Have you been asked to deliver a commencement speech? Or have you worked your butt off to become valedictorian or salutatorian, and now you have to deliver a graduation speech? In this post, we will cover one of the more challenging types of presentation creation: How to Write a Graduation Speech. (By the way, I have also included a few popular graduation speech examples as a guide for you.)
This post is a continuation of our How to Create a Presentation series. We are going to break this post down into three parts, though. We will show you how to create a commencement speech in this post. Next week, I’ll show you how to write a valedictorian speech and how to deliver a salutatorian speech. Each of these graduation speeches has a slightly different purpose, but all of them need to be inspirational and funny.
How to Write a Commencement Speech
The commencement speech is often the keynote speech of the graduation ceremony. This presentation should be uplifting and entertaining, but this graduation speech should also teach a life lesson to the graduating students. If you do a search on YouTube of the best graduation speeches, many of these speakers will be famous comedians. When a comedian delivers a commencement speech, and the speech is posted on YouTube, it will always get a ton of views. The humor alone will make people want to watch the video. Three of the most popular of these speeches are by Conan O’Brien, Will Ferrell, and Ellen DeGeneres. The interesting thing about the speeches from these famous comedians is that, yes, they are funny, but the inspiration comes from what they learned from their failures.
“There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life life trying to push you in another direction.” Oprah Winfrey, Harvard University Commencement Speech
Conan’s commencement speech to Dartmouth occurred a short time after he was fired from NBC. The first 10 minutes is basically just a monologue like he would deliver on his TV show. However, the final 15 minutes is an inspirational tale of how he turned things around after the biggest failure of his life. When Ellen spoke at Tulane, she talked about how she recovered after her popular sit-com was canceled. The trend in great commencement speeches is that the speakers want to prepare the graduates for setbacks. Whatever goals that they have will likely change.
A Good Structure When You Write a Commencement Address
Thank the Crowd
Start with Something Funny
Tell Stories from Your Own Experience Related to Your Quote (Theme).
End with an Inspirational Call to Action.
Although I’m not a big fan of thanking the audience for a chance to speak, in this case, you will actually be showing respect to the crowd. (This is also a way to add a little humor, if you want.) Thank the principal/dean for the invitation to speak. Next, thank the administration. Then, thank the faculty. Thank the parents and distinguished alumni. And, finally, thank the class of [year]. Many speakers will add in a little humor here by poking fun at the typical words used in this thanks. For instance, after saying “distinguished alumni,” you might say something like “and, well, I guess, for that matter, any undistinguished alumni who might be here as well.”
A good way to start with humor is to tell a self-deprecating story about how you speaking at this graduation was unexpected based on your history. For instance, a funny story about a time you got in trouble in school or a struggle as a youth might work.
The inspirational part of your commencement speech will come from the theme of the graduation speech. (For Sample Graduation Speech Themes, see the section below.) The easiest way to develop a theme is to look for an inspirational famous quote about success. You can do this by just going to Google and type in “success quotes”. Once you come up with a great quote, you can either paraphrase the quote and make it your own or quote the original speaker.
For instance, you can say something like, “Winston Churchill once said, ‘Success in not final; failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.” (I pulled that quote from an Inc. Article about Success Quotes.) Or, you can rephrase the wisdom and make it your own. (You are using the quote as a muse.) “If you want to accomplish something great, remember that both the success and failure that you experience are just stepping stones to the next success or failure. Your perseverance will determine how you are remembered.” You can do this with any inspirational quote. For more details on how to do this, take a look at the Les Brown section of the podcast about How to Be a More Inspirational Speaker.
This the most important part of how to write a graduation speech. The stories and examples are what the audience will remember. These stories add emotion and inspiration to your graduation speech. They also help you build rapport with the audience. Finally, these stories make your delivery much easier. You don’t have to memorize a lot of material. Instead, just play the video in your head of what happened and describe the incident to the graduates.
For a great example of this, watch the YouTube video on Stanford University’s channel where Steve Jobs gives the commencement speech. I love this speech, because Jobs skips the introduction and the funny stuff and starts his speech with the following. “I’m going to tell you three stories.” It’s simple, and the crowd loves him.
Once you deliver your last story, end with a call to action. The easiest way to do this is to rephrase your quote or theme as a call to action. So, if we use the earlier quote as our theme, you might end with something like this…
So as you go on to the next stage in your life and you experience failure… because you will experience failure, use that as a stepping stone to your next success. Persevere. Don’t rest on that success. Use it as a stepping stone to your next success. Persevere, and you will experience a series of successes and failures that will allow you to accomplish something great!”
Use this outline to create a simple 20 to 30 minute speech. (The shorter the better… No one gets a diploma until you finish.)
Sample Graduation Speech Themes
If you are having trouble coming up with a theme for your graduation speech, here are a few Sample Commencement Speech Themes. As you read through them, think about which them or quote has been most applicable in your career? Once you choose a graduation speech them, use the outline above to create your speech.
- Hard Work Leads to Success
- Create Your Own Path.
- Make Things Happen.
- Don’t Settle for Average. Strive for Greatness.
- Don’t Wait for the Perfect Opportunity. Look for a Way to Create Your Own Opportunity.
- The Road Ahead is Hard, But It Leads to Success.
- Focus on Your Dream.
- Learn from Every Mistake to Move Toward Success.
- When Your Why is Big Enough, Your How Will Appear.
- Happiness is the Key to Success.
“I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.” — Coleman Cox
“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” — Herman Melville
“Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.” — Henry David Thoreau
“Don’t be afraid to give up the good to go for the great.” –John D. Rockefeller
“Opportunities don’t happen. You create them.” — Chris Grosser/blockquote>
“Successful people do what unsuccessful people are not willing to do. Don’t wish it were easier; wish you were better.” — Jim Rohn
“The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus.” — Bruce Lee
“Success seems to be connected with action. Successful people keep moving. They make mistakes, but they don’t quit.” — Conrad Hilton
“If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way. If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse.” — Jim Rohn
“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” — Albert Schweitzer
Use the Speech Creator as a Guide to How to Create a Graduation Speech
Once you have chosen a them, and you have a few stories to inspire your audience, use our Online Speech Writer to help you organize your thoughts. (It’s free.)