15 Tips for Writing an Actual Graduation Speech that Actually Doesn’t Suck

Remember you're unique, just like everybody else.
Remember you’re unique, just like everybody else.

In a surprising twist yesterday, the little blarg here got a handful of hits from, presumably, high school students looking for ways to write a graduation speech.  Oh, dear.  They stumbled into my lair, hoping for advice, only to find me talking all about ME.  I cackled.  I chortled.  I guffawed.  But then I thought.  Wait a minute.  I’m a teacher.  There are students out there looking for help.  My tiny little minuscule platform, for better or worse, was a source they came to in search of that help.  Am I not obligated, then, to provide some measure of that help?

I thought some more.  Obligated?  Perhaps not.  But it could be fun, and it might even help some of them (henceforth, some of YOU) out.  MAYBE I could actually provide a service.

Let me first direct you to this, a speech given by Nick Selby to the incoming freshman class at Georgia Tech just this very academic year.  That’s not a graduation speech, but it is a speech given by a student to a bunch of recently graduated students, and its themes are similar to the themes that you are probably groping blindly toward.  Selby does a lot of things right, and using that speech as a model is not a bad way to go get it.

I’m also going to leave out some of the obvious stuff: proofread, practice in front of a mirror, have your peers and parents and teachers give it a once-over.  These 15 points are, of course, not in any way exhaustive, they are just a collection of things that occurred to me while I could perhaps have been putting my time to better use.  Here, then, are 15 ideas for how to make your graduation speech not suck.

1.  For God’s sake, be original.  Every graduation speech out there uses phrases like “the rest of our lives” and “relationships we’ll cherish” and “the wisdom of our teachers and our parents” and oh god, I feel my brains sliding out through my ear.  Yawn, snore.  If you’re using language like this, your audience is tuning you out, because they’ve heard it in every graduation speech in every movie and TV show and (especially if you are not the first graduate in your family) every other graduation they’ve ever been to, ever.  Let’s be honest.  The situation is not unique: the number of high school graduations that have happened must number into the tens, if not the hundreds, of thousands.  But YOUR speech needs to find a way to stand out.

2.  Step your game up.  Hello.  You are graduating high school.  That means that, among other things, you learned to write a cogent sentence, you learned to manipulate statistics, you probably learned enough chemistry to blow a few things up, or at least leave permanent stains on the driveway or maybe burn a hole in the bushes by your parents’ driveway.  Er, what?  Sorry.  DEMONSTRATE YOUR KNOWLEDGE.  Buzz the tower.  Taunt your fallen opponents.  What I mean is, use the opportunity to speak as an opportunity to show off some of your skills.  Play around with sentence structures and narrative structures.  Spin a few metaphors (more on this later).  Toss off some allusions to great stories and people.  SHOW US ALL THAT TIME MEANT SOMETHING.

3.  But, maybe, rein it in a little too.  Just because you learned some things doesn’t mean you need to rub it in everybody’s face.  If you were thinking of using words like “matriculate” and “exacerbate”, don’t.  Not just because they sound like masturbate, which will have people laughing at your speech in ways you DON’T want.  But because people don’t like to be made to feel stupid, Especially at an occasion honoring their (supposed) arrival at a moment of mental maturity.  Notice Nick Selby’s speech.  Most of the language is simple.  He uses complicated language when he needs to in order to make a point, and then he MOVES THE FARGO ON.

4.  Stay on Target.  A speech is, first and foremost, an essay, and nothing will stop an essay in its tracks like wandering off topic and getting lost in the woods.  Your topic might be proscribed by your counselors for you.  You might get to pick it yourself.  Whatever it is, identify it, determine your angle of attack, and then LET NOT YOURSELF BE PARTED FROM IT.  Staple it to your ear.  Write it on your forehead in sharpie (backwards, so you can read it in the mirror).  Play it through earphones as you go to sleep.  Whatever you do, make sure that everything in your speech IN SOME WAY serves your topic.  Forget about Luke and the Death Star.  (As I write this, I realize that this is not a metaphor which will be immediately apparent to all of you.  God, it sucks getting old.)  You don’t have the Force guiding your speech.  Keep your goldfinger targeting computer on.

5.  But don’t be afraid to stop off and see the sights.  If you’re all business, no pleasure, that’s not a lot of fun either.  Laughter is powerful, doubly so at bittersweet moments like this.  Feel free to pull off the highway of your theme to tell a story or make a joke.  But – guess what – it should still serve, or at the very least, relate to – your theme.  More importantly, however, your digressions are going to help you to:

6.  Make it personal.  This is the one bit of “advice” that I vomited up yesterday, and it bears repeating here.  In your zeal to write a speech for the ages, to write something so profound that EVERYBODY in the audience will hear your words and immediately change their life and follow their dreams and name their children after you, you will write a pile of pandering, empty tripe.  Flavorless and soulless, those words will slide off the scotchgarded upholstery of your audience’s indifference.  You have to reverse the equation.  If you try to relate to everybody, you will end up relating to nobody.  Instead, open up an avenue to Me-Town.  Invite your audience in by sharing YOUR personal experiences, YOUR interpretation of an idea, YOUR unique insight, and THEY will do the work to meet you halfway.

7.  But don’t forget, this is not about you.  See how every piece of advice I give carries a disclaimer?  That’s life.  Get used to it.  Anyway, yes, if you want your audience to relate, you have to let them in.  But don’t show them everything, for god’s sake.  When you’re selling your house, you don’t show off the cracks in the foundation and the water spots in the ceiling and the dead hookers under the floorboards.  You leave out the stuff that doesn’t matter.  Again, it should SERVE THE TOPIC.  Nick Selby talks about himself only inasmuch as it helps him to make his case about why Georgia Tech is the best school in the world for him (and, by extension, for his audience).

8.  Metaphors be with you.  Get it?  Because it was May the 4th this weekend, and that’s Star Wars, and… oh, are we tired of Star Wars jokes already?  Clammit.  ANYWAY, metaphors are those things you learned about in English class where a thing is like another thing but you don’t come out and SAY it.  Like, “the boat cut through the waves.”  Boats don’t really cut, so I’m invoking the imagery of a knife, which imparts a sharpness to the boat’s movement, and maybe even a sinister intent (who wields knives?  Murderers do.  Also chefs.  Maybe I’ve got too much Macbeth on the brain).  Metaphors allow you to say things without simply saying them.  There’s poetry in metaphor.  But more importantly, metaphors force your audience to think.  Not a lot, necessarily.  It doesn’t take a lot to figure out what I’m talking about with “the boat cut through the waves.”  If, on the other hand, I say that “We are the detritus of a hurricane, washing up in storm drains and hoping for somebody to find us, dry us off, and take us home,” you have to chew on that a little bit.  Let your audience chew.  (BTW, maybe don’t use the word “detritus” — see rule 3 –, or in fact this image in general.)

9.  Tell new stories with allegories.  Allegories are basically metaphors gone wild: entire stories wherein every element of the story is representative of something else.  They can be powerful for occasions like this: for example, you might tell a story of a seed (you) given food and sustenance (your education) so that it can flower and bloom (become a productive member of society) and go on to spread little seedlings into the wild (you get the idea).  As always, make sure it serves your topic.  And don’t bogart my example.  That’s hackneyed as sharknado.

10.  But, avoid cliches like the plague.  See what I did there?  I used a cliche to illustrate my point about cliches.  And what you did when you read it illustrates my point.  You saw it coming, you anticipated it, and then forgot all about it.  If I said, rather, avoid cliches like that guy in gym who never washes his shorts, well, then, you conjured an image and maybe a smell and you might even remember this advice I’m giving you about cliches.

11.  Don’t go on too long.  You’re not the president.  You’re not MLK.  You don’t have the license to give a twenty minute speech.  You need to keep your points concise and focused and clipping right along.  Shakespeare said that brevity is the soul of wit.  Brevity is also the soul of not having your audience check their watch before you’ve even gotten to the point.  Likely, your school will give you a limit of ten minutes, or even five.  But don’t feel you have to use ALL of that time if you can make your salient points without it.

12.  That said, fill the time you’re given.  If your speech is over in a minute, why did you bother getting up there?  Take your time.  Savor the moment.  Say something worth saying and take, well, the time it takes to say it.  If they give you five minutes to speak, you should take at least three.

13.  Don’t try to sound smart.  This is not the time to break out the Thesaurus.  If you try to artificially increase your sound-smart-itude by using fancy, multisyllabic words which are not a part of your immediate vocabulary, your speech will sound hollow and halting.  Doubly so if you use a word wrong or worse, mispronounce it.  Don’t worry about finding the perfect word.  Use the best words you know to say the things you want to say.  An authentic voice is better than a highfalutin one.

14.  But, eschew the language of the streets.  Relate, but don’t pander.  This is a formal speech, not a chat with your buddies behind the bowling alley.  What’s that?  The kids don’t hang out behind the bowling alley anymore?  Goldfinger it.  You know what I mean.  What’s that?  Oh, yeah.  Eschew words like “eschew”.

15.  If you do nothing else, make it original.  Did I say this already?  There’s a reason for that.  The number-one thing wrong with graduation speeches is that they all sound alike.  If you finish your speech and it sounds like it could have been written by anybody, you’ve done it wrong.  Every great chef adds flair and flavor to even the most commonplace of dishes.  Hamlet has been performed thousands of times, but every actor brings his own voice to the part.  Your graduation speech should be you in a single-serving, travel-ready, easily-digestible and  packet.  If it’s not personal, it’s not memorable.  If it’s not memorable, why bother?


There you have it.  15 bits of dubious advice for your graduation speech.  If they help you out, I’d love to hear about it.  Our regular nonsensical programming will resume tomorrow.

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