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What makes a great commencement speech?

May 10, 2012 By Jenny Price

It’s commencement season, and Inside UW–Madison talked with Sarah Jedd, assistant faculty associate for Communication Arts 100 and 105, speech composition and public speaking, about what makes a great commencement speech.

Sarah Jedd

Sarah Jedd

Inside UW–Madison: What makes a commencement speech memorable?

Sarah Jedd: Memorable commencement speeches give good advice to graduates and are, above all else, entertaining. They can be funny or poignant, and the really great speeches have one excellent line or one really good anecdote that audiences can remember.

IUW: What is the biggest mistake speakers can make in addressing new graduates?

Jedd: The biggest mistake commencement speakers can make is to overestimate the audience’s interest in the speech. Keep it brief, keep it engaging and, most of all, keep it relevant to the lives of the audience. Commencement is a big deal, and most members of the audience are looking forward to their walk across the stage.

IUW: Why do you think these speeches are such a longstanding commencement tradition?

Jedd: What better to mark a momentous occasion than a great speech? Speeches help lend solemnity and celebration to an already memorable life event, and they give graduates one more shared experience before they leave the institution and enter the real world.

IUW: What are some of your favorite commencement speeches? Why?

Jedd: Steve Jobs gave an excellent speech at Stanford in 2005. He was in the middle of cancer treatment and told graduates to do what they love. He explained how the idea that we are all going to die is the most liberating realization, and he managed to be both poignant and funny. My favorite funny speech is Ellen DeGeneres’ 2009 Tulane address. She used her trademark brand of self-deprecating humor to honor graduates in a memorable way. In 1990, Barbara Bush gave a terrific speech at Wellesley. She told the audience, “Someday, someone in this room might follow in my footsteps and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse. And I wish him well.” As you can imagine, this line received enormous applause. All of these speeches connected with their audience, used humor throughout and had excellent messages for the graduating class.

IUW: Who out there hasn’t given a commencement speech that you think would do a great job?

Jedd: It’s hard to find someone without a commencement speech under his or her belt, but I think Mark Zuckerberg would do a great job. Talk about someone who’s relevant to the lives of our graduates!