Best graduation speeches

Graduation is coming up soon. Even if you're not the one graduating, you're probably going to a graduation ceremony in the next six weeks. 

And you probably already know this, but most graduation speeches suck. How could they not? Your audience consists of three groups: 

Students, who are very accustomed to tuning out speeches, just want to get out of the uncomfortable clothes and go on to whatever's next, because whatever's next is a party.

Parents, strangely enough, are only there to hear one thing--their child's name called out. The first people to speak your name, the people who gave you your name, want nothing more than to hear someone else speak it over a microphone. They're not listening to anything else.

The rest of the audience is only there out of politeness and/or obligation. Not listening.

So people who are not professional speakers have to give a speech for an audience who doesn't want to hear it. It's going to suck.

While in you're in a more receptive space (or maybe later this month while you're sitting in an actual graduation ceremony), take some time to read or watch a few of the rare good graduation speeches. Pretend these speeches were made for you, not some other group. And enjoy. NPR keeps a large index of best speeches, over 350 of them. Here are a few of my favorites.

Inspirational. Shonda Rhimes. Dartmouth 2014. Video and transcript here. Highlights:

  *  "I've already said 'poop' like five times already anyway...things are getting real up in here." 

  *  "I think a lot of people dream. And while they are busy dreaming, the really happy people, the really successful people, the really interesting, engaged, powerful people, are busy doing."

  *  "Shonda, how do you do it all? The answer is this: I don't. Whenever you see me succeeding in one area of life, that almost certainly means I am failing in another area of my life."


Funny. Charlie Day. Merrimack 2014. Video and transcript here. Highlights:

  * "Apparently the higher in life you climb the more ridiculous your hats become. Like the one I'm wearing today, or the pope's or Pharrell. So if in some way you fear success, just think of the hats and that alone should motivate you."

  * "Now, I know that having a honorary doctorate degree will do nothing for me, but I'm here to tell you today that your degrees, the ones you toiled to get, the ones you actually took classes to earn, those degrees, will also basically do nothing."

  *  "You can not let a fear of failure or a fear of comparison or a fear of judgement stop you from doing the things that will make you great. You can not succeed without the risk of failure. You can not have a voice without the risk of criticism. You can not love without the risk of loss. You must take these risks."


Profound. David Foster Wallace. Kenyon 2005. Transcript here. Audio recording here.

  * "If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important - if you want to operate on your default setting - then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren't pointless and annoying. But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options."

  * "Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship."

  * "The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is the real freedom."

If you're graduating soon, congratulations! If you know a great graduation speech I should read, leave a comment. Please share this with someone who would like to read it. You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.