It’s the time of year at U.S. colleges and universities when commencement speakers offer advice to new grads just before school officials award them their hard-earned diplomas.
Each season, at least some of the prominent authors, executives, public officials and entertainers at the podiums deliver knockout speeches that garner media attention and linger in audience members’ memories.
According to Toastmasters International, a nonprofit that has trained communicators since 1924, effective speeches are lighthearted, engaging and inspiring. Speakers who hold an audience’s attention typically tell stories and emphasize what matters in life (trusting one’s instincts or tackling tough problems instead of accepting the status quo).
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in his May 6 address to the Class of 2023 at the Georgia Institute of Technology, nodded to the professional football player who had spoken earlier and said that the audience was now “stuck with the guy whose last trophy came in youth soccer for ‘participation.’” Blinken told graduates that nearly everyone struggles to figure out what to do in life but that while weighing their options, they should stay true to their guiding principles yet rethink what they think they know.
“It’s never too late to change course,” Blinken said, noting he himself started out as a lawyer and later worked at a film-production company before becoming a diplomat.
Here are excerpts from other noteworthy commencement speeches:
Actor Chadwick Boseman spoke to the Class of 2018 at Howard University in Washington, only two years before his death at age 43 from colon cancer, and urged graduates to find a mission, not just a job: “Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember: The struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose.”
Author George Saunders, addressing the Class of 2013 at Syracuse University in New York, stressed the importance of kindness: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in her remarks to the Class of 2012 at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, asked graduates to challenge their own views — and learn from the perspectives of others: “There is nothing wrong with holding an opinion and holding it passionately. But at those times when you’re absolutely sure that you’re right, talk with someone who disagrees. And if you constantly find yourself in the company of those who say ‘Amen’ to everything that you say, find other company.”
Surgeon and public health researcher Atul Gawande, speaking to the Class of 2021 at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, suggested that, like surgeons, graduates would have to think on their feet when things go wrong. “A failure often does not have to be a failure at all. However, you have to be ready for it. Will you admit when things go wrong? Will you take steps to set them right? Because the difference between triumph and defeat, you’ll find, isn’t about willingness to take risks. It’s about mastery of rescue.”
Comedian Amy Poehler, addressing the Class of 2011 at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, brought hearty laughter as she offered insights. She underlined the value of others in graduates’ lives: “Be open to collaboration. Other people and other people’s ideas are often better than your own,” she said. “Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life. No one is here today because they did it on their own.”