2011 Commencement Speech Review

July 15, 2011

If you’ve read this blog since the Blogger days, you know that I’m a big fan of the commencement address. I enjoy them for their motivational, aspirational qualities and the feeling of major accomplishment I feel for the graduates. I also remember how triumphant I felt at my own graduation.

But I don’t think I started to appreciate these speeches until I attended graduation ceremonies from my friends. In one case, I remember a graduate in her 80’s being recognized for the completion of her Bachelor’s Degree…she received a huge ovation and local television camera crews moved in to capture the moment to be shared with the community. I couldn’t help feeling a sense of admiration and inspiration from her accomplishment.

In early June, The Huffington Post shared their Best Commencement Speeches of 2011. I recently took the time to view these speeches in their entirety and wanted to share with you some great thoughts and moments. Watching each of these, I could not help feeling admiration and inspiration once again.

Initial thoughts

One look at the names of the top commencement speakers and you’ll notice that it’s an all-star list of celebrities and dignitaries: Tom Hanks, President Obama, Michelle Obama, Denzel Washington, Amy Poehler and John Legend. My first thought is that these speakers are going to immediately grab the attention of graduates, parents and faculty. And each of these speakers, in their own way, does that.

In her address to graduates at Harvard, Amy Poehler asks the audience to “lend me your beers.” Arrianna Huffington flatters graduates at Sarah Lawrence College by saying simply, “you look amazing.” These opening remarks don’t just grab the audience’s attention, they also set up the important parts of the speech that come later.

In terms of delivery, each speaker delivered their speeches with a style that was dependent on the audience and the speaker’s personality. Performers such as Tom Hanks and Amy Poehler delivered in a loose, polished manner and provided a good amount of humor. Denzel Washington, was less polished and even acknowledged that he was a bit uncomfortable giving his speech. President and Michelle Obama, in separate speeches, spent considerable time praising dignitaries and evoking a sense of history and tradition. John Legend spoke with the more serious tone of an experienced big brother. Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s address felt much like a pep-talk to the all-girl Barnard College.

And though their styles differed, each speaker delivered strong, encouraging thought-provoking messages. Amy Poehler invited her graduates to apply improv rules to their careers: listen, say yes, live in the moment and make choices early and often. She also invited grads to “try putting your iPhones down once in a while and look into people’s faces…this will tell you many things.”

Sheryl Sandberg stressed that “fortune favors the bold” and asked “what would you do if you were unafraid?”

Denzel Washington spoke about the positive aspects of failure and says that we need to “fall forward.” In other words, when we fail (or fall), we need to get up again and keep moving. He added, “every graduate here has the training to succeed. But do you have the guts to fail?”

“There is no passion to be found in playing small and settling for a life that’s less than the one you’re capable of living.” Nelson Mandella quote shared by Denzell Washington

Tom Hanks focused on how powerful fear is in this day and age. At one point he asked graduates, “Fear or Faith, which will be our master?”

Arianna Huffington spoke about the graduates’ “connected world” and told them, “your generation is on this pilgrimage to transform a world that desperately needs transforming.” She also encouraged graduates to have empathy, wisdom and fearlessness and stressed that “the difference between success and failure is perseverance.”

Ronan Farrow, an attendee of Bard College at Simon’s Rock at age 11, told graduates to remain curious and to be impatient saying, “the people making a difference are the ones who refused to wait.”

John Legend kept his speech short and concluded with an uplifting performance of “Wake Up Everybody.”

Final Thoughts

As you can tell, a great deal of wisdom and magical moments were captured throughout these commencement addresses. I highly recommend that you check them out. They are a reminder that there is no single or right answer when it comes to success or a life well-lived. But one thing is certain, our country, our world, is counting on the leadership of these young adults.

How about you: what is your favorite commencement address in the past few years?

Coming next: my favorite commencement speech of the year. Stay tuned…

Creative Commons Photo courtesy of Brian Douglas.