How to give a good graduation speech: a tale of three speakers

In my time, I’ve taken part in quite a few graduation ceremonies, including the one where the guest of honour told her audience to stop singing, and listen to what she had to say. I’ve made speeches, handed out certificates, smiled, shaken hands, and mispronounced names. Fortunately, graduations being a time to celebrate achievements with family and friends, audiences are usually very forgiving.

A tale of three speakers

It’s a long time, however, since I graduated myself. Recently I was reunited with my classmates at a graduation ceremony in London. I was looking forward to sharing the stage with my beloved tutors and peers, all of whom had supported and challenged me in different ways. And I was also up for some gentle joshing over champagne and canapes. It was a wet and windy Friday evening, and because of this, perhaps, the promise of a glass of wine was more than usually pleasing.

Given my experience of graduation ceremonies, I listened to the speeches and observed the ceremonies with a professional pair of ears and eyes. The first speaker talked about himself. The second speaker talked about somebody else. And the third speaker gave a pitch perfect talk about what she had learned about teamwork and conflict resolution, ending with three powerful messages for us to take away.

Talk about yourself, and other people

When giving a speech, it’s OK, and even a good thing, to talk about yourself. I sometimes tell a joke against myself in order to connect with my audience. It’s a well-known technique for putting yourself on the same level as your audience. It’s also good to talk about other people. When I talk about leadership I always speak about leaders I know, and the skills and qualities that make them a leader for me.

Start with your audience

What I really liked about the third speaker was that she kept her talk firmly on intersection of leadership and learning, which was the place where we had all met more than a year ago. The third speaker started with her audience. A transatlantic rower, she talked about what she did, and what she had learned.

Be clear about your messages

Then she shared three simple and elegant messages about to lead a team when the going gets tough:

  1. Have a conflict resolution plan before you start a project
  2. Spend time with different people to avoid factions or cliques, and
  3. Share your vulnerability with your team when you don’t know what to do.

Be modest about your achievements

The other thing the third speaker did was to keep a balanced perspective on what she had done. She didn’t pretend to be a superhero. Yes, she had had to face waves the size of a double-decker bus. And she told us about the beauty of seas, gleaming with phosphorescence, and stars so bright she felt she could reach out and touch them. She knew how to engage her audience by being modest, and how to inspire her listeners by sharing personal feelings of wonderment.

So what are the lessons for graduation speakers?

  1. Start and finish with your audience
  2. Be modest about your achievements
  3. Whatever you say, have a reason for saying it to your audience
  4. Give your audience something to take away and use
  5. Be authentic
  6. Be brief

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.