10 Tips for Writing the Best Graduation Speech
Good afternoon everybody…
We won’t sugar coat it. Writing a speech is tough. It’s why people get paid big bucks to do this as ghostwriters for others. It’s why great lines from great speeches get passed down from one generation to the next.
But relax. You’re not the President of the United States addressing the nation trying to keep things calm after alien spacecraft have just landed on the White House front lawn.
Odds are, instead, you’re one of two things. You’re either the valedictorian (congrats by the way) or you’re the person who submitted their name and speech idea to the graduation committee and was selected to speak at graduation as well (so congrats to you, too.)
Now, about the speech. While it’s certainly up to you what you can say, we just thought that we’d pass on a few tips on how to not make your speech the kind that doesn’t have lines getting passed from one generation to the next – because of how awful it was.
So, with that said here are our top 10 tips for writing a graduation speech. And, some bonus tips for giving a virtual graduation speech.
1: Start out by thanking someone.
The fact is you probably didn’t make it through high school all by yourself. Very few people, if any, do anything without a lot of help from someone else. So, show a little humility.
It’s always good to recognize parents, teachers and friends. But what might be nice to do instead is to publicly thank a specific person. One person who helped you, who made a difference and believed in you. Maybe it’s a coach, a counselor, a teacher or your dad. Whoever. Thank them in front of everybody. And then encourage everyone else to find someone who was instrumental in helping them make it to graduation and tell them to thank them as well.
2: Don’t make it all about you.
If you’re the valedictorian, then once again, congratulations. You did well. But nobody really just wants to hear about why you made it to the podium and they didn’t. That’s not to say you can’t infuse personal observations in your speech, just don’t turn this into a “My life in high school” speech.
Matter a fact, instead of just crafting your speech in the cold confines of your bedroom, why not instead go out and talk to your classmates. Find out what they’re interested in. What has inspired them and what they’ll remember most. Your class’ graduation should be about all of the students, not just you. It’d be nice if your speech recognized all their collective memories.
3: Google it.
That’s what it’s there for. Looking up famous speeches online is a great way to get inspiration. Whether it’s a YouTube video of comedian Seth MacFarlane’s commencement speech at Harvard (hilarious!) Or reading Winston Churchill’s famous “We shall never surrender” speech (goosebumps!) Seeing how other people have done things well in the past is a good point of reference for how you should be doing it today.
4: Keep it short and sweet.
Yes, your speech is important, or you wouldn’t have been asked to give it. But don’t go overboard. People aren’t there to see you drone on and on. They’re there to either celebrate their own accomplishments or the accomplishments of family and close friends. You don’t want people to be checking their watches during your speech or hoping you’ll hurry things up.
Therefore, don’t ramble on forever. Your speech should be no more than 10 minutes unless you’ve been given instructions otherwise. Think about how long do you usually sit still for a YouTube video? There’s a reason the more popular ones aren’t very long. Learn from that.
5: Don’t say anything you’ll regret in 20 years.
Matter of fact, let’s amend this to, “Don’t say anything you’ll regret 10 minutes after saying it.” Most kids who are selected to be graduation speakers are the kind who have always set a good example. That said, every year, there’s always a few who want to take a controversial stand, call out a teacher or administrator, or make an inappropriate joke. Hint: Don’t be that kid. Instead, write a speech you can show to your own son or daughter 20 years from now and say, “See, that’s how it’s done.”
6: Inspire your fellow students.
Commencement isn’t just about celebrating the fact that you finally earned your diploma. It’s also about looking forward to all the places life will take you after graduation. You want your fellow students to leave your speech feeling as though they’ve got the world by the tail and can do anything now that they’re graduates.
7: Don’t use famous quotes.
Famous quotes are great for yearbook entries, not graduation speeches. So, put the famous quotes book away. You are the graduation speaker. People want to know what you have to say. The crowd doesn’t want to hear what Nietzsche or President Kennedy or King Ferdinand has to say.
8: Don’t write “what’s expected.”
If you write a speech that’s expected, then what’s the point in anyone showing up? If it’s something we’re all expecting to hear, then the odds are we’ve already heard it and there’s no need to hear it again. Be original.
9: Be specific.
Details make things interesting. There’s nothing particularly original or interesting when you say something like, “You know during our freshman year, we were somewhat unsure of ourselves, lost in this big school, and apprehensive about the future.”
But the details that can make it far more personal and relatable.
Example: “You know, it’s amazing how much we’ve all changed in the last four years. On my first day here at school, I could barely reach my locker. I remember thinking most of the senior football players probably were at least 28-years-old. And sadly, I got lost trying to find Freshman English and had to ask for directions – twice. Today, I’m proud to report that I can reach my locker, the football players don’t look older than I do, and I can find any class on this campus. And if all that’s true, just imagine how different will we all be two, four, or ten years from now.”
10: Make your final point your most important point.
There’s a reason we’ve saved this for last. Obviously. But the contents of your speech should all along be leading up to the final point of the speech – which will be the most important part. This should be the line that people remember, and that people take away from your speech. You can end it with a quote (not someone else’s famous quote – we already discussed that), a memory, or words of wisdom to impart on your class, just as long as you end it with a punch. The punch can be a funny story. It can be a snappy re-cap, or a call to action. Such as Kennedy’s inauguration speech where he said, “My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
In the end, your speech shouldn’t be overwhelming or daunting. Instead, just think of it as connecting with your graduating class one last time before you all go your separate ways. And, as a plus, if you’re planning a career which will involve public speaking, you can think of this as a great way to practice.
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