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)