The Best Commencement Speeches are Brief, Simple and Built Around a Single Concept


Tim O'Brien - The Best Commencements Speeches are Brief, Simple and Built Around a Single ConceptTim O’Brien, APR, Founder, O’Brien Communications

Quick question: Do you remember what your commencement speaker said to your class on graduation day? Do you even remember who was your commencement speaker?

I’d guess the younger you are, the more likely you remember your speaker, but I’m pretty confident that if you’re like most people, you have virtually no memory of what was said.

Not all of us had the opportunity to see Steve Jobs give one of his most memorable speeches when he spoke at the Stanford Commencement in 2005. Even in this age of social media and YouTube, most commencement speeches don’t even make it much beyond those who were actually there. But the good ones do.

So what can we learn from that rare memorable commencement speech?

First, understand your surroundings. Remember that the most important thing happening at a graduation ceremony is not the commencement speech. Rather, it’s the moment the student receives his or her diploma. That’s why parents and family are there. That’s why the graduating seniors are there.

The challenge for the commencement speaker is to say something concise and relevant without delaying the big moment for too long.

So, the first lesson is to make sure your remarks are brief and to the point. No one will complain if your remarks are quick, but people will hold a lifetime grudge against you if you keep them too long in the hot sun, the humidity, a light drizzle, or a steamy convocation center.

The second lesson is to leave the graduates with one simple, universal thought, one that reaffirms to parents and faculty in attendance that everyone is there for the right reasons.

I’ve written a couple commencement speeches, and I’ve attended my share of graduation ceremonies. The one that stands out for me was not from an official commencement speaker, but from a graduating senior at a university. He wasn’t even the valedictorian. He had won some sort of prize, so in the grand pecking order, he was relatively low on the list of speakers, but his speech still rings true.

He spoke in the third person. He described some of the world’s underdogs. He told of a string of tragic episodes involving third world families, and he reminded us of the need for love, compassion but mostly the need for each of us to be present, to be there as an individual for someone else without fanfare.

In the end, without him ever speaking in the first person, we realized each of these stories was something he had personally experienced, something that he had witnessed himself. That the aid worker who held a man as he died, only give his widow the hard news minutes later, was in fact, our speaker. He left us with one thought, which was that the power of one is sometimes the most important thing in in this world.

He packaged his message in a series of stories, but he left us with only one thought. The best commencement speeches – and some of the best speeches – have this in common.


About the Author: Tim O’Brien, APR, is the founder of O’Brien Communications, a Pittsburgh-based corporate communications and public relations firm.  He can be reached at 412.854.8845, or at

1 Comment

  1. Ford Kanzler on at 10:01 AM

    Speeches are perhaps one of the first PR tactics. They’ve been used for centuries for motivation and persuasion. They’re direct, personal, one-to-many communications. And as with other communications forms, they demand structure, strategy and particularly skilled delivery, whether for a graduation commencement or other occasions. Effective public speaking is an art. Speech writing is a craft not generally well-practiced. Consider Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” or Winston Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Tears & Sweat” and “Their Finest Hour” speeches for guidance and inspiration.

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