Commencement speeches might be the best part of graduation ceremonies. Or the worst part. It’s kind of hit-or-miss.
The commencement speech is so central to graduation that schools now go to great lengths to outdo each other with celebrity speakers, sometimes forking over six digits‘ worth of cash to land a big name. But even if you know who you’re getting, you don’t always know what you’re getting as far as the speech itself goes.
In recent years, high-profile commencement speeches have ranged from the profound to the cringe-worthy to the just flat-out strange. Here’s a look at the good, the bad and the unique of college commencement speeches.
At their best, commencement speeches can make you look at things in a new light. Different speeches do this in different ways, and a lot of insightful, captivating speeches have been given – for a sample, see NPR’s comprehensive list of over 350 famous commencement speeches. Here are six, though, that really stand out.
The 2016 commencement season isn’t over, but already it’s given us a speech that’s likely to become a classic. Speaking barely a year after her husband’s sudden death, Sandberg started her address by explaining:
“I’m not here to tell you all the things I’ve learned in life. Today I will try to tell you what I learned in death.”
She then delivered a moving and inspiring speech touching on topics including resilience, gratitude and what she calls the 3 P’s: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence.
Sheryl Sandberg isn’t the only Silicon Valley celebrity to give a memorable commencement speech. In 2005, Steve Jobs spoke to Stanford’s graduating class about his own brush with death, about the importance of living every day like your last, and about the value of following your passion and intuition. He ended his speech by encouraging the audience to “stay hungry, stay foolish.”
2005 was considered the year of the great commencement speeches. The same year that Steve Jobs gave his Stanford speech, David Foster Wallace addressed Kenyon College’s graduating class about the “whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about.” In a speech at the same time entertaining and thought provoking, Wallace made the case that being able to choose what you think about and believe in is an essential skill for being happy and that education is a way of developing this skill.
In J.K Rowling’s 2008 commencement speech at Harvard, she revealed that before writing Harry Potter, she went through a dark time in her life where she saw herself as a total failure. Drawing on her life experiences, Rowling emphasized the importance of failure, empathy and – above all – imagination:
We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.
George Saunders’ 2013 speech at Syracuse’s commencement was shorter than many famous commencement speeches, but it was a real and masterfully executed exploration of one topic: kindness, and why it’s always good to “err in the direction of kindness.”
Jennifer Lee might be best known for writing and co-directing Frozen, the hit disney animated film, but she also delivered one of the most memorable commencement speeches of recent years. In it, she reflected on how insidious self-doubt can be, encouraging UNH’s class of 2014 not to let self-doubt hold them back:
“If I learned one thing, it is that self-doubt is one of the most destructive forces. It makes you defensive instead of open, reactive instead of active. Self-doubt is consuming and cruel and my hope today is that we can all collectively agree to ban it.”
Of course, not every commencement speech is packed with pearls of wisdom. Case in point: these 3 disasters.
The lesson to draw from Paul Farmer’s 2015 debacle is probably that being an accomplished physician renowned for international humanitarian work doesn’t necessarily translate into being a skillful public speaker.
Farmer’s rambling speech, filled with inside jokes and shoutouts as well as multiple jokes about Ebola and PTSD, never really seemed to arrive at a coherent point. But at least it was short. No, just kidding – it went on for almost 40 minutes.
Ever wondered what would happen if someone tried to make up a commencement speech on the spot? Richard T. Jones has the answer. And in case you have any doubts, he starts off by clarifying:
“I’m glad I looked up a word called “improv” because that’s what’s going to happen here.”
- Ivan Boesky, UC Berkeley
In 1986, trader Ivan Boesky waxed poetic on the importance of … greed:
“Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s because the speech went on to inspire Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” speech in the 1987 film Wall Street. A year after giving his commencement speech, Boesky was imprisoned for insider trading.
Truly unique commencement addresses can be hard to find. But some commencement speakers really go above and beyond in their quest to be original. In fact, here are 4 speeches so unique that they cross over into downright weird.
Ferrell’s speech at Harvard’s 2003 commencement began with him asking “This is not the Worcester, Mass. boat show, is it?”, featured an extended impression of George W. Bush, and ended with a song.
At UVM’s 2012 commencement, Kenny and Fagerbakke – the voices of SpongeBob SquarePants and Patrick Star – showed up in character for a rendition of “Graduation (Friends Forever)” by “Vitamin Sea.”
Harvard may have invited Sacha Baron Cohen to speak at their 2004 commencement, but they got Ali G, Cohen’s satirical character. The address ended with Ali G being led away in handcuffs.
There was nothing especially unusual about the speech Aaron Sorkin gave at Syracuse’s 1997 commencement. However, when he gave more or less the same speech again at Syracuse’s 2012 commencement, reusing large chunks from the original speech as well as lines from his TV shows, that’s when things took a turn for the weird. Both speeches even ended with the same line: “And my friends, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Indeed.
Some students in Syracuse’s class of 2012 were less than thrilled about receiving a recycled commencement speech. But in fairness to Sorkin, it’s easy to see why if you already had a pretty good commencement speech you might want to reuse it.
After all, commencement speeches are hard to execute. You have to be heartfelt without being corny, self-revealing without being too self-absorbed, and entertaining without looking like you’re trying too hard. That’s why great commencement speeches are so rare and bad commencement speeches are so shockingly terrible.
Congratulations to all of 2016’s graduating seniors! If you want some inspiration for the next chapter of your life, try watching some of these – maybe starting with the good ones, although there’s definitely something to be learned from the bad ones too!
By Niels V.