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Commencement Address Dissection


My son graduated from college on Friday!  Cum laude!  We’re so proud!  He worked so hard and we know he’s going to go on to wonderful things in his future.  I’m sure I’ll write about those future victories on the blog too!

Of course, anyone who has attended a graduation ceremony knows that inevitably there will be a speaker who makes the obligatory commencement address.  As a presentation geek, I may have been the only one in the gymnasium looking forward to the speech.  Unfortunately, I should have been on the side of the rest of the people in the building.

Commencement Address Dissection

I think there are several lessons that can be learned by what the speaker did during this commencement address.  But before I use him as an example of what not to do, I want to add a couple of notes.

I’m purposefully not using the name of the speaker or the university.  My point is not to embarrass the speaker or denigrate the university.  It was clear from the introduction of the speaker that he is very committed to the university and that he has devoted his life to a worthwhile cause.   He has gained stature and prestige in his field and is well respected by those who know him.  The professors at the university provided my son with a great education while being supportive and encouraging – for which we are very grateful.

But with that said, what can we learn from this particular commencement address that we can apply to our presentations.

Humor Is the Great Connector

The energy in the school gymnasium where the graduation was held was electric.  The room was crawling with family and friends proud and excited to see loved ones graduating.   It was such a joyous occasion.   Yet I don’t remember a single joyous moment in the speaker’s speech.

Humor is a great connector in any speaking situation but particularly a joyous occasion like a graduation.  People are already ramped up.  Humor gives the audience an outlet for the joy of the occasion.  Give an audience a way to express their exuberance through humor and they will be ever so grateful.

Humor also connect the audience to the speaker and the audience to the message.  The lack of humor distanced the speaker from us and us from his message.

The Right Speech for the Occasion

Perhaps the reason that the speaker did not add humor to the presentation was that he was there to deliver a message that he thought the graduates needed to hear.  And I get that.  There’s a sense of responsibility – that this is the final chance to reach these students before they go off into the big, bad world.  But he ended with an imperative that was solemn and overly dramatic.  It felt heavy handed and didn’t fit an occasion which should be a celebration.  There was too much preaching and not enough rejoicing.

It’s good to have a message in a speech but as speakers we need to remember the audience and the occasion.  I’ve been to funerals where we laughed – these were moments of joy when we remembered the loved one who had passed and events and characteristics that made us love them.  But those messages also gave us space to mourn.  Funerals are a time for grief over our loss.  To have a message in a commencement address that challenges the graduates is appropriate.  But because of the occasion, the speech needs the air of celebration that the audience deserves.  Students and families have worked hard to get to a graduation ceremony.  Give them a chance to rejoice!

Thinking about your presentation, what’s the overall mood of the event?  Do you need to be solemn because of job losses?  Do you need to celebrate the fact that you’ve weathered the recession and business has started to pick up?  Make sure your speech also fits your occasion.

Great Delivery Is Not Enough – The Importance of Flow

The speaker at this commencement ceremony has a position in which he speaks a great deal.  And it showed.  He had great delivery.  His voice was passionate and he had wonderful variety and intonation when he spoke.  He had dramatic gestures and poignant pauses.  But his content was all over the place.  The different stories and points didn’t naturally flow together.  It was clear he was trying to get his message across, but it wasn’t clear where he was headed and how the different parts all tied back to that message.

It’s not enough to be confident and comfortable speaking.  It’s important that your message logically flows together in a way that the listener can follow.  If you’re giving chunks of information, explain how the pieces fit together either with each other or toward your larger message.  Don’t assume the audience knows.  Connect the dots for them.  Unlike with reading, the listener can’t go back and reread a point to figure out what they’ve missed.  Give your audience a verbal road map and verbal sign posts along the way so that you keep them with you the entire way.

Do the Right Thing

Every speaker can be a better speaker if they focus on the audience and the occasion.  So what will you do to make sure that your message is the right message and the right time for the right audience?  Tell us in the comments below!

Craig Hadden (@RemotePoss)
Craig Hadden (@RemotePoss)

That’s an interesting story, Kelly. It’s a shame the speaker’s content was disjointed, and too solemn. Still, I suppose it’s lucky that at least his delivery was good, rather than having a boring style as well as a speech that missed the mark! You might be interested in a critique of a TEDx talk on body language, which I posted recently. After watching the talk, I felt it was great. Yet when I thought more about it, I realised how many ways it could have been so much better. (Well-known bloggers like John Zimmer, Simon Raybould and Peter Watts have chimed in, and I’d be interested in your viewpoint.) I guess – whatever the standard of a speech – there’s always something we can learn!


Thanks for the comments Craig. I will pop over to your blog and look at your critique!