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Commencement addresses: 6 steps for making the grade

This post is by Richard McKeown, an executive communications coach, a conference speaker and a workshop leader specializing in presentation training, media training, crisis-communications strategy and leadership development.

It’s another day at the office, and you’re going through the mail. You begin reading a letter from the high school, community college or university you attended back in the day. “On behalf of the board of directors, it is my honor as its president to extend an invitation for you to serve as commencement speaker for our graduating class of 2011.”

The invitation usually gets one of two responses: “Wow, what an honor!” or “Why would they want me?” Whatever the response, another question enters your mind: “What in the world am I going to say?”

Here are some guidelines to make your comments relevant and memorable.

  • Keep your remarks brief. Who hasn’t endured a graduation speech and thought, “I wonder when this is going to be over?!” The length of a graduation speech should not be its most memorable aspect, but too often it is. Think in the 10-minute range — 15 max — bearing in mind that no one gets into trouble for speaking too short.
  • Organize around a theme and a few supporting points. This approach will help you in preparation, and the audience will better retain your comments. Ask yourself, “What answer would I want someone to give when asked “So, what was the speech was about?’ ” The answer you want — ideally expressed in a single sentence — can serve as your theme, or at least its essence. Once you have a theme, which you might want to suggest as the title of your remarks in the printed program, support it with three points.
  • Focus on what you’ve learned, not what you’ve done. Graduation day is about the students and their future, not you and your past. This is not to diminish your possibly substantial and impressive accomplishments, but they should speak for themselves and be covered by the person who introduces you. In fact, when you submit biographical information to the institution before graduation day, enumerate a few of the accomplishments that prompted the invitation for you speak. It is likely that they will be used verbatim in the introduction and perhaps even in the event’s printed program. Use your time to share valuable nuggets you have learned in your career, be they guiding principles, mistakes to avoid, effective decision-making … things graduates can apply moving forward, no matter their career path.
  • Avoid attempts at humor. You shouldn’t start with a joke. Or end with one. Or even stick one in the middle. Humor’s risks far outweigh its benefits. This is not to say that you shouldn’t inject some humanity and personality into your comments. You should, but only as they relate to your message, and your audience. Anecdotes, illustrations, personal references, yes. Humor for humor’s sake, no.
  • Plan your delivery as carefully as your message. Audiences remember how something is said longer than they recall what is said. This has become increasingly so in today’s visual society. If a message is not conveyed in a compelling manner, its chances of being absorbed, much less remembered, drop dramatically. I am not saying that style is more important than substance, but for that substance to have impact, at least as much thought and planning need to be given to a talk’s delivery as its content. Thus, you should do at least one complete run-through in a setting that replicates as much as possible the commencement venue. Videotape yourself, paying particular attention to how well you convey key points supporting your theme.
  • Do not use a script. Nothing, absolutely nothing, turns an audience off faster than being read to in the flat, uninspiring tone that a script prompts. If you are going to use a script, why not just e-mail it to everyone? Use notes, but organize them around your central theme and key points. It is perfectly fine to refer to notes but only to get a thought, not every word and syllable. You should know the topic. Whether you verbally cross every T and dot every I doesn’t matter — conveying your primary message and the points that support it does.