There you are: Four years of studying and stressing and extracurricular activities that look good on your college applications and community service and teacher recommendations and doing homework while your friends are partying and knowing more about what the inside of the school building looks like than the inside of your own house. All for that little moniker, filigreed in gold next to your name in the program. Valedictorian.
Or maybe that’s not you. Maybe you’re the charismatic one, the one other students look to, even though your grades aren’t so hot. Maybe you won a contest, or maybe your English teacher nominated you to speak before your classmates because you just get it.
One way or another, you have a speech to give, and not a lot of time in which to write it. And one way or another, you found yourself here. We all make mistakes in life.
Last year, I wrote this: How to Write a Graduation Speech that Doesn’t Suck. It remains one of the most popular posts on this site (though it is mightily eclipsed by the post about me giving my son an enema, for reasons I’d rather not think about). It’s not bad for getting the speech written. But maybe you’re not having trouble with the speech; maybe you’re blanching at the prospect of delivering it. Maybe this is the first time you’ve had to speak in front of a crowd bigger than your English class. Maybe you’re in the majority of Americans who fear public speaking more than death.
You’ve read advice and it’s all contrived. Imagine the audience in their underwear. Practice in a mirror. Look at a point just above the heads of the audience.
That crap might let you limp through your performance. It might let you mumble your way through a forgettable “speech”. It might get you to the end of your prepared oral essay with a wheeze of relief. But it won’t do a thing for delivering a message that will resonate, that will earn you the respect or admiration of your peers, or land you on youtube. Okay, bad example. I don’t want you to end up on youtube because you did something gimmicky or bizarre or nonsensical, like wearing a live squid on your head or reciting your speech through an Autotune.
Here, then, is some actual advice for delivering a graduation speech — or, in fact, any speech — with grace and confidence.
You’ll notice that, in just about every point I list here, I mention the audience in some way or another. That’s not an accident. The speech doesn’t matter without the audience, and we all hear and view speeches long before we ever think to give one. What I mean by that is, you’ve been an audience member for speeches in your lifetime, whether it’s a guest speaker in the high school gym or the presidential address you watch from your sofa. You know intuitively what makes a good speaker and what makes a crap one, even if you can’t explain why. It’s easy, in preparing for a speech, to focus on me: how should I read this line? what should I do with my hands? how should I stand? But the real questions to ask are about them: how will this look to an audience? how will the audience see me if I stand like this? will my audience get this joke? In short, ask yourself, as you’re preparing, if the speech you’re about to give is one an audience would enjoy hearing. If not, you have work to do.
In no particular order…
- First of all, write a solid speech. I almost didn’t include this step, because it kind of goes without saying, but your words are doing most of the heavy lifting, here. The words are the skeleton holding your speech together, and your performance is the meat that makes it tasty. If the words are crap, your speech will be crap. What does that mean? Well, at its most basic level, it means you need to believe that the words you are speaking have value, that the message you’re trying to communicate is a message worth hearing. If you step up in front of a host of classmates and friends and family and deliver a boring speech that any Joe could have written on his lunch break, well… maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board and spruce it up a little bit, yeah? The speech doesn’t have to be earth-shattering. It doesn’t have to inspire me to go out tomorrow and experiment on squirrels until I’ve cured cancer. But it has to matter to you before it can ever matter to an audience.
- Drink a ton of water in the days leading up. Your vocal chords are a precise instrument for communicating the words you so painstakingly wrote. You wouldn’t sit down to play in the symphony while your trumpet was all gummed up with gummy bears and the residue of week-old soda, and your voice is the same. Clean out the pipes with water, especially on the day of. You remember this, right?
Yeah, none of us wants that. Hydrate before you speak.
- Don’t lock your knees. When you stand up straight, the tendency is to make everything in the body as straight as possible, which includes locking your knees. Problem is, locking the knees puts bizarre pressure on the blood vessels down there. And blood flow problems combined with the nerves you may be feeling can make you lightheaded. I heard this for years as a performer and thought it was nonsense, until I watched a colleague drop like a sack while trying to introduce the acts at a high school talent show.
- Plant your feet. Inexperienced speakers (and even some who should know better) have a habit of getting happy feet and taking nervous, shuffling steps. This makes you look uncertain and weak, which you’re not. Are you? No, you’re a rock, a two-by-four, you’re an unshakable steel girder. You wrote a damn good speech that everybody in attendance should be excited to hear, so deliver it with the arrow-straight posture of a presidential candidate.
- Don’t be afraid to move. Yeah, you’re probably behind a podium, and that limits your practical movement. But the last thing you want to do is stick there like an abandoned warehouse mannequin, cobwebs and all. Movement creates interest, which is why we like movies so much. It’s also why, if you ever watch professional theatre, the character speaking will move in some small way — a shake of the head, a Shakespearean point, a shrug — as or just before she begins her line, that is: to make sure you’re paying attention to the right thing. Incidentally, it’s the same reason a magician asks you to closely look at the handkerchief he’s fluttering around while he secretly swaps out the $20 you gave him with a live woodpecker. Point is, a lean here or there, a quick movement of the hands, any sort of movement can draw attention and add emphasis to your words.
- But, know when to hold still. Too much movement can tire your audience out, or give the impression that you are antsy or unsettled. This shatters your credibility. It’s the same reason you shouldn’t be shifting your weight from foot to foot. You don’t need to spread your arms every fifteen seconds, or point every time you say “you”. Shakespeare had something to say about this: “Do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” Sometimes, you just want the audience to listen to your words.
- Make your look a conscious choice. Sure, your classmates and your teachers know you, but a lot of people in the audience don’t. And, whether we like it or not, first impressions (and even secondary impressions) matter. It’s why the accused has the opportunity to put on a three-piece suit while he’s sitting at trial: if the jury got to see him in an orange jumpsuit, they’d automatically assume he was guilty. Shave. Comb your hair. Or don’t, but at least don’t shave because you want to appear before the audience as a scruffy-looking nerf herder.
- Practice in front of somebody who isn’t biologically programmed to love you. Mom and dad are great, but they aren’t going to give you the harsh feedback you need to know if you’re really having an impact. They think you’re awesome, all the time. Which is a steaming pile of nonsense. You need somebody who will tell you the little things you’re doing wrong, like mispronouncing the word “nuclear” (how different our history could have been!). Drama teachers are good for this. English teachers aren’t bad either. Friends are marginally useful. A pile of your stuffed animals from childhood is not at all helpful.
- Prepare some notes, for god’s sake. If you’re not suited to speaking in front of crowds, memorizing the speech in your basement isn’t good enough. When you feel the crushing weight of thousands of eyes staring at you, the words are going to jump ship like rats on the Titanic. By all means, memorize your speech, but pack a safety net just in case.
- Cull the “um”s and “uh”s. Plenty of practice will take care of this, but nothing tells an audience you’re unsure of yourself or uncertain of what comes next as filling up the space with empty syllables. Even if you know what you’re saying next, and just use it as a lead-in, it sounds terrible. Take this for example:
…and he still got elected. But if you seriously get lost? Just take a silent moment to find the thread again. A momentary pause will draw the audience in and make them think you’re about to say something really good. An “uh” tells them that whatever you’re about to say wasn’t important enough to remember.
- Tell a freaking joke. I know, I know. The gravity of the moment demands the utmost seriousness, and you fear to deviate lest you be accused of making light of the occasion. But nothing breaks the ice like a little joke, especially a self-deprecating one. It lets the audience know that you’re human, and tells them it’s okay to engage with you (and you do want your audience to engage, right?). Used sparingly, a few jokes can make a boring speech palatable, and a decent speech great in the minds of an audience.
- Hold for laughter. If you followed rule #9, and if at least you have the charisma of a cheese danish, your joke will get some laughs. You may not have them clutching at their sides, unable to breathe, but they’ll laugh. The quickest way to lose an audience is to invite a reaction and then shut that reaction down. Like leaning in at the end of the date, but then slamming the door before the kiss. It ices them out. When you tell a joke, you have to let them laugh for the right amount of time. Press on too fast, and you slam the door in their faces, and they’re afraid to laugh again. Hold too long, and you start to look lost, and they won’t go on the ride with you if you look lost. How to gauge it? Every laugh rises and falls like a wave. It builds quickly, reaches a peak, and then peters off. You have to feel that wave, and ride it like a cool, hang-loose Malibu surfer. It feels weird at first, but you ease right into it. For reference, check this video:
and notice how odd and awkward it feels holding for laughs that aren’t there. Like sitting at a red light at two in the morning and waiting for the whole cycle while no cars drive by.
- But what if they don’t laugh? Okay, you told your joke, and they didn’t laugh. So now you feel like your pants have fallen down and everybody’s staring at your Spider-Man undies (what, you don’t wear Spider-Man undies?). It’s awkward as hell, but don’t let it sink the ship. Roll on with whatever you were about to say as if they did laugh, and just recognize that they’re not a laughing crowd. (Or maybe it means that you’re not the joke-telling type.) And be ready for short or nonexistent laughs in the future.
- Make eye contact. You’ve heard the advice about looking just above the heads of the audience to make it look like you’re making eye contact, and it sounds good. And yes, it will look like you’re making eye contact. The problem is, eye contact is a two-way street. You get to see what another person’s thinking, and they get to see what you’re thinking. Humans crave this. It’s why screaming teenagers faint and lose their minds when Justin Beiber locks eyes with them even for the most fleeting of moments. HE SAW ME, they cry, and begin to weep blood tears. And a graduation speech is no different, minus the blood tears. It’s one thing to know that the speaker is up there addressing the class of 20xx, but it’s another thing entirely to know that he’s speaking to me. You can’t make eye contact with everybody, but if you can create that feel for a few people, you let the entire audience know that they could be next, and that will keep them rapt. Plus, you get to look into their souls. Don’t you want to see into their souls? We have such sights to show you.
- But don’t be creepy. There are hundreds, if not thousands, in attendance. You maintain eye contact with one person for more than a few seconds, the audience belongs to feel shut out, like they’re intruding on a private moment. And maybe you spot your girlfriend or boyfriend in the crowd, or your mom or your kid sister who’s always looked up to you, and you want to make the moment last. Resist that urge. Make a private moment later with that person. While you’re up there, you belong to the masses, and if you shut them out, they will lose interest in you, like a swarm of gnats with ADD. And if you lock onto a stranger for too long… well, that’s just creepy. Don’t be that guy, yeah? A couple of seconds, a sentence or two, maximum.
- Relax. Tension manifests itself in the body, and your nerves can cause you to tighten up like an over-tuned guitar string. The shoulders draw up and in, the spine compresses as you try to make yourself smaller. The physical result is that you compress your various cavities, most notably your lungs, which can leave you short of breath and dizzy. The mental result is that you look smaller, and you feel smaller, and since you’re already putting pressure on your lungs, you’re going to get quieter, which is the kiss of death. Shake it off and stand up straight. The simple act of squaring the shoulders and drawing them back makes you stand taller and opens up the chest cavity, which makes you look taller and more confident, and allows you to breathe and speak comfortably. Practice at home before you try it in front of a crowd. You don’t want to look like a preening rooster. Ever been on a date where the other person didn’t know what to say, and it got all awkward? And you wanted to slither up inside your shell and stay there until they kicked everybody out of the restaurant so you could slink home in silence? Was that just me? Don’t let your speech feel like an awkward first date.
- Enjoy yourself. It’s easy to spot the person having a good time. He smiles, he laughs, he’s not terribly concerned with what people are thinking about him… If you can evoke that feeling, your audience will enjoy themselves right along with you. How many people get the chance to speak at an occasion like this? A graduation speech is a rare opportunity. If you’re not having fun with it, then they should have picked somebody else who would have. Enjoy your time in the spotlight, and the audience will enjoy it too.
There you have it, seventeen terrible tips to make your graduation speech less awful. If you do these things, I can’t guarantee you a perfect speech, but I can guarantee you that your speech will be better than 90% of the graduation speeches I’ve heard, and that includes those given in movies. (I’m looking at you, Twilight saga.) If these tips are helpful to you in any way, I’d love to hear about it.