If you're lucky enough to be asked to speak at a commencement ceremony, at any level, you know the pressure of writing a memorable speech with broad appeal that fits within the time constraints. But how to write a graduation speech that doesn't bore, drag, or flop? Here's a secret: use your storytelling skills to write a great graduation speech.
As a teacher, I have probably heard close to a hundred commencement speeches—those five to twenty minute addresses full of life lessons, inspirational quotes and if we're lucky, funny stories. But more often than not, they fall pieced together clichés and motivational quotes. Forgettable.
The secret to writing a memorable graduation speech? Storytelling. Today let's look at how to use storytelling to write a memorable graduation speech.
A Speech to Remember
Out of all those school graduation speeches I've heard, I can honestly say I only remember one or two. One in particular always leaps to my mind.
A few years ago, a high school senior who had been selected by his peers as a graduation speaker told a story about playing a game with a childhood friend—a game where they pretended to be construction workers. A game they called “builders.”
He recounted their exploits in the sand box: moving dirt, building small stick structures, and working together to make something new. We laughed at his vivid imagery, each remembering our own toy trucks and shovels and play.
He shifted from that childhood game to the class memories they had built together as students through the years, continuing to develop the theme of building a life.
And then he revealed that his childhood friend—his fellow builder—should have been sitting with their graduating class that day. He'd died in an accident a year before. The speaker closed with a challenge to his fellow students to remember their peer and to be builders—people who create things that outlast them.
The entire stadium went wild as the student graduation speech ended. I couldn't stop the tears flowing down my cheeks. When I saw the student speaker later, I thanked him for his speech, for sharing his love for his friend, for his story that struck such a hopeful note.
It reminded me that human experience is best related not in quippy inspirational quotes strung together, but in stories. If you're asked to be a commencement speaker, here are a few storytelling principles that will help you write a great graduation speech.
5 Steps to Write a Memorable Graduation Speech
1. Consider the occasion and audience
A speech for an elementary promotion ceremony has a much different focus and audience than one for a post-graduate ceremony. Just like when you write a story, take time to think about the target audience.
Who are they? What are they celebrating? How can you meet their expectations for the day and commemorate them in a special way?
When my student gave his speech about his builder friend, he knew he was speaking to his peers, but he had an awareness that their families and teachers were also present.
2. Choose a story
Here's where most speeches go wrong: they don't ground the remarks in a story. Sure, a lot of speeches rely on favorite quotes, but those are easily forgettable. Stories are how the human brain makes sense of the world; we're hardwired to remember stories.
Dig into your personal experiences, school memories, or other life experience. Usually, you want a true story, a personal story for this kind of speech.
How do you choose?
When I help students with speeches or any kind of personal narrative writing, I always ask them to make a list of moments where they made a choice that changed their lives for better or worse.
If you can't think of one, consider a time you watched first-hand as someone else made a significant choice and what it taught you.
A story depends on a goal and a tough choice (remember dilemma?)—that's what creates the significance. But you'll also want to choose a story that will emotionally connect with the audience.
What story can you tell using vivid images that left you changed or taught you something valuable that would resonate with this audience? That's the story to choose.
3. Build a structure and tell the story
Once you know the story you want to tell, use what you know about premise to structure and tell the story first and then build out the rest of the speech around it.
A premise outlines a character with a goal who meets conflict and has to act until they reach a crisis point and must make a tough decision creating a resolution.
The length of the story will depend on the time constraints, but you won't be able to delve deeply into backstory or give a prologue. You're going to have to set the scene quickly and get the story in motion.
An example: I once gave a speech to a group of students (and their families) who were being honored for their resilience and hard work. Most had found themselves with failing grades and low confidence at one point in the year, but with their hard work and the help of their families and teachers, they had turned it around.
I told the story of a time my daughter was in middle school taking a challenging math class. We would sit at the kitchen table while she insisted she couldn't do the work, it was too hard, etc. It went on for a couple weeks, and we were both so frustrated. I realized I had a choice: I needed to remind her that this was her challenge and that SHE had a couple of different routes (or choices) to solve it.
She could drop the class. She could spend all year crying at the table, slogging through the work and pass it somehow. Or, she could remember that anytime something is new, it's hard, and she could do her best, knowing it would get easier with time—just like riding her bike.
Once I had told the story, I connected it to their experience. I congratulated them on learning so early that they could do far more than they first believed and that hard work and practice makes new tasks easier.
At the end, I told them I hoped they would remember this moment of recognition the next time they thought something was hard.
Once you know the story you want to tell your audience, build a simple intro to connect it to their experience. After the story, draw out the insight and connect to the event (in this case, their graduation).
4. Lean into theme
The student who gave the memorable builder speech I shared above leaned into a key theme: building something that lasts. It was the point of his story and he used it as an illustration across different ages to show how the childhood lessons they learned had staying power.
You can choose a common theme, but know that your story will make the application unique. Also, don't feel like you have to state the theme over and over. If the story and insight are strong, stating the theme once might be enough.
5. Revise to get clear and concise
To revise a speech, I look at two things: the time it takes to deliver and the clarity of the story. I always try to err on the side of speaking for LESS time than I am allotted. This gives space in the speech for audience reaction.
I typically write speeches out in short chunks of text, and I go through and group them:
- connection or insight
- call to action and close
Then, look at every sentence and get brutal with the cuts. Where have I spent too much time describing something? Where have I fallen into unnecessary details? Which sentences are not needed?
I look at verbs and sentence length too, making sure that the sentences read aloud in a natural and even musical way. Try to vary sentence length and choose the most precise, coherent language.
Run through the speech a few times aloud, noting where you have to stop and reread to revise.
A speech doesn't have to be perfect to meet the audience where they are and show both respect for the moment and joy in the celebration.
Writing a graduation speech that inspires and remains with the audience long after the event doesn't have to be a daunting task. Use these storytelling tips to write and deliver a great speech on that special day.
Have you ever heard a graduation speech that stayed with you? What did the speaker say that was especially memorable? Share your best tips in the comments.
For today's practice, write a graduation speech. It might be for a real graduation, or you could also use it as a way to develop a character for a work in progress, since their voice and backstory will be different from your own.
Set the timer for fifteen minutes. Write the speech and then share a draft in the Pro Practice Workshop, offering feedback to a few others writers.
Sue Weems is a writer, teacher, and traveler with an advanced degree in (mostly fictional) revenge. When she’s not rationalizing her love for parentheses (and dramatic asides), she follows a sailor around the globe with their four children, two dogs, and an impossibly tall stack of books to read. You can read more of her writing tips on her website.