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  • Writer's pictureDrs Schuster & Oxley

What makes a great commencement address? - April 10, 2023

Apparently, emotion, humor and personal stories make the best commencement speeches, say experts. Do you agree?

Susan Donaldson James article is a great summary of the measures that tend to make commencement speeches popular. Indeed, in our own poll last week, Steve Jobs was the top choice for having given 'the greatest commencement address of all time.'

In an age of social media, where views, likes, and shares seem to be the singular measure of success, this makes sense. Commencement addresses are a popular genre of video streams. They make people money. The most watched seem to very much follow Susan's formula, combining wit, an uplifting message of human purpose, and some personal anecdotes.

So, should we leave the subject there?

In 2022, we debated this subject at some length. It started with a conversation about who gave the greatest commencement speech of all time (one of us favored the Sunscreen pseudo address and the other argued for Steve Jobs).

But we then went on to challenge one another to justify our choices.

Is Popularity The Right Measure?

We both admitted that the criteria for our choice had been based on two things: (1) We selected only from the most popularized speeches, and (2) We choose the one that we found most entertaining with a good uplifting-life-affirming message.

It struck us that this criteria wasn't very distinctive. It could apply to an after dinner speaker, a stand-up comedian, a night at the theater, a movie. Basically, we were saying that commencement speeches were a form of inspiring entertainment.

But should that be the criteria for a commencement speech?

Entertainment or Practical, Relevant, Advice?

Our discussion was untroubled by the understandable realities and compromises of standing in front of an audience of a few thousand students and being expected to engage as many as possible for 20 minutes. There is a clear incentive from the speaker (and sponsors) to err on the side of inspiring entertainment.

But, shouldn't the real measure of the greatest commencement speech of all time be something else? Perhaps less about the speaker and more about the audience?

Angst, Stress, and Confusion

College students and young professionals today seem to be struggling with how to navigate career decisions. In our view, too many dismiss these stresses as similar to those we all faced in our 20s or, in some strange cases, simply imagined.

The facts are that the variety of career choices now available have proliferated. There are an infinite number of choices for young professions. By definition this makes the stress of making a good choice almost infinity greater.

Social media, the proliferation of 'post truth' narratives, social isolation, sharp judgments about identity and self-expression, along with geo-political tensions and economic uncertainty, all enhance the anxieties experienced by those just embarking on their careers.

It was against this backdrop that we started to question the measure of what makes a great commencement address. The very real sense that there was a great need for relevant, practical, useful advice. Help to declutter and simplify. Tools to help navigate and move forward.

Reframing the Question

So, where we concluded our discussion was in debating how we might reframe the question. Making it less a question and more an interesting choice.... something more like a challenge. What if there was a little known commencement speech given somewhere in the world that contained really useful, relevant, practical, timely career and life advice, that had a profound impact for at least one person. Perhaps the speech was otherwise not noteworthy, but for this one individual it changed the trajectory of their life. Allowed them to achieve something they would otherwise have missed.

Having been introduced to this knowledge and gained an understanding of how it was achieved, let's say you are then asked to give a commencement speech. What would you do? Which choice would you make?

(a) Would you deliver something that was wildly popular on YouTube and potentially cited in the same list with Steve Jobs.


(b) Would you deliver advice that received little attention but was profoundly impactful for at least one person.

Picture Legend: L-R and T-B: JFK, B Obama, Minchin, M Obama, Steinem, Farrell, Jobs, Chadwick, Wallace, Schmich, Churchill, O'Brien

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