Tips for a great graduation speech

graduations marked by traditionsImage by Gillian Callison from Pixabay. The tossing of caps at the end of a graduation ceremony reflects the joy and celebration of the event.

Commencement is approaching and you are a speaker. Congratulations. Here are tips for a great graduation speech that will help you shine in the spotlight.

Whether you are a valedictorian, a class president, or have some other role -- either in high school or college -- you want to give a speech that is entertaining, highlights what is unique about your class, and perhaps passes on a bit of wisdom. What you say and how you say it should add to the celebration of students who are ready for the next steps in their lives. 

Here are some tips to help you compose a great graduation speech as you prepare for your moment in the spotlight. 

Pick one theme

All graduation speeches have the same elements. They span the time of past, present and future. Great graduation speeches take the class down memory lane of the beginnings, the highpoints of school life, and the opportunities that are waiting in the future. 

Most graduation speech themes involve words of wisdom mixed in with what you and your class have learned through your journey together.  You can be inspirational or funny but  start with your theme so you'll have a general outline to connect the different parts of your speech.  

Here are some popular themes for high school and college graduation speeches:

  • Set goals and never lose sight of  your dreams.
  • Focus on what is important in life.
  • Take responsibility for your actions,
  • Set high expectations for yourself.
  • Choose the hard right over the easy wrong.
  • Learn from mistakes to build a bright future.
  • Respect others and respect yourself.

Still need some ideas?  Consider these timeless sayings and inspiring quotes that can serve as the framework for your graduation speech. You can also use one of these in your speech to repeat at some point to reinforce your theme.

  • Time waits for no man. (Use every day to its fullest.)
  • A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. (Appreciate what you have.)
  • Don't judge someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes. (What you see is not the full story.)
girl speaking at graduationImage by Maura Nicolaita from Pixabay. One of the main tips for a great graduation speech is to practice so that you have great eye contact and delivery.
  • Life is like riding a bicycle.  To keep your balance, you must keep moving. -Albert Einsein
  • Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”  - Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” - Walt Disney
  • “Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.” - Babe Ruth
  • If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” - Maya Angelou
  • “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.” - Winston Churchill
  • “The best of times is now.” - Oprah

Develop 3-5 stories that support your graduation speech theme

Choose stories about your class or school that relate to your theme and your classmates.  Anecdotes about memorable events, legendary teachers or school traditions work well. You can also tell personal stories but be sure you they connect to your theme and to your class members. (You don't want to be like some graduation speakers I've heard who were so full of themselves and their achievements that they spent their time at the podium bragging. One word about that approach -- BORING!) 

Three stories are better than five for two reasons.  First, you probably won't have time to do five stories and talk about how they apply to the graduates.

Second, a fundamental rule of speeches is the rule of threes was first voiced by Aristotle. There is something about groups of three that are easy for the mind to grasp. Our language is full of idioms in groups of threes:  stop, drop and roll; the good, the bad and the ugly, etc.  So you should aim to tell three stories and the points they make.

As you are preparing your speech, talk with classmates and you'll get a sense of what events stand out to everyone.

Some questions to prod your thinking

  • What can you remember about your first day or week at the school? Looking back, how were you and your classmates different then than they are now.
  • What school traditions did your class follow? Did your classmates do anything to "change things up?"
  • Does your class have a slogan or use common nicknames that are harmless and funny?  Self-effacing humor -- like calling yourself the class nerd -- is attractive in a speaker. Negative nicknames that are hurtful are off-limits.
  • Were there senior pranks that went off the rails? Talk only about those that were basically harmless to others and the school.
  • Is there a favorite gathering place for your classmates that has some unique qualities?
  • Did you or your classmates learn any life lessons during your years at the school?
  • Is there a faculty member or two (no more than that) who are considered characters or who have had a major impact on you and your classmates?
  • What lessons have your classmates learned from silly mistakes? Or has there been a tragedy that left a life lesson for you and your class?  The key here is to focus on something positive that has come out of the experience -- life is unexpected and we should cherish every moment -- or perhaps share a memory of someone who made this a better place.

Respect your audience

A graduation is a dignified ceremony.  While you are speaking to your classmates, many others will be listening. Graduations are proud moments and your role is to enhance the occasion with your words.

It's okay to talk about trends or culture in your graduation speech but stay away from hot button issues.  You may be passionate about protecting the environment but don't attack the oil companies. Instead, talk about your dreams for preserving a good quality of life for the future.   There are two reasons for avoiding divisive issues:

  1. Graduations are celebrations,. Your audience of classmates also includes parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and a host of others, most who have their own set opinions about culture-war issues. Possibly half of the people will disagree with you and won't hear anything else you say. And you'll irritate them and spoil the moment.
  2. Speaking at a graduation ceremony is an honor and a privilege.  You are a class stand-out and that's why you've been chosen to speak.  But unless you are a governor, senator, president or other exalted official, people really don't care about your opinions. They want to feel happy about the event and your job is to help them. Your speech should be aspirational and inspirational, perhaps funny, but never divisive.
graduation hat with diplomasImage by Olya Adamovich from Pixabay

Find a trademark phrase

A good way to pull your speech together is use a phrase or quote that hits the heart of your talk. Perhaps it's a phrase that was commonly used around school. Perhaps it's a song title or refrain. Perhaps it's the school motto.  Repeat the phrase near the end of your talk or after each story and point you make.

As an example, Pat Conroy used the phrase I wear the ring in his commencement address at The Citadel. He ended his speech repeating that phrase, offering a powerful and meaningful connection to the class.

End on a high note

Your style may be humorous or serious. Or perhaps both.  But invest time in your conclusion.

Speakers often use the last minute to summarize their main points to emphasize the takeaways from the graduation speech. But you should also figure out an final inspirational thought to share about where the class is going from here. Tomorrow is a blank page with open possibilities. Make your classmates feel that they are ready to soar.

Watch your time

Graduation ceremonies, especially if the class is large, can drag on for hours. And the main event for everyone is when their person walks across the stage and takes that diploma. Everything else is secondary. .Administrators will probably tell you how much time you can spend at the podium. And it won't be long.  

While working with graduation speakers at The Citadel,  the class president had a maximum of four minutes and the last graduating cadet had less than three minutes. So you must make every word of your talk count.

Practice, time yourself, edit and practice some more.

This is your time to shine. Use these tips for a great graduation speech to help you develop a message that will make you, your classmates and your school proud. 

Now practice, practice, practice

Tips for a great graduation speech: a summary

  1. Pick a theme
  2. Develop stories to support that theme and tell why they apply.
  3. Respect your audience.
  4. Find a trademark phrase or quote to pull everything together.
  5. End on a high note.
  6. Watch your time.
  7. Practice and then practice some more.