Commencement Speech Season 2012

Jane Lynch at Smith College 2012

I’m not usually a big fan of inspirational speeches. They tend to make me roll my eyes a lot. But there’s something that I love about commencement addresses. A really great commencement speech employs a combination of gravity, personal storytelling and humor that I just find really engrossing. Watch enough of these and you’ll start to get a pretty good sense for how speakers adjust the formula of these three ingredients to make their talks work for an audience.

Here’s a collection of commencement speeches put together by The Atlantic. I’m not sure it’s fair to say that the overarching theme of these speakers is that they managed to succeed without trying. It seems to me that their point is more like Conan O’Brien’s from last year, that life is full of surprises. But it was nice of The Atlantic to put them all together in one place for us.

How to Become a Famous Commencement Speaker Without Really Trying

Serve What You Love: Stephen Colbert’s Northwestern Commencement Speech 2011

Here’s another great commencement speech. I’m starting to think that only comedians should be allowed to do these things, but there probably aren’t enough of them who could really pull it off. Structurally, this one is a lot like Conan O’Brien’s Dartmouth speech— he starts with lots of jokes and eventually reaches what he calls the “meaningful part.” Colbert even builds on Conan’s talk when he reprises the “dreams change” theme from the Dartmouth commencement. “You have been told to follow your dreams,” he says. “But what if it’s a stupid dream?” Apparently he’d even been at the Dartmouth speech the week before because, while Colbert went to Northwestern, the character he plays on TV attended Dartmouth.

It’s nice to see Colbert being himself for a change rather than playing the character from his TV show. But I guess that he didn’t have much choice but to leave his regular character at home if he wanted to deliver a heartfelt message like “serve what you love.”  As he points out himself, the “Stephen Colbert” from the Colbert Report isn’t interested in serving anyone or anything– probably not an appropriate message for most commencement audiences.

Conan O’Brien’s 2011 Dartmouth Commencement Speech: Dreams Change

It’s graduation season so there are lots of commencement speeches being delivered by famous and powerful people. This is one of my favorites, mostly because it’s just so entertaining. Anyone who’s sat through a graduation ceremony knows how important a little entertainment can be, especially when you’re getting soaked in the rain or baking in the sun under those black robes.

Sure, Conan also has a “real” message for the Dartmouth grads about the lessons he’s learned from seeing his dream of hosting “The Tonight Show” come true and then end in a very public debacle. “In 2000,” he says, “I told graduates not to be afraid to fail. Well now I’m here to tell you that, though you should not fear failure, you should do your very best to avoid it.” But the majority of his talk is mostly just funny, with a bit of hard-earned wisdom tucked into the last third. That seems like the perfect formula to me; keep them laughing, then leave them with something to think about.

Other things I love about this talk include the shots of the Bushes laughing and the fact that college president “Stinky Pete” can barely contain himself. Conan’s reference to “The Third Earl of UC Santa Cruz.” And that lectern (it’s not a podium, Conan) that he describes as “something a bear would use at an AA meeting.”

Overall, this is a great example of a presenter who knows what he’s doing, who has carefully prepared his talk, knows how to use a teleprompter effectively and makes the effort deliver a performance. Most of us will never be this polished, this funny or smart.  But it give us something to aspire to.