Commencement Speeches For Beginners

As any sales circular will tell you, June is the month for “Dads and Grads”.  I’m both a Dad and a Grad several times over, though I haven’t been particularly new at either position for quite some time.  It occurs to me that despite my soaring intellect and love of dispensing unwanted advice, I’ve yet to be invited to give the commencement speech anywhere, ever.  Still, as my temples gray and the barren plain on the top of my head becomes increasingly littered with liver spots, I’m confident some school will ask me.

Being the commencement speaker does not give you the right to hold the magic sceptor.  I found this out the hard way, and I'd like to take a moment to apologize to Dean Conroy for the misunderstanding and wish him a speedy recovery.  (Image from txstate dot edu)
Being the commencement speaker does NOT give you the right to hold the magic scepter of Laan-dor. I found this out the hard way, and I’d like to take a moment to apologize to Dean Conroy for the misunderstanding and wish him a speedy recovery. (Image from txstate dot edu)

I’ve sat through quite a few of these speeches.  I always try to stay awake and pay attention so that I can avoid some of the common pitfalls other speakers often experience.  The most recent commencement I attended was a great learning opportunity; I even took some notes on my smart phone (to my wife’s untrained eye, it may have appeared I was doing a Sudoku puzzle). I’ve created a Do’s and Don’ts list as a rough guide for myself.  Feel free to refer to it yourself in the event you’ve been chosen ahead of me for this prestigious honor.

  • Do  – Talk about yourself – The parents and esteemed faculty will want to know why you were picked and not some brilliant or famous person with more stellar qualifications.
  • Don’t  – Talk about yourself – Graduates will be the first ones to tell you, this day is about them, not some crusty old fart who made his first dollar back when people still used paper money.
  • DoMake real world examples – These fresh-faced youngsters need to recall what they’ve learned in this (circle one: community college/university/12-step program) and apply it to real world decisions.
  • Don’tMake references to the MTV series “The Real World” – These kids know damn well that you’ve never seen one episode, also, MTV might have cancelled it.  Besides, that Snookie character has likely done something stupid in public again, and that could reflect badly on your speech.
  • Do  – Break the ice with a joke – Everyone likes a little chuckle to keep things light.  Despite your obvious intellectual superiority, jokes show people you’re just a regular guy.  If possible, try to incorporate the school into the joke.  Keeping it topical will strike a familiar chord with everyone in the crowd.
  • Don’t  – Make the joke too topical – It may still be a little soon to poke fun at the university’s recent “sex for grades” scandal.
  • Do  – Comment about the high temperature – The sweltering heat and humidity in this (circle one: Auditorium/Cafeteria/Stadium/5th Circle of Hell) cannot be ignored.  People can take comfort that they’re not the only ones who are suffering from an epic case of swamp ass.
  • Don’t  – Let them see you sweat.  This may involve applying a stick or two of roll-on antiperspirant to your entire head and smuggling a battery operated fan under your robes.  Legal Disclaimer – Using antiperspirant on the scalp is not recommended.  Avoid contact with eyes, ears, mouth, nasal passages and broken or intact skin, including armpits.
  • Do  – Avoid distractions.  Some class-clown will likely smuggle a beach ball or inflatable love-doll into the ceremony and start batting it around amongst his classmates.  Distractions can take away from the message and flow of your speech.
  • Don’t  – Underestimate the value of showmanship.  Take the extra time to train your pet hawk to attack and retrieve inflatable toys.  The sight of “Edie Falcon” on your outstretched arm, tearing the remnants of a congratulatory mylar balloon to ribbons will make these young punks sit up and take notice.  Legal Disclaimer: Falcons may be disoriented by flash photography and have been known to mistake graduation tassels for small prey.
  • Do  – Acknowledge the parents.  In many cases they raided their retirement savings to subsidize this moment; they deserve the credit for writing those checks every semester.  This instant may be a rare happy memory once their graduate moves back into his old room for the next 13 years.
  • Don’t  – Mention your exorbitant speaker’s fee.  If these broke-assed parents find out the crazy cash you were paid to give this rambling mess of a speech, they could try to strong-arm you for a round of shots later at the Applebee’s out by the airport.
(Image from faculty regalia dot com - Smart-assed text from yours truly)
(Image from faculty regalia dot com – Smart-assed text from yours truly)
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26 thoughts on “Commencement Speeches For Beginners

  1. Okay, I won’t mention my speaker’s fee — but I am allowed to mention that it’s customary to tip the graduation speaker? Or should I just gesture discreetly towards the tip jar while delivering my speech?

    1. I think having a tip jar right up on the podium is a little tacky. I prefer to put little envelopes on the seats before the ceremony and then have everyone pass them down to the aisle seats, where I can collect them and give high fives as needed.

  2. Is it bad form to introduce a little audience participation into the speech, such as a sing-along (in rounds?) or starting The Wave and challenging them to keep it going for the duration of your speech?

    1. I like encourage a game of telephone, where graduates whisper a message down the row. It’s only a matter of time before someone gets poked in the eye by one of those funny flat hats.

  3. Does the speaker have to perform other duties; such as folding up all those steel chairs that aggravated the swamp ass condition? If so then money could be saved by having the janitor give the commencement speech. (As an aside; why is “speaker” spelled with an “ea” and “speech” with an “ee”? Also, does the parenthesis in the last case go after the question mark or before it as I have done?)

  4. I’d consider a 10% discount for schools that allow me to carry The Magic Staff Of Laan-for (15%) if I can swing it wildly over my head.

    Does this seem like a good idea or will other speakers like you might think I’m undercutting the market?

  5. These are excellent suggestions that I’m sure to need quite soon. Although I haven’t been asked to DO any such speeches, I have notices up on the bulletin boards at all the universities in our state that I’m available to fill in at the last minute. Just in case the scheduled speaker is mysteriously run down by a Rav4 while crossing the street.

  6. These tips make good sense. I would also add that if you are a politician, don’t use the commencement speech as a way of campaigning for your upcoming election. Not that any politician would heed that advice.

    1. Politicians would also be well advised to steer clear of the sex for grades scandal, as it bears an uncanny resemblance to the sex for secret service agents scandal, sex for free cigars scandal, sexual harrassment of pages scandal, and no more sex for Tricky Dick non-scandal.

  7. I missed my undergraduate ceremony because I got it into my head that I could research and write my graduate thesis in three weeks. Big mistake as my parents had flown from Italy to attend. Ouch!! In the end, after a summer of writing drudgery, I simply slapped the thesis in my advisor mailbox and got on a plane.. Alas, for a return to Rome. Oh, punishment. But, I never got to wear the gown and tassled hat. Bummer.

  8. Has Letterman seen this? Not sure why you’re farting around here with material this funny. Big coin awaits u in the writer’s room.

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