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Top Commencement Speeches of The Past 10 Years

Commencement speeches have evolved considerably over the years. It used to be that if you had heard one, you had heard them all. People were congratulated on getting through their years of hard work and then encouraged to go on and do great things with their life. It was boring and through the sea of caps and gowns, there were inevitably yawns and people nodding off.

There are now commencement speeches that are exciting, enlightening, and actually causing people to laugh while they listen to not only the introductory speech by someone notable but also by the valedictorian.

Various trends have been seen after a close analysis of speeches given over the past 10 years. These trends can show anyone and everyone not only how to write a great speech so as not to put people to sleep but also what to expect prior to walking across the stage to grab the hard-earned diploma.

Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Speech in 2005

“Truth be told, I never graduated from college…I want to share three stories with you today”

Steve Jobs gave a commencement speech in 2005 and was probably one of the most notable commencement speeches that have been given. The entire thing was captured to view, though there was a common trend started within the speech: tell the truth.

Jobs used some comedy, but he also used a lot of truth within his speech. He talked about how he did not graduate from college and how this was the closest to graduation he has ever come. He also told three stories to the people who were graduating from Stanford. He talked about connecting the dots, love and loss, and death. These three stories summed it up to tell people to figure out what they loved to do, connect the dots, and remember to live each day as though it were their last. It was good advice and that much better coming from the CEO of Apple.

David McCullough, Wellesley High School in 2012

“Weddings are one-sided and insufficiently effective…bride-centric pageantry…”

David McCullough decided to take an comparative approach when he addressed Wellesley High School in 2012. He demonstrated that there is a lot of hard work involved with graduating and that it is one of the most important things that a person can do. He said that graduation cannot be considered to be in the same realm as a wedding because a wedding is one sided and “bride-centric” and he then went on to use some comedy to talk about how men did not get any say in weddings and referenced some of the bridezilla-esque shows that are on TV.

Throughout the speech, he focused on the importance of the accomplishment and used comedy periodically to make sure everyone was staying alert.

Stephen Colbert, University of Virginia in 2013

“Take a moment and follow my Twitter feed in case I tweet anything during the speech”

Stephen Colbert used a lot of comedy, which was only natural because it is what he was known for. Instead of telling everyone to turn off their phones, he used reverse psychology and told everyone to turn them on because he didn’t want to be responsible for someone missing a tweet or a text. He took it a step further and gave everyone his Twitter handle so that people could follow it.

He also used relevant information throughout the speech in order to hit home with the generation that he was talking to. This includes going into how people are self-obsessed and the Time Magazine article that referenced Millennials being the “me, me, me” generation. He also talked about the hard lesson that everyone has to learn about paving a path for themselves.

Ellen DeGeneres, Tulane University, 2009

“I broke it down myself: common and cement”

Ellen DeGeneres took the route of comedy throughout her speech in order to keep everyone laughing, including the dean who shared the stage with her. She made everyone laugh by commenting on how she didn’t go to college and while she didn’t want to tell anyone they wasted their time and money, she’s a big success. It’s true to a point and this is why she was a popular commencement speech. She didn’t sugar-coat anything.

Ellen has had her share of struggles in and out of the limelight and she takes a comedic approach but focuses on very serious topics. This includes living a life with integrity and not giving into peer pressure. She is quoted as telling everyone at Tulane University “don’t take anyone’s advice”.

There are always new commencement speeches being given and while the delivery changes from speaker to speaker, the advice stays the same: create your own path and don’t listen to what others have to say.

The most common approaches include:

  • Telling the truth
  • Making comparison
  • Using relevant concepts
  • Comedy

Anyone can be a successful commencement speaker as long as they follow these four approaches, or a combination of them. The trends rely on knowing the people of the school and the generation in which you are speaking to, which Colbert did especially well when he called the Millennials out for being the “me” generation.


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