A commencement speech is one of the highlights of commencement days. It is given either by a graduating student or a notable personality, or an alumnus of the university.
Graduation day, also known as Commencement day is one of the most crucial and emotional moments in a student’s life. It is a day when everyone who played an important role in shaping their education comes together to celebrate their accomplishments and the future that stands in front of them.
The history behind why this day is called commencement day is interesting. The word commencement comes from Latin ‘inceptio’ which means a beginning or a start. It is believed that in medieval Europe, students who entered the university as appetencies, after completing their education would commence in their professions. And hence the inception day of new graduates came to be known as Commencement Day.
Commencement speeches are given to instill hope and inspire the students towards a brighter future. A commencement speech is a type of keynote speech that is usually not too formal in nature.
Commencement speeches should ideally be 5-10 mins long. However, you are free to choose the time limit for your speech as long as it doesn’t exceed 18-20 minutes. Keeping it unnecessarily lengthy would only ruin the celebratory mood of the people present.
Things to keep in mind while writing a commencement speech.
1. Length of your speech
As discussed, keep the length of your speech in that sweet range of 5-10 minutes. And try not to exceed it beyond 18-20 minutes.
The reason why we emphasize this so much is that,
First, the audience has a limited capacity to pay attention. Second, and most importantly, the day isn’t about you and your speech only.
Students and their families and friends are gathered to celebrate and you must not forget that.
2. Understand the diversity of your audience
It is important to understand that your audience will be more diverse than you can think.
With people coming from different backgrounds, ethnicity, and even professions; using a simple and understandable language would be ideal.
Also, it would be advisable not to add any jokes or quotes that that has the potential to hurt anyone’s feelings.
3. Avoid quantifying success
Success has as many definitions as the number of people on this planet. This means that what success might mean to you might be very different than what it means to someone else.
Since inspiring the students is one of the major elements of any commencement speech, it is important to never quantify success in your speech. Quantifying success would include statements like
“10 years from now, when you have so and so amount in your bank account, you’ll realize how much this institute has given to you.”
“You will recall these days when you are sitting on the porch of your Beverly Hills house.”
4. Share a personal experience
Sharing personal experiences in a commencement speech is the best way to give the student’s a chance to relate to you.
If you have been an alumnus of the college, you can go on to describe a few experiences that are common to all, like visiting the cafeteria, attending a particular professor’s lecture, etc.
A good example here will be the commencement speech by Admiral McRaven at the University of Texas.
He begins his speech by sharing his experience of attending the commencement day when he was graduating. He says “I remember I had a throbbing headache from a party the night before.” The crowd’s reaction clearly indicated a similar festivity they might have attended.
It is also one of the most spectacular speeches. He goes on to share not only his personal experiences but the experiences of other people as well. His use of humor and command of the language is something worth noting.
However, while sharing your experience try not to make the speech about yourself.
5. Include the university slogan or mention famous alumni of the university.
Often university students relate to the university slogan which is chanted as a way to cheer for the university.
Including the slogan in your speech would show your dedication and knowledge about the university, especially if you aren’t an alum of the college.
The commencement speech given by Will Ferrell at the University of Southern California is an amazing example of this. He not only begins with university cheer but also recalls the university’s famous alum. He describes how his present self would have described himself to his younger self by saying,
“I can tell you that you will become one of the famous alumni of USC mentioned in the same arm as John Wayne, Neil Armstrong, and Rob Kardashian.”
6. Maintain an equilibrium in your speech
Commencement speeches with a balance of inspirational advice and humor hit the perfect spot in the viewer’s hearts.
Humour is that element in your speech that quite conveniently engages and entertains your audience. Using too much humor or making your commencement speech too informatic, carries the potential of annoying the audience.
The few times when heavy use of comedy in commencement speech was appreciated was when it was given by a comedian, in which case everyone expected to laugh their heart out.
Funniest commencement speeches by comedians
1. Andy Samberg
If you have watched Brooklyn 99 then you are already familiar with Andy Samberg’s humor. Famous actor-comedian, Andy Samberg gave the Harvard commencement speech in 2012 and he sure did justice to his art.
One of the absolute blunders that he included in his commencement speech which later went on to famously be turned into an internet meme was,
Class of 2012, you are graduating from college. That means this is the first day of the last day of your life. No, that’s wrong. This is the last day of the first day of school. Nope, that’s worse. This is a day.
2. Ellen DeGeneres
One of the most hilarious beginnings of any commencement speech I could get my hands on was this one.
Popular talk show host, Ellen begins her commencement speech by discussing how she had no idea what commencement meant and so she introduced her own definition of the word.
“I had to break the word down myself to find out the meaning. Commencement. Common and cement. Commoncement.”
Other hilarious statements that she used in her speech were:
- “I didn’t go to any college at all. And I’m not saying you wasted your time or money, but look at me, I’m a huge celebrity.”
- “By the time I was your age I really thought who I was. I had no idea. For example, when I was your age, I was dating men. So what I’m saying is that when you are older most of you will be gay.”
3. Jimmy Kimmel
Another popular talk show host, Jimmy Kimmel took over the Keck School of Medicine with a laughter-filled commencement speech.
He chose to hit the med students hard with the brutal reality of their profession that was waiting for them.
The most hilarious statement of his speech was:
“Believe me I’m not here to depress you. If they wanted the speaker to depress you, they would’ve asked a neurologist to speak here today.”
Formatting and delivering your commencement speech
Commencement speeches have a very simple format. While there are no rules that you must compulsorily follow the pattern, it might give your speech a better structure and likeability.
Before we jump into formatting your main content comes the question,
How to start a commencement speech?
While there are no rules on how to begin your commencement speech, most people tend to start by either thanking the concerned people or by introducing themselves.
1. Thanking concerned people
It is advisable to start your speech by addressing everyone present and conveying your thanks.
You can start your commencement speech with something like“Thank you Mr.Xyz for such an amazing introduction. Thank you to the students, teachers, staff members, and parents, who made the last 4 years in this institute worth cherishing forever.”
Another statement you can use to start your speech is “(person who introduced you) Thank you for the introduction. It is my pleasure to welcome you students, teachers, family, and friends to the commencement day today.”
2. Introduce yourself.
No matter how popular or famous you may be, there is always a thin chance that someone in the crowd might not know you. After all, it doesn’t hurt to introduce yourself.
You do not have to go into intricate details about yourself, Just a couple of lines should be enough.
You can also start with a quote, a joke, an inspirational statement, or a personal memory, Whatever suits you best.
A good example of beginning your commencement speech is the one by Taylor Swift at New York University.
She begins by sharing how the last time she was at the stadium, she was performing. And then she goes on to give her thanks to the people concerned.
This is the main part of your speech. Feel free to add the points that you feel are relevant but don’t exceed the time limit.
However, it is the way in which you format all your ideas that will determine the impact your speech will leave on the audience.
Two of the many ways of structuring your content are the PPP format and the pointer format.
PPP (Past, Present, and Future)
PPP format involves structuring your speech in a manner that talks about the past first which would include sharing experiences growing up or in the institute.
Present includes talking about the present day or the year.
And future is where you instill hope and inspiration, talking about the opportunities that come with the future.
Pointer format is where you clarify to the audience that you’ll be speaking on let’s say 5 or 6 points in the speech and then highlight them while speaking.
A way in which you can add this format to your speech is by saying
There are 4 main points I would like to speak about today. First, Do not compare yourself to others. Second, Life is too short to be in your comfort zone. Take calculated risks. Third, Do not forget where you come from. And lastly Be open to change, as change brings growth.
An example of this is Tim Minchin’s commencement speech wherein he talks about 9 life lessons.
How to end your Commencement speech?
The end of your commencement speech might be more important than the rest of your speech. Because of the recency effect, people tend to remember what was spoken in the ending better.
You can end your speech with a joke, a quote, or even a restatement of the main idea of your speech.
Avoid ending your speech with a lengthy closing remark. Also, try not to end it with a mere thank you.
Ending your speech with a takeaway that inspires people and is easy to remember is something that you should try to include.
One of the most famous ending lines in a commencement speech of all time was given by Steve Jobs in his commencement speech for Stanford University.
Stay Hungry, Stay foolish.
To know more about the dos and don’ts of closing remarks, check out closing remarks for commencement speeches
Best Harvard Commencement speeches
2. Bill Gates (2007)
Bill Gates gave a commencement speech at the same university he dropped out of.
He begins by sharing his experience at Harvard, the dorm life, and sitting for classes he didn’t even sign up for.
One of the striking features of his speech was the takeaway. Bill Gates advises the students on how they can contribute to making the lives of less privileged people better. He asks them to use their intellect and privilege to change the lives of people, rather than quantifying their own success.
His last few lines summarise the idea.
I hope you will judge yourself not on your professional accomplishments alone but also on how well you have addressed the world’s deepest inequalities.
3. Oprah Winfrey (2013)
Oprah Winfrey‘s commencement speech to the class of 2013 has been featured in a number of short videos on youtube. the reason?
Because of how stunningly inspirational the speech is.
Besides the humor and stories, and the idea of a brighter future ahead, Oprah reminds the students that the future doesn’t stay bright forever.
She talks about failure and how there is no failure but just guidance to change your course.
3. Mark Zuckerberg (2017)
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta gave the commencement speech to Harvard students in the year 2017.
The speech was given at a time when it was pouring and so he went on to begin his speech by addressing the situation and assuring the audience that “We’ll make it worth it.”
His sense of humor includes attacking himself when he says “Let’s face it, you have accomplished something I never could.”
However, the focal point of his speech was the idea that “Having a purpose for yourself isn’t enough.” He stressed the challenge that was in front of them, of creating a world where everyone has a sense of purpose.
Commencement speeches by students
1. Donovon Livingstone (Harvard)
Donovon, a student at Harvard University made headlines with his commencement speech. The reason you ask?
His speech was unlike any other, it was spoken word poetry in the form of a speech.
Apart from the excellently written poem, the way he uses his expressions and gestures is commendable.
Another notable feature of this speech is the way he chooses to end it with an altered quote.
No! sky isn’t the limit, it is just the beginning.
Tessa Otto (Phillips High School)
Tessa Otto’s high school commencement speech has made it to this blog because of the absolutely fun way in which it was delivered.
She points out the peculiar behaviors of certain students that everyone had witnessed, which immediately made the crowd laugh.
Another interesting feature of her speech is the way in which she uses a poll while adding humor to it.
“I ask that you raise your hand if you have ever been personally victimized by (Student’s name) in the gym or in the classroom as a result of her dangerously competitive lifestyle.”
Best Commencement speeches for High school students
1. Barack Obama
Barack Obama‘s commencement speech for high school students was held online as it was given in the year 2020.
We already know how great of a speaker Obama is, but the reason this speech particularly stood out was because of the way he uses the pointer format.
He offers 3 pieces of advice (or takeaways) for high school graduates
- Don’t be afraid (Pandemic circumstances)
- Do what you feel is right
- Build a community
Check out the full transcript of Barack obama’s commencement speech.
2. Zander Morciz (Pine View high school)
The commencement speech by Zander Moricz is worth watching.
Zander was the first openly gay president of Pine View (class 2022). The reason his speech made news was that he used the word “Curly hair” every time he wanted to refer to “gay.”
After he was warned not to use his activism toward LGBTQ+ during his commencement speech, he euphemized “curly hair” to determine his sexual orientation.
There are going to be so many kids with curly hair who need a community like Pine View and they won’t have one… Instead, they’ll try to fix themselves so that they can exist in Florida’s humid climate
Commencement speech Example
Commencement speech sample for students.
Thank you, Mr. XYZ, for the introduction.
I am ABC, A climate activist and graduating art student of this esteemed university.
I would like to welcome all the faculty members, friends, and family of all the graduating students to this wonderful day. And to the class of 2022, I’d like to say; that we did it.
4 years have passed by in a blink. I remember sitting in the cafeteria, talking to my friends about how we couldn’t wait to graduate. Well, the day is here.
And as much as I am proud of the person I have become, all thanks to the University for the Amazing Experiences it has provided; I am equally overwhelmed with the thought of parting my way from the place where I first realized my purpose.
And this might sound heavy but we are all millennials, isn’t figuring out an answer for this question what are we doing in our free time?
During the first climatic conference that I attended in the year 2019, I had seen it as an opportunity to get extra credits while I daydream at the conference.
Credits for dreaming, are pretty, good aren’t they?
But that is not what happened that day. As Miss QPR started her speech, I’m not sure if it was the way she had command over her language or the content of her speech itself that intrigued me the most. She talked about the amount of plastic pollution in the water bodies. For me, it was an eye-opener.
And this was the point where I gained my purpose.
I am going to take this opportunity to share a few pointers in an attempt to open your eyes to the issue we are all familiar with. Plastic pollution.
Now I know that you are already aware that the amount of damage plastic has done to our planet is immeasurable. But here is what you might not know. Did you know that humans can no longer be the first to reach any newly discovered place or depth? Because plastic has already done that.
Recent estimates by experts and scientific models have found 128 million pieces of space debris aimlessly bobbing around in outer space, A plastic bag recently made its way 36,000 feet underwater inside the marina trench. If you are a sneakerhead then you must be aware of Futurecraft Loop, the new shoes that Adidas is developing using plastic bottles and ocean pollution. I guess that would make you believe the abundance in which this man-made thing has polluted the natural bodies and we are now paying for (quite literally).
But we are humans; we have always cared a little less when something wasn’t harming us directly, right?
Well, guess what? A 2019 WWF report revealed an average person consumes about 1,769 microplastic particles each week.
I won’t sugarcoat and say we still have time to fix it. All we have is now. Now Is the time to take action.
You can wait for government bodies and big corporates to do something about it. Cause what difference will it make if you as one person try to work towards it, right?
If you have a similar thought then I am here to tell you, that you can make a difference.
And when every individual makes takes small steps like avoiding buying more plastic goodies, and recycling the ones you already have; the collective effort will surely make a huge difference.
I believe the university will agree with me here for it has preached us the same;
I will and I can, our university motto.
The misplacement of words always intrigued me until I understood their essence and meaning.
It is not because of your ability to do something that you shall do it but your willingness to do something that ultimately helps you get the work done with ease.
As Mark Zuckerberg had said in one of the commencement speeches he gave “Finding your purpose isn’t enough. The challenge is to create a world where everyone has a sense of purpose” so if you haven’t figured out your purpose yet, I’m here to offer you one.
Take action for your planet. After all, it is as much your home as it is mine.
Commencement speeches are given to appreciate their achievements so far and to inspire them for the future that they will be stepping into. The idea is to keep it short, humorous, and informative.
Most people don’t remember the commencement speeches they hear, but they do remember how they felt while listening to them.
So don’t try to make your commencement speech memorable for its content but for the feeling it creates.