Five Classic Commencements and Why They Are Memorable

Time Magazine published a list of their top 10 favorite commencement speeches; however, the question remains, what makes those speeches truly “great?”

What is greatness, anyway? Commencement can be such a toss-up for so many. It’s a reward, an acknowledgement of achievement, whether from high school or college, it indicates a great work was accomplished and that those walking on the stage to receive diplomas are walking off the stage with the potential to achieve success.

Amidst all the urgings for greatness, it seems that the answer to what it is is more often than not, implied. Some speeches are, unfortunately, less than memorable. The ones that are, though, seem to capture a few specific elements like keeping the time to under 18 minutes. The students want to walk across that stage, receive their diploma, and then go celebrate not being students anymore. After all, it is graduation. Also, speak slowly and articulately. A crowd is easily lost by a speaker they can’t understand.

It’s not so easy, however, to convey or teach the other elements of a great commencement speech, like the one that is universal among the real classics: being completely and utterly yourself. Stephen Colbert and Ellen DeGeneres gave great ones, and never tried to pretend they weren’t comedians for their day job. Winston Churchill’s address was, indisputably, by Winston Churchill.

Counting down the following five classic commencements and trying to understand what makes them so great, one other thing to pay attention to is that in each one, the speakers did something to startle those in the audience. Whether it was with an anecdote, a joke, or even coarse language, these addresses live in fame (and infamy) as some of the most commanding and impressive.

5. Winston Churchill, Harrow School, 1941

“Do not let us speak of darker days: let us speak rather of sterner days. These are not dark days; these are great days—the greatest days our country has ever lived; and we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race.”

4. Jon Stewart, College of William and Mary, 2004

“College is something you complete. Life is something you experience. So don’t worry about your grade, or the results or success. Success is defined in myriad ways, and you will find it, and people will no longer be grading you, but it will come from your own internal sense of decency which I imagine, after going through the program here, is quite strong…although I’m sure downloading illegal files…but, nah, that’s a different story.

Love what you do. Get good at it. Competence is a rare commodity in this day and age. And let the chips fall where they may.”

3. Neil Gaiman, University of the Arts at Philadelphia, 2012: Make Good Art

“Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.

Make good art.”

2. John F. Kennedy, American University, 1963

“So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”

1. Steve Jobs, Stanford College, 2005

“Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

Why are these speeches so memorable? What makes them “great”?

It’s simple, really: The speakers avoided cliches and told their audiences things that were important that were also things that they could believe.

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