Giving a college graduation speech is a singular experience: you have an audience full of proud families — from great-grandparents to younger siblings — and excited grads ready to throw their mortarboards and start their post-school lives. Everyone wants to hear a memorable message, and these days, of course, people’s camera phones are poised to record a speaker’s every word.
So, what makes a memorable and shareable commencement speech? It doesn’t hurt to be famous, of course, and great speeches always feature a dose of humor or a really great story. But the key ingredient of a winning graduation talk is a universal message that will resonate with the wide variety of generations in attendance.
Here are five graduation speakers who nailed it this year.
Theo Epstein, Yale University (Shout out to my alma mater!)
“Some players — and some of us — go through our careers with our heads down, focused on our craft and our tasks, keeping to ourselves, worrying about our numbers or our grades, pursuing the next objective goal, building our resumes, protecting our individual interests. Other players — and others amongst us — go through our careers with our heads up, as real parts of a team, alert and aware of others, embracing difference, employing empathy, genuinely connecting, putting collective interests ahead of our own. It is a choice. The former approach, keeping our heads down, seems safer and more efficient, and I guess sometimes it may be. The latter, connecting, keeping our heads up, allows us to lead, and, every now and then, to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and, therefore, to truly triumph.” — Read more at the The Athletic.
Mark Zuckerberg, Harvard University
“Let’s take on big meaningful projects. Our generation will have to deal with tens of millions of jobs replaced by automation like self-driving cars and trucks. But we have the potential to do so much more together. Every generation has its defining works. More than 300,000 people worked to put a man on the moon…Millions of volunteers immunized children around the world against polio. Millions of more people built the Hoover Dam and other great projects. These projects didn’t just provide purpose for the people doing those jobs, they gave our whole country a sense of pride that we could do great things. Now it’s our turn to do great things. I know, you’re probably thinking: I don’t know how to build a dam, or get a million people involved in anything. But let me tell you a secret: No one does when they begin. Ideas don’t come out fully formed. They only become clear as you work on them. You just have to get started.” — Read more at Quartz.
Will Ferrell, University of Southern California
“My fear of failure never approached in magnitude my fear of what if. What if I never tried at all? By the spring of 1995 producers from Saturday Night Live had come to see the current show at the Groundlings. After two harrowing auditions and two meetings with executive producer Lorne Michaels, which all took place over the course of six weeks, I got the word I was hired to the cast of Saturday Night Live for the ‘95-‘96 season. I couldn’t believe it. And even though I went on to enjoy seven seasons on the show, it was rocky beginning for me. After my first show, one reviewer referred to me as ‘the most annoying newcomer of the new cast.’ Someone showed this to me and I promptly put it up on the wall in my office, reminding myself that to some people I will be annoying. Some people will not think I’m funny, and that’s okay.” — Read more at CNBC.com.
Oprah Winfrey, Smith College
“Winfrey told the Smith graduates that the secret to success to figure out how to use ‘your whole self, your being, your full expression, as an offering; as a full open prayer to life.’ She urged the grads to ‘shift the paradigm to service: ‘[A]sk the question: How can I be used? Life, use me. Show me through my talents and my gifts, show me through what I know, what I need to know, what I have yet to learn, how to be used in the greater service to life. You ask that question and I guarantee you, Smithies, the answer will be returned and rewarded to you with fulfillment, which is really the major definition of success for me.’” — Read more at Fortune.
Katherine Johnson [physicist portrayed in Hidden Figures], Hampton University
“My parents always insisted that you do your best whatever you’re doing. If you’re being bad, be the baddest. But if you’re being good, it will show, and it will be helpful to more people to know that you helped them and they can help someone else. That’s life. And as always, I tell the children, learn to like learning. Enjoy learning. What you know is much better used by all the people. And that’s the purpose of information — to be used by people, not to be written in a book to be read, but to be used, so that everybody who does read it will understand it. And you hope will use it usefully. Love learning at all times.” — Read more at Time.
What was the most inspiring graduation speech you’ve heard? Please share in the comments below.
Lindsey Pollak is the leading expert on millennials and the multigenerational workplace, trusted by global companies, universities and the world’s top media outlets. A New York Times bestselling author and keynote speaker, Lindsey began her career as a dorm RA in college and has been mentoring millennials — and explaining them to other generations — ever since. Her presentations have audiences so engaged that, in the words of one attendee, “I didn’t check my phone once!” Contact Lindsey to discuss a speaking engagement for your organization.