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How to Keep Graduates Engaged When Delivering a Commencement Speech

Thursday, June 27, 2019 by Mallory Craig in Speech writing

It’s an honor to be asked to give a commencement speech. On the most basic level, it means that university administrators feel you have wisdom that the graduating class needs to hear—and that they themselves want to listen to what you have to say after seeing how your life turned out. Is there any higher compliment than being handpicked for this occasion?

But honor doesn’t make it easy, and you may find yourself daunted by the task after having accepted. After all, the most influential people in the world — from presidents and Nobel Prize winners, to actors and poets — are asked to give commencement speeches. Those addresses accumulate thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of views online so you may be wondering: How can I write a speech so enthralling? How can I not only engage the audience of graduates but also keep the attention of future online viewers?

Chances are you already know that you should keep your speech brief, have a tag line or central theme, and add a joke or two to keep it light. Those are the common guidelines, but our team at Phenomenal Writing wanted to present you with a short list of tips you likely may not have considered yet based on feedback from recent graduates or soon-to-be-grads.

Avoid Referencing the “Real World”

One of the fastest ways to lose the trust and the intrigue of your audience is to allude to them entering the “real world.” The graduates have faced obstacles during their time on campus: many have struggled with their mental health, family crises, money issues, etc. To say that they are only now entering the “real world” is to say that nothing they have faced thus far has been of any consequence. So if your speech relies on making a distinction between the past and the future, stop and ask yourself what you are actually trying to say. We guarantee there is a way to say it that doesn’t invalidate the sum of your audience’s past experiences.

If you decide that the word you were really searching for is “workforce” be aware that the National Center for Education Statistics found that 81 percent of part-time college students were employed, and a sizeable 43 percent of full-time students were employed as well in 2019. The media may paint college students as naive and coddled, but the facts disagree. Your audience is more worldly than you may realize.

Find the Memes

Here is a unique tip for finding a way to connect with graduates that we admired from an address given by Miss Mindy Kaling, who spoke at Dartmouth in 2018: find the college’s student-run meme page. If you want to get a better grasp on the student culture, go to where the students are. You will gain an insider look into their zany campus humor. An explicit meme reference may never make it into your speech, and that’s okay. Anything that helps you understand your audience is worth the short Facebook search. Who knows, you may even laugh out loud.

Start humbly

Your back is straight, your clothes are pressed, and you command all of the dignity that comes from being atop a dais and behind a podium. You seem so high above the crowd that they don’t truly believe that you were ever one of them. Their futures are uncertain, except for the ever-burgeoning student debt they are now accountable for, and here you are to tell them to change the world. You must overcome the distance of age, wealth, and experience to assure these young graduates that you know how they are feeling beneath the excitement, and pride and relief. Be humble.

The most important thing is that you tell your story. You’ve learned the hard lessons, and you will never know how much heartache and struggle you can spare your audience if you can share those lessons in a way that they will hear and remember. Here at Phenomenal Writing, we help people just like you tell your story in your voice. Don’t let your wisdom go unheard.

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