. In good conversation as well as in public speaking, these simple elements cast the spell that entertains, inspires, delights and brings us all together.

Quintessential Public Speaking: The Commencement Address

When my son was in the 8th grade I had the privilege of preparing and coaching the graduation speakers of Kent Middle School in Kentfield, California. The speakers were terrific, and those speeches were everything a good graduation speech should be: personal, hopeful, reflective, inspiring, cautionary and funny. They were also well organized with a beginning, middle and end, and they were filled with personal stories, metaphors, quotes and vivid imagery. They were well prepared, rehearsed in advance and most important, designed with the audience in mind. Each speaker had a message that was carefully prepared for their classmates and their families.


It’s hard to believe, but those 8th graders from Kent Middle School are graduating from college this year. Among them is my son, Jonathan. So in a few days, I will be listening to a commencement speech firsthand. My son will graduate from Denison University in Granville, Ohio. So it gives me pause to reflect on the commencement speech during this personally momentous graduation season.

Jonathan DeFinis

The commencement speech is a social milestone. It is one traditional rite of passage that shares the same level of cultural significance as the first haircut, the driver’s license, and the high school prom. In the next few weeks, commencement speeches will be delivered to hundreds of thousands of spectators at approximately 4,100 colleges and 37,000 high schools in the United States, not to mention middle and elementary schools. Now consider those numbers on a global scale. It is quite astounding!


These orations celebrate achievement, foster hope in the face of adversity and offer the challenge to lead. They often provide moments of reflection or the cautionary tale, with the hope that students will learn from the speaker’s mistakes. Like any address, the styles of commencement speeches vary from humorous to heartbreaking.


Regardless of content and style, there are 10 key ingredients that make up a successful commencement address. Whether you are giving the commencement address or are one of thousands of listeners sitting in the gymnasium or outside in the academic quad, pay attention to the following points, as they are the best practices of commencement speeches.


Orlando L. Taylor / photo by Jonathan Nolan

·      Use a simple “open, body, close” content structure. This was the way Aristotle did it, so why not follow the master. It works.

·      Use the power of three: “Today I’m going to share three of my favorite mistakes… or three stories… or three lessons…” This formula is simple to construct and easy for the listeners to understand.

·      Use a quote to provide “bookends” to the address (that is, use it when you open and when you close). Something as simple as the James Joyce quote, “Mistakes are portals of discovery,” is a good example.

·      Fill your speech with other rhetorical devices, including metaphors, anecdotes, examples, quotes, rhetorical questions, vivid imagery and especially humor.

·      Tell your personal story. The audience is waiting to hear this. It is expected and desired. It is your story that will stick long after the speech is over.

·      Focus on your audience. This is not just a group of hung over, tuned out and misunderstood Gen Y “kids.” This is also a group of idealists longing for direction and wisdom. 

·      Your delivery must be bigger physically and vocally than a simple conversation. Use a strong and loud voice, speak slowly, pause often, be dramatic and remember to give the audience a chance to respond to your comments and jokes.

·      Whatever you do, don’t read your notes verbatim! Reading is tedious and boring. You will put even the most well intentioned audience to sleep. Memorize your speech if it is short or organize in such a way that you can speak comfortably from an outline without getting lost.

·      Smile as if you really mean it. Let them know how honored you feel to be speaking to them at this momentous occasion in their lives.

·      Remember this is a day of celebration. End on a high note; ask your audience to take action: “Today I ask you to go out there and…” Tell them that you know they can do it… and they will.