Commencement Day

Commencement Day

A guide for speakers: Keep it short and sweet.

To: Commencement Speaker
Washington, D.C.

Dear Speaker:
This is the time of year when students, family, and speakers congeal at a commencement. We have all been through them one way or the other. The Oxford English Dictionary defines commencement as “a beginning or start,” although commencements are generally at the end of an educational travail. This open letter is being addressed to you as a commencement speaker in our nation’s capital because, as former U.S. Senator Norm Coleman once told a group, “everything has been said, but not by everyone.” Washington, D.C., is full of commencement speakers.

Here is what all of us remember from the commencement speeches we have endured: They are all too long. Think back to your own high school commencement address—you remember nothing of it, except that it was too long. Every single person at a commencement would say that the address was too long except for one person, the commencement speaker.

Quoting from the Bible (a common commencement trick), we are informed in Ecclesiastes 1:9 that there is nothing new under the sun. This ancient wisdom will not stop a commencement speaker, and so we offer these helpful suggestions.

As a commencement speaker, after congratulating the conferred-upon, it is obligatory to thank spouses and partners (where appropriate) and, of course, parents. Commencement speakers who wish to be invited back to the same institution often take this time to profusely thank teachers, administrators, and the institution’s president (plus the board of regents) or the high school principal and the school board (as appropriate).

The most unusual thing about your audience is its diversity. There are very few countries in today’s world where audience members sit side-by-side without regard to religion, sect, gender, race, or economic class. It is the great strength of our country and of all countries that have pursued inclusive policies. Such an audience is also a recent development in any country and would not have been true, even here, 60 years ago. We should take this moment to celebrate this remarkable accomplishment.

And today’s commencement day honorees are being given a country that, to a remarkable degree, is ruled by law and measured by outcomes, not status. Washington is full of people who have risen to power from humble beginnings—a near bankrupt haberdasher from Missouri, or a poor boy from an alcoholic household raised in near poverty in Arkansas; the greatest general of our modern times, and a president now more favorably judged by historians, came from Denison, Texas. To a major and unprecedented degree in this country, the rule of law prevails and rigorously applied merit can be the ladder out of humble beginnings. That is the nation that others have worked so hard to pass on to today’s honorees. They should be reminded of that.

Advice you should give your eager attendees is to be skeptical. Be skeptical that happiness and good health can be delivered in the form of a pill advertised on television. Be skeptical of politicians (present company excepted) who promise to provide more of everything by decreasing taxes. Be particularly skeptical of people eager for an armed conflict where they themselves do not serve. Be on the watch for old movie and TV personalities who are trying to sell you something. Happy days will not be achieved by signing up for a reverse mortgage, no matter what the Fonz says.

And finally, no commencement day speech is complete until the speaker has spelled out a vision. This is a remarkable time, and your listeners are on the very cusp of a quantum leap for human kind. Knowledge has never grown so exponentially, nor been as easily shared as it is now. Humans are close to understanding human life at the molecular level. Shared knowledge interactively exchanged in an almost collective sense will bring new insights and advances. Energy paucity will fade in the face of new technologies. The wave of our future is human inclusion, not sectarian divides. Secular law–based societies, validated by democratic processes, and based on private ownership of capital will continue and grow as the engine of prosperity. These are the truths of the 20th century, and your audience can make them the truths of the 21st century.

There you have it—the all-purpose, touch-all-the-bases commencement day speech. If you practice this speech, you can get it down to less than five minutes. You will go down as one of the greatest commencement speakers in the unmemorable annals of commencement speakers.

Vance K. Opperman
In Favor of Brief
Commencement Speeches

Vance K. Opperman ( is owner and CEO of MSP Communications, which publishes Twin Cities Business.

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