What makes a good commencement speech?


Rita Li

CLOSING THE CHAPTER. Commencement marks the end of high school, and speakers should give graduates a message that celebrates their accomplishments while setting them up for the future.

Each June, the SPA community gathers on the North Lawn for the graduating class’ commencement ceremony. A commencement ceremony recognizes each student’s educational accomplishments and closes one chapter of their lives. At SPA, there are three commencement speeches, given by one faculty advisor and two seniors. Each of these speakers is selected by the Head of the School as well as the senior class.

So, what makes a good commencement speech?

A speech that makes the audience laugh, cry and stand up? A good speech can definitely be emotional and moving, but it doesn’t have to be.

While on one hand, a good commencement speech marks the end of one chapter, it may also mark the beginning of another one. The purpose of this speech is to reflect on the past, celebrate the present, and dream of the future.

A well-done speech enlarges the little moments and summarizes the lessons of the overall high school experience. It sums up the journey to graduating, including both the laughter and tears. Then, it should set the seniors on a path forward for the road ahead. It summarizes that the key path to success and today’s achievement is process rather than progress.

A good speech addresses mistakes — both making them and embracing them. Everyone does things they regret in high school, and recognizing mistakes is a crucial part of embracing the change and growth that comes with transition.

The purpose of the commencement speeches is to motivate graduating seniors to stay on the path of being lifelong learners. It should give them inspiration for their next step in life to go on and be good people as they change the world.

A good commencement speech should reveal and play to the speaker’s character through storytelling — and that may include humor. Although a commencement speech is written by one person, it captures the voices of the whole senior class. The power of speech comes from the sincerity of the speaker presenting, not just the laughs.

Furthermore, just like any other speech, a good commencement speech requires an overarching theme and/or a driving message that keeps the audience engaged. This theme can then inspire graduates to reflect on their own lives and trajectories.

In the end, the quality of a speech often comes from the speaker’s delivery and life experiences. Great speeches come from people with charisma and neat delivery. Speakers are those that the senior class resonates with and feels connected to. This starts from the speaker’s personal stories and anecdotes: lessons, fond memories, fears, anything. These personal anecdotes allow students to relate and feel more connected to the individual.

But does every speech have to be moving and inspiring?

A successful speech is when you can walk away remembering something — anything. Commencement is the last high school lecture the seniors have to sit through. This time there won’t be time for questions, for all the seniors in blue and white will have to interpret the answers themselves.