Commencement Season Commences: George Saunders On Kindness

It’s almost that time again.

Each year commencement season gives us some of the most memorable, funny, and thoughtful speeches that we’ll hear all year. To kick things off, here’s a version of George Saunders’ 2013 speech at Syracuse that has now been turned into an animated video and a book called Congratulations, by the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness. Obviously the video here isn’t the live performance from the commencement speech, but it provides a great example of economical storytelling.

Saunders is one of our best writers, though he’s often a lot darker than what you see in this video. If you don’t know him from his stories in The New Yorker, check out Tenth of December.

George Saunders on Kindness

Presentation Tips: Do Something Unexpected

Do you remember anything the speakers said at your high school graduation? Or even who the speakers were?

I don’t. As a matter of fact, I can’t tell you anything about any of the many graduation ceremonies I’ve been to over the years except for the fact that I was overheated and anxious about getting sunburned at a lot of them.

Chances are you’d remember if the speaker told you and all of your classmates “None of you is special. You are not special. None of you is exceptional,” as Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough did in his speech. Of course his point wasn’t to dishearten these poor kids, but to remind them of the virtues of selflessness. And they’re much more likely to remember his advice than they would have been if he had just given the standard uplifting talk meant to inspire young people.

You can read more about his speech here.

Let’s face it, your presentations and meetings are probably much, much, less memorable than the average commencement speech. One of the best ways to change this and make an impact on your audience is to do something unexpected–like tell them they aren’t as special as they think they are. Next time you have an important presentation to give, think about what you can do to surprise them or challenge their assumptions. It’s a riskier strategy than having another boring, forgettable meeting, but the payoff can be huge.

Aaron Sorkin’s Syracuse Commencement Speech Rerun

Aaron Sorkin was recently caught “borrowing” his 2012 Syracuse University commencement speech from a very well-regarded source–himself. It turns out that much of what he says comes directly from a convocation he gave in 1997 at the very same school. In their coverage Slate calls this recycling, but it seems to me that the more apt metaphor would be the rerun, especially since the speech also borrows from Sorkin’s TV shows, including The West Wing and Sports Night.

I’m torn about how I feel about this. Anyone who speaks to an audience reuses their best material, but it seems to me that an audience at an event like a commencement speech expects an original, inspirational performance, not something that has been re-purposed from elsewhere. It’s a little like making the same remarks at two different funerals. They might be nice words, but they lose their impact when you know they’ve been used elsewhere.

Of course all of this would have been much easier in the era before we all carried around video cameras in our phones and everything was available for study on YouTube. Then all of the Syracuse grads could have enjoyed the speech without having known they were watching a rerun.

Slate’s story

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

Public Speaking Lessons from The Hunger Games: Be Yourself

For centuries, human beings have turned to literature for lessons about life. Homer (of both The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Simpsons). The Bible. Shakespeare’s plays. The Art of War. More than anything else, it may be our literature that makes us human.

At least that’s my excuse for using The Hunger Games to teach public speaking.

There are public speaking events scattered throughout all three Hunger Games novels. We see many rallies, speeches and interviews, and we’re told that Peeta’s real talent isn’t for fighting, but persuading an audience and winning allies. Unfortunately, it’s Katniss who finds herself being turned into a spokesperson for the rebels in Mockingjay, while Peeta is held as a prisoner of the Capital.

Readers of the previous books already know that public speaking has never been Katniss’s strength. She requires a lot of coaching. So the first step in preparing her to film rebel infomercials is, of course, to give her an elaborate makeover. After all, these are novels where Katniss’s outfits are often more detailed than the characters.

But her new look and the slogan written for her to shout fall flat on camera. No one finds Katniss convincing, so her former mentor convenes a meeting to talk about why:

“All right,” Haymitch says…. “Would anyone argue that this is of use to us in winning the war?” No one does. “That saves us time. So, let’s all be quiet for a minute. I want everyone to think of one incident where Katniss Everdeen genuinely moved you. Not where you were jealous of her hairstyle, or her dress went up in flames or she made a halfway decent shot with an arrow. Not where Peeta was making you like her. I want to hear one moment where she made you feel something real.”

When they do come up with examples of times when Katniss has done something touching, brave or kind, Haymitch asks what they all have in common.

“They were all Katniss’s,” says Gale quietly. “No one told her what to do or say.”

The lesson for public speaking is a good one, both in the universe of The Hunger Games and in real life. It certainly works for Katniss. Afterward she goes off to visit a rebel hospital (the occupants of which are almost immediately incinerated in a bombing raid), shoots down some hovercraft with her bow, and wins a huge PR victory.

You may never excel at archery, but remembering to be yourself can be a powerful weapon when you want to speak persuasively. Unless you’re a seasoned performer, playing a role when you speak to an audience is almost always too difficult to do convincingly and can actually turn an audience against you. Much better to let them see the real you.

As a bonus, being yourself should also render makeovers, stylists, flaming dresses and jumpsuits with wings unnecessary. Just pick something nice from your closet.

Eliot Spitzer’s Ideas for Improving the State of the Union Speech

I have to admit, I’m still a little resistant to the idea of taking advice from former New York governor Eliot Spitzer. And President Obama obviously didn’t decide to throw out the speech he’d written in favor of the ten minute version Spitzer created for Slate. The State of the Union is a particularly difficult speech to reform because people have very specific expectations for it; it’s going to be a long list of policy proposals that will never happen (missions to Mars, hydrogen fuel stations on every corner) and it’s going to be upbeat, no matter how grim the real state of the Union.

But Spitzer’s article for Slate contains some great ideas for simplifying and clarifying any talk. Cut the length way down. Limit yourself to a few ideas that people can easily remember. Back up what you have to say with clear visuals like the sample slides he provides (and I’ve attached at the top of this post).

Try these strategies with your next talk and I’ll bet you’ll be pleased with the results. There’s no reason that presentations have to be the length of TV shows or movies. Unless they’re paying to see you, people are almost always happy when you manage to get to the point and cut your meetings short.

Save the State of the Union

Steve Jobs’ Presentations Through the Years

With all the news about Steve Jobs stepping down as Apple’s CEO, it seemed like a good week to write about the impact that his presentations have made on the company and on all of us. But CNET has done such a good job of collecting his talks that I thought I’d just share their work. Check out their compilation, starting with a very young Steve bopping to the Flashdance theme.

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.