Words Have Power: Nine Powerful Commencement Speeches

By Donna St. Jean Conti, President, St. Conti Communications

Well, here we are at the close of another school year, and graduations are under way. That means that accomplished academics, business people, and celebrities are preparing and giving commencement speeches to celebrate and inspire newly minted degree holders as they embark on their futures. Most intend to deliver powerful messages.

So, what makes for a powerful commencement speech? Well, it’s one of those things where you know it when you hear it, and not everyone is moved by the same words. However, a great commencement speech, like any other good piece of writing, requires a command of the language, a literal way with words.

We’ve compiled a list of our top nine favorite commencement speeches (in no particular order) from recent years that show command of the language while celebrating and inspiring listeners. Check them out, and see if you agree. Maybe you’ll be inspired, too.

Bradley Whitford, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2004

Bradley Whitford – American actor and political activist nominated for three consecutive Grammy Awards for his performance in the television drama, The West Wing. He also served as a columnist for the Huffington Post.

Take action. Every story you’ve ever connected with, every leader you’ve ever admired, every puny little thing that you’ve ever accomplished is the result of taking action. You have a choice. You can either be a passive victim of circumstance or you can be the active hero of your own life. Action is the antidote to apathy and cynicism and despair. You will inevitably make mistakes. Learn what you can and move on. At the end of your days, you will be judged by your gallop, not by your stumble. Read the full transcript here.

J. K. Rowling, Harvard University, 2008

Joanne Rowling, OBE, FRSL, pen names J. K. Rowling and Robert Galbraith – British novelist, screenwriter and film producer best known as the author of the Harry Potter fantasy series.

So today, I wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, [one] of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom:
As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.
 Watch video here.

Joss Whedon, Wesleyan University, 2013

Joss Whedon – American screenwriter, film and television director and producer, comic book author, and composer.

You have, which is a rare thing, that ability and the responsibility to listen to the dissent in yourself, to at least give it the floor, because it is the key—not only to consciousness-but to real growth. To accept duality is to earn identity. And identity is something that you are constantly earning. It is not just who you are. It is a process that you must be active in. It’s not just parroting your parents or the thoughts of your learned teachers. It is now more than ever about understanding yourself so you can become yourself. Watch the video here.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, University of Pennsylvania, 2016

Lin-Manuel Miranda – Developed Hamilton, the groundbreaking Broadway musical that tells the story of the U.S. Founding Father with hip-hop/R&B musical forms and a black and Latino cast.

There will be blind alleys and one-night wonders and soul-crushing jobs and wake-up calls and crises of confidence and moments of transcendence when you are walking down the street and someone will thank you for telling your story because it resonated with their own. Watch video here.

Madeleine Albright, Wellesley College, 2007

Madeleine Albright – First female Secretary of State of the United States, known for wearing brooches or decorative pins to convey foreign policy messages.

For inspiration, I can think of no more moving a story than that involving a passenger on United Flight 93, which went down in Pennsylvania on 9/11. That passenger, Tom Burnett, called his wife from the hijacked plane, having realized by then that two other planes had crashed into the World Trade Center.

“I know we’re going to die,” he said. “But some of us are going to do something about it.” And because they did, many other lives were saved. Since that awful morning, the memory of their heroism has uplifted us and it should also instruct us. Because when you think about it, “I know we’re going to die,” is a wholly unremarkable statement. Each of us here this morning could say the same thing. It is Burnett’s next words that were both matter of fact and electrifying: “Some of us are going to do something about it.” Read the transcript here.

President Barack Obama, Morehouse College, 2013

Barack Hussein Obama, II – The 44th President of the United States, whose name means, “One who is blessed,” in Swahili. He won a Grammy in 2006 for the audio version of his memoir, Dreams from My Father.

I understand there’s a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: excuses are tools of the incompetent, used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness,” he said. “Well, we’ve got no time for excuses – not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven’t.

Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; we know those are still out there,” he added. “It’s just that in today’s hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world, with millions of young people from China and India and Brazil, many of whom started with a whole lot less than all of you did, all of them entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything that you haven’t earned. Watch video here. Read the remarks here.

Sheryl Sandberg, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 2017

Sheryl Sandberg – Co-author of  Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead whose  career has included roles at the World Bank, the U.S. Treasury, Google, and, currently, Facebook, where she is Chief Operating Officer.

As you leave this beautiful campus and set out into the world, build resilience in yourselves. When tragedy or disappointment strike, know that deep inside you, you have the ability to get through anything. I promise you do. As the saying goes, we are more vulnerable than we ever thought, but we are stronger than we ever imagined. Read the transcript and watch video here.

Stephen Colbert, Wake Forest College, 2015

Stephen Colbert – Television comedian, former host of The Colbert Report, and current host of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

So I hope you find the courage to decide for yourself what is right and what is wrong. And then, please expect as much of the world around you. Try to make the world good according to your standards. It won’t be easy. Get ready for my generation to tell you everything that can’t be done — like ending racial tension, or getting money out of politics, or lowering the world’s carbon emissions. And we should know they can’t be done. After all, we’re the ones who didn’t do them. Watch video here.

Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005

Steve Jobs – Late CEO of Apple Computers and Pixar Animation Studios.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. Read the transcript and watch the video here.

So, there you have it, our list of the top nine commencement speeches given in recent years. Do you agree with our choices? Have you heard others that could be on our list?

To all those who are receiving degrees, congratulations and best wishes!

St. Conti Communications is a public relations and marketing communications agency based in Southern California and specializing in supporting high technology, green technology and similar companies. For more information about our agency and how we can help you, contact Donna St. Jean Conti, APR, at dconti (at) stconticommunications.com. St. Conti staff have compiled a list of, “Top Books on Speeches & Speech Writing,” for purchase at: http://stconticommunicator.papertrell.com/. #Graduation #Business #Speeches

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