Graduation Season — Commencement Addresses

By Susie Adams

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Graduation season is almost over. It has been a time of joy for graduates, parents of graduates and speech nerds like me.

A graduation speech or commencement address is interesting. It is a speech of celebration.  A speech of recognition for the graduates and those who have supported them.  But while it symbolizes the end of college life, it is the beginning of a new chapter. But there is also the risk of being trite. I am reminded of the Modern Family episode where Hailey told her sister, Alex, that all she really needed to do in her speech was to quote song titles like “Don’t Stop Believing” and “Let’s Get This Party Started.”

Most graduation speakers pull from their experience and life lessons to celebrate and issue a new challenge to graduates.  And they provide the rest of us with quotable quotes that will sustain us until the next graduation season. And when the speaker is a renowned author, artist, or business person, we tend to listen.

Here are a few highlights from this year’s lineup that peaked my interest and won my approval.

Facing Your Fears

Ronan Farrow, fresh from his Pulitzer Prize win for reporting on Harvey Weinstein and others identified in the #MeToo movement spoke at Loyola Marymont spoke about principle and your inner voice.

“You will face a moment in your career where you have *absolutely no idea* what to do. Where it will be totally unclear to you what the right thing is for you, for your family, for your community….And I hope that in that moment you’ll be generous with yourself, but trust that inner voice. Because more than ever we need people to be guided by their own senses of principle—and not the whims of a culture that prizes ambition, and sensationalism, and celebrity, and vulgarity, and doing whatever it takes to win.”

Singer Josh Groban spoke at nearby High Point University and talked about fear:

“You learn with experience that some fear is the good stuff. Not all. But when the fear comes from a place of wanting to follow through with passion – something you believe in, it’s good. When it comes to your future experiences, as you enter the world with your knowledge and excitement, as you choose opportunities, always remember: if you aren’t scared, be worried.”

Josh Groban

Great Advice

An Oprah Winfrey speech is always a master class. Even trapped behind a podium and wearing a gown, Oprah delivers. No, she really delivers – big, illustrative gestures, the use of pauses, facial expressions and humor. Her speech at USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism is chocked full of Oprahisms.

“Your job is not always going to fulfill you. There will be some days when you just might be bored. Other days you may not feel like going to work at all. Go anyway.”

“Don’t ever confuse what is legal with what is moral, because they are entirely different animals. In life, you are principled or you’re not. So do the right thing — especially when nobody’s looking.”

Anna Quindlen, author, spoke to Springfield College graduates about change.

“The world is changing as we know it, and Class of 2018, you have to remember to not be afraid to change with it…. Don’t view your diplomas as being done, but instead, continue to strive to help make your community better. Better isn’t always mathematical, but better is more spiritual.”

Challenging Words

UN Ambassador Nikki Haley spoke at Clemson University (her alma mater and mine) and challenged the graduates to be full of gratitude. But not just any type of gratitude.

“…Gratitude as intention. That is gratitude as the determination to take the things that have benefited us and pay them forward.”

Chance the Rapper, who spoke at Dillard University, could use some work on his delivery. He read. He told us he wasn’t a good speaker. He reread a passage and then told his audience that he had already read that part.

But he got a lot of popular press attention because of his provocative thesis. His claim was that Beyonce has surpassed Michael Jackson as the greatest performer of all time. He contrasted her recent Coachella performance with some of Michael’s iconic performances.

Then he challenged the Dillard graduates to not be held back by the greatest, but to work to surpass the greatest.

He’s right.

 “We have to erase the fear and stigma of surpassing our heroes.”

Chance the Rapper, “Never set limitations on your own greatness.

Winning the Fight

Chadwick Boseman, has played Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall and most recently, Black Panther.  He delivered the commencement address at Howard University, his alma mater.

His delivery is exceptional. He clearly has a passion for the University.  He calls professors out by name, including some who failed him in their courses (which he says he deserved).  He makes strong eye contact and punctuates his words with gestures and pauses.

He talks to the graduates about experiencing challenge.

 “Sometimes you need to get knocked down before you can figure out what your fight is and how you need to fight it”

David Tepper, new Carolina Panthers owner, has a net worth of 11,000,000,000 (that is a lot of zeros). I was particularly interested in his story as he will soon be a towering figure in our community.

The investment guru and philanthropist has not had an easy path to the owner’s suite. He shared some of his struggles in an enlightening, brutally honest, emotional speech about his blue-collar background to Carnegie Mellon University

He talked about his childhood in Pittsburgh and lessons learned from his father, and then he shared that his father had a dark side.

“He was physically abusive to me. I’m sure it was a cycle that he got from his father, and his father got from his father. In my young life, there was nothing more terrifying. There was no greater adversity, but I prayed to God that I would never be the same to my children.  And I’m proud to say that what I view as the greatest accomplishment of my life — I broke that cycle!”

He didn’t paint a rosy picture of his early work life either.

“My first job application was at McDonald’s.  I got turned down.”

He got a job as a short order cook and sold knives door to door before college.

He got turned down by Goldman Sachs, his dream job, after graduate school at Carnegie Mellon. He went on to work for a steel company.

“Get all of the experience you can.  Go for the experience, not the paycheck.”

He eventually was hired at Goldman Sachs, but was concerned about an ethical issue, which he reported.

“I didn’t get fired, but when I came up for partner I got shot down…. But, you know what, it turned out all right…. In life, do what’s right.”

“A kid who couldn’t afford to go to an NFL game until well into his 20s, is on the verge of getting the NFL’s approval to buy the Carolina Panthers. Not too shabby.”

A prolific philanthropist, Tepper left graduates with the following advice,

 “Remember to give back.”

David Tepper

Walking a Fine Line

High school graduation speeches rarely get much attention, but Sunday’s ceremony at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School got a lot of attention.  Partly because of the four empty chairs for graduates who were killed in the February 14 school shooting and partly because comedian and talk show host Jimmy Fallon was the surprise speaker.

Fallon has shown support for the Margory Stoneman Douglas activists and he and his family joined the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC.  He had a tough task in this commencement address. Inspiring the inspiring; making the audience laugh when they might not feel like laughing, and acknowledging the tragedy and the bravery that followed.

Fallon did this deftly.

“When you think of commencement speakers, you think of people who are inspirational, people who are eloquent, people who’ve changed the world,” he said. “When you think of high school students, you think of people who are immature, slightly awkward, still learning to be an adult.” He welcomed the crowd to “Opposite Day.”

He talked as most commencement speakers do, about the roadblocks that people face in their lives:

 “Some things that seem like setbacks can take our lives in a totally new direction — they change us in ways we don’t expect. And they make us better, and stronger. You guys have already proven that to everyone. You took something horrific, and instead of letting it stop you, you started a movement. The whole world has heard your voice. And that was you making a choice…. That was you choosing hope over fear.”

He concluded by noting that most commencement speakers speak in the future tense and noted, “you are not the future – you are the present. Keep changing the world. Keep making us proud.”

The Big Finish

My students at Winthrop University know that I am a sucker for a great conclusion.  You might not remember anything else, but that conclusion sticks with you. Only a handful of folks can deliver the two-word conclusion that Michael Keaton finished his Kent State address with, “I’m Batman.”


Not everyone will give a commencement speech. But if you’re facing a moment in the spotlight or a situation critical to your success, we can help—giving you the expertise, the coaching, and the support you need. Maybe it’s your first appearance in your new position, or you’re proposing a dramatic new initiative to your board. You might be working on your personal development as you advance in your career. Either way, we will embrace your goals and help you succeed. Contact Susie today.