Public Speaking Training: What Makes a Great Commencement Speech?

Posted by Bridget Beirne
June 1, 2012

Oh, June. The month we wish more people had public speaking training. By the beginning of June, many of us have attended a graduation ceremony. Those of us without one on our schedule inevitably end up thinking about ceremonies past, and the speakers that went with them.  The media is full of stories about the best commencement speeches this time of year. (Here's a brief compilation of speeches heard by last year's class.) The successful ones all have a few things in common that make their audiences cheer, not snooze:

public speaking training 3 resized 600They Know Their Audience:  Successful commencement speakers know that they shouldn’t address the Class of 2012 the same way they would address the board when discussing the numbers for Q4. Think of your own graduation- who stole the show? Was it the Dean who droned on in monotones about school statistics, or the class president who offered her peers a humorous call to action ? What about the university president who knew every student by name and referenced some of them in his speech? The show- stealers understood their audience, and spoke to who was in the room.  Without audience analysis, any speaker runs the risk of losing  their audience all together. The best ones know that putting the students to sleep is not the way to go.

They Know How They Want Them to Feel:  They call it “commencement” for a reason- it's a beginning. Students are about to embark on a new phase of life and growth. Great commencement speakers are aware of how they want the students and their families to FEEL- obviously, “inspired”, “motivated”, and “encouraged” come to mind.  In a difficult economy, some speakers may think that to “warn” or “prevent” is appropriate.  However, if they put themselves in the shoes of their audience, they might realize that a graduation ceremony is the place to temper any negativity with a positive message. Public speaking training can help when it comes to analyzing your audience.

They Know the Context of Their Content:  We encourage speakers to add personal stories to their presentations. Sometimes, speakers chose to share an excerpt of a book, play, song, or movie.  If that case, it helps to investigate a bit of the context of that content. If you don’t understand the true meaning of the piece, you may be accidentally sending the wrong message. A good example? A favorite for commencements is Polonius’s speech from HAMLET (I,iii)  that includes the famous phrase, “To thine own self be true”. However, the speech is a delicious bit of Shakespearean irony- Polonius is a smarmy, devious, scheming man who offers a string of cliches to his son because he doesn’t actually know how to speak to him. While the speech has given us some famous colloquialisms (“neither a borrower nor a lender be” among them), Shakespeare actually wanted us to have a good laugh at the shortcomings of this pompous man.  Anyone in the audience familiar with that fact will question the knowledge of the speaker.

They Have the Funny: At Ovation, we are not shy about our feelings on humor, and great commencement speakers know exactly how to use it. Grads love to laugh about the 4 years of struggles and hard work that earned them a degree, as well as the daunting world beyond. Sounds hysterical, doesn't it? From celebrities to presidents, speakers know that nothing says "Congrats! You've made it. Now the real fun begins!" like a good laugh. After all, they've earned it.

Congratulations to the Class of 2012 from Ovation Communication!


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