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.
I’ve mentioned before that storytelling may be the closest thing to a secret weapon when it come to creating a great presentation. Telling your presentation in narrative form gives it a natural structure, makes it more memorable for your audience, and helps you overcome any fear that you might have about not being able to remember your talk.
One example I’ve used is the storytelling techniques that competitors in memory contests employ in order to recall seemingly impossible quantities of information and Joshua Foer’s account in Moonwalking with Einstein of how he used these methods to become a memory champion. Now everything seems to have come full-circle and Foer has a TED talk describing the experience. You should still buy his book, but this is a great introduction.