Graduation Speech - The Writing Process
There are 600 people in the room. One of them is you, and the other 599 of them are fellow graduating students, their parents and other relatives, and the teachers and administrators who have seen you through your academic time in this place. You're the only one who matters right now, though: not because you're all that special, but because you're giving the graduation speech.
Perhaps you prepared your speech with care, researched it, rehearsed it, tried it out on friends and family, and worked hard to make sure that you've got the best-written, most heart-felt, and most motivational speech you're capable of creating. Perhaps you spent the weeks before the graduation ceremony thinking about your speech, planning to Get To It Someday, focusing instead upon parties, hanging out, and generally doing lots of nothing in the way or preparation. Either way, you're up there now, on the dais, and everyone's staring at you. What are you going to say?
This short article will do its best to fill you in, but one warning: you've got to put in the work. Otherwise, you might as well stop reading now.
If you're still here, take these few pieces of advice deep into consideration, and incorporate them throughout all aspects of your speech while you're in the writing process:
1. Speak from your heart, from your deepest convictions, and without cliches. Now, those two cliches I just threw at you better not appear anywhere in your speech. In fact, no cliches better appear anywhere in your speech. We all know we are the future. We all know we've got to Make A Difference. Now tell us those things the way you experience them – the way you feel them and plan to implement them in your life.
2. Speak in stories instead of abstractions. We don't need to hear that we have to buckle down, get to work, use our educations, and all that. Tell us about a time when you did those things, ideally some situation where things didn't work out the way they were supposed to, you had to get creative, and everything worked out in the end. Make sure your story relates to new beginnings, to moving into the future and all that, but make sure, above all else, that it's entertaining and interesting.
3. Have a point and get to it. No one needs to listen to you meander around aimlessly for 15 minutes. We've heard that all through your years of schooling. (Just kidding.) But seriously – think about one or two Big Ideas that you want to convey in your speech (such as the importance of responsibility, or why ethics should mean everything), and then be sure that you start there, roam about, and come back to that same place. We want to be inspired and motivated, not taken on a ride to nowhere.
4. Remember who your audience is. We are not, by and large, middle-aged men in the Rotary Club. We're young people just like you – we need to hear things relevant to our generation, things we can use in our lives the way the world is today. This doesn't mean that wisdom from down the ages is forbidden – I can see a lot of places where Plato could come in handy in a graduation speech – but make it relevant to who we are, and no one else.
Once you've written your speech, you are only halfway there. Lots of things look good on paper and sound terrible when read aloud. Furthermore, you aren't just supposed to read the thing – you have to become your speech, to deliver it with such passion that your listeners become part of the experience. And even if you're a drama major, you're going to have to do some practicing.
Before you waste too much time, read your speech out loud to yourself and fix any awkward passages, poor-sounding word choices, bad rhythms, and other issues that will be clear once you hear the words said aloud. Once you've done what you can do, you need to find someone who can be both objective and kind – someone who can offer truly constructive criticism – and enlist their help.
Read them the speech and listen to what they have to say about it. Don't get defensive; after all, you will be the one looking like a fool if you get up there and give a sorry excuse for a graduation speech. Once this person has given you all the help they can, find another, and then another, and then make sure that at least once, you give the speech to a room full of as many people who are willing to gather in one place for your benefit as you can find. Take notes and fix accordingly.
If you've done these things – written a solid speech from your gut and practiced the hell out of it – you're standing up there right now, looking out at a sea of your peers, thrilled to have this chance to address them and impart whatever wisdom you've collected in your short time here on earth. If you haven't done these things, you're sweating profusely, kicking yourself inside, and wishing you were anywhere else. Don't fall into the second camp. Take your time, do your work, and create a graduation speech you can be proud of. After all, this moment will only come once.