Cap and Groan

Just in time for graduation: our formula for a less-awful commencement speech.

Photograph by Erics Photography/IStockPhoto

Photograph by Erics Photography/IStockPhoto

It’s college graduation time again! That means speeches. Boring, clichéd commencement speeches. Because we’ve been forced to endure these horrors too many times ourselves, we know there are certain conventions that will always be followed. But that doesn’t mean we won’t offer this year’s crop of speakers the following formula for a less-awful graduation speech.

25% Biographical anecdote twisted into passable nugget of wisdom
Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, Brandeis, 2010
“People — young people, especially — seem fascinated with the fact that I served as a paratrooper. ‘Cool,’ they say. ‘How many times did you jump?’ And I disappoint them. ‘I rarely jumped,’ I say. ‘Most times, there were these two large gentlemen on either side of the door who pushed me out.’ Now you, too, stand at the door.”

10% Quoting someone more profound than yourself, with implied (false) modesty
J. K. Rowling, Harvard, 2008
“I hope even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom. ‘As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.’”

30% Inspirational exhortation, centered on the value of failure with requisite nod to humility
Smokey Robinson, Berklee, 2009
“Show business is a very fickle life. You’re up today, you’re down tomorrow. You’re in today, you’re out tomorrow. It’s a life of peaks and valleys. Let your valley inspire you to get to the next peak. And if you have a lot [of] peaks in a row, don’t take yourself so seriously that you think that you’re it.”

10% Dash of downer realism (a.k.a. something Mike Capuano would say)
U.S. Congressman Mike Capuano, Boston University, 2009
“Nothing I say today or any other day can improve the job market. Nothing I say can really calm your anxieties. But it shouldn’t. Life is anxiety from now on.”

5% Blatant sop to school pride
GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, Boston College, 2010

“[In] full disclosure, I will read exactly what I said in my commencement speech in South Bend three years ago: ‘I believe in the values of Notre Dame…. Notre Dame is simply the best college in the world [pause], except for Boston College.’”

20% Predictions of greatness
Will Ferrell, Harvard, 2003
“Some of you will be captains of industry and business. Others of you will go on to great careers in medicine, law, and public service. Four of you — and I’m not at liberty to say which four — will go on to magnificent careers in the porno industry. I’m not trying to be funny. That’s just a statistical fact.”