How About a Graduation Speech that Doesn’t Suck?

One of my students came to me for help writing a speech today.  She’s in the running to be one of the speakers at graduation and wanted my help in ironing out some of the details.

She’d written … not a bad speech, but a boring one.  It bespoke the regular regurgitated platitudes of high school: these are the first days of the rest of our life, the things which seem so important now are really very small in the scheme of things, limitless potential, blah blah blah.  Nothing wrong with it, but nothing particularly right, either.  I asked her what her goal was in this speech:  why did she want to give it, rather than let one of her classmates give it?  Why did she feel it was a speech worth giving?

She responded by saying that she wanted to write something people would enjoy.  HMM WHERE HAVE I HEARD THAT, OH WAIT, THAT’S MY GOAL.  She said that she wanted to write something that her classmates could relate to. YEP THAT’S ME TOO.  It didn’t occur to me at the time but in retrospect, by which I mean a few minutes after she left the classroom, it struck me that her fears are the same as my own.  She wanted to write a speech with broad-based appeal, and it was falling flat.  She wanted to be inclusive to everybody, and ended up sounding placating and boring.  She wanted a speech that would be memorable, but had written something utterly forgettable.

Where had she gone wrong?  I dutifully examined the speech with her, taking it line by line and thinking of ways to strengthen this sentence, simplify that idea, and all that stuff.  But the underlying problem, the one that I couldn’t point to and say, “here’s where you screwed up,” was the absence of heart.  She was so focused on getting her audience to connect with the speech that she had forgotten to write something she could connect with.  As a result, and not surprisingly in the least, her words were bland, disjointed, and uninteresting.

What to do?  When words give you trouble, you bust out the WordHammer. Go for the jugular.  Write what’s real and immediate and bloody and visceral.  Throw judgment out the window, kick doubt right in its asgard, and write some TRUTH.

The theme of the speech is time?  I shared with her a paradox which baffles me every day.  The days are so long, but the years are so short.  Every day it feels like there are so many hours to fill.  There’s time to go for a run.  There’s time to go to work.  There’s time to do a bit of writing.  Cook dinner.  Play with my kid.  Relax with my wife.  Watch some TV.  Read a few chapters.  Do some laundry.  So much time.  And yet, it feels like my high school’s 10-year reunion (such as it was) was just a few short weeks ago.  (Spoiler alert, it was five years ago.)  For that matter, it feels like I was in high school just a few years ago.  (Spoiler alert, it was MORE THAN five years ago.)  My son is two, running circles around me in the yard and counting to ten and happily calling out the color of every object in the house, but it feels like just last month he was a newborn, red-faced and squalling and unable to even roll over on his back without help.  I told her those things and reminded her that the days are long but the years are short, then I asked her why she suddenly seemed enraptured.

“I just hadn’t considered your life before.”

It’s indicative of the human condition, I think, that we turn inward.  That we focus on the immediate, that we focus on ourselves.  But it’s that very tendency that limits us as storytellers.  It’s a bizarre paradox.  To tell the best story to the widest audience, we have to make it accessible and real.  But to make it accessible and real, we have to forget about appealing to the audience and share the gooey, tasty bits of ourselves that we never think to tell about.  Try too hard to appeal and the story sounds forced, awkward, and hollow; tell a personal and nuanced tale and suddenly readers you don’t even know can relate.

You know that old adage about the student becoming the teacher?  The other half of the equation is that the teacher sometimes becomes the student.

Things I learned:

1.  Know what you want to say.  My student was so preoccupied with giving a good speech that she hadn’t bothered to determine whether she was delivering a message worth sharing.  The message matters.  In a lot of ways, it’s all that matters.

2.  Focus on the story before you focus on the audience.  The story has to come first.  After you know the story, then you can fine-tune the words and the metaphors and the way you tell it to your specific audience.  But if the story sucks, no amount of turd-polishing or clever wordplay will make it not suck.

So she left feeling better about her speech (I think) and I got back to work on my story with perhaps a bit more clarity and confidence.  Twelve hundred words today, and I think they tell a pretty good story.

By the way, I’m not sure if it’s a bastardization of a better known aphorism or what, but I first heard “the days are so long, but the years are so short” a few years back from my dad, and it proves more and more true every long day and short year.  Thanks, dad, for helping me to see something I hadn’t before.  (ALSO, SEE, I DO LISTEN.)