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Ravenclawgirl asks: Maureen! I’m the valedictorian of my class and I have to give a speech! I don’t know what to talk about! HELP!

Ravenclawgirl, I am glad you came to me with this. I hope you know that I am always honest with you. So today I must lay some heavy truths on you in order to assist you. Here is what you must know: Graduation speeches are boring. They’re pointless. This is ESPECIALLY true of high school valedictory speeches, which are sort of just a setup for disaster and misery.

The valedictorian, for those of outside of North America, is student who gives the farewell speech at graduation. The word comes from the Latin vale dicere, “to say farewell.” However . . . and this may just be me . . . I have always said it (and if I comb through my mind, I feel like everyone says) valevictorian, which would mean something like “a farewell win.” Which is much closer to the reality.

The job of valedictorian is normally given to the person with the highest grades. Sometimes, this goes to a really nice, hardworking person who quite frankly deserves the title. Quite often though, the battle for valedictorian is a combination of outright tooth-and-claw viciousness and cold, calculated schemes right out of old KGB manuals. Phones are tapped. People are stuffed into trunks of cars. Or, at the very least, school rules are scrutinized to figure out the exact calculus needed to be named The Best Student—some arcane mix of classes and ancient rules written on parchment and stored in the school basement. It’s ugly.

Now, don’t think I am making light of your achievement, Ravenclaw. I’m not. Had I not been so very lazy and otherwise preoccupied in high school, I would have entered the ring and fought for my chance. And I wouldn’t have made it. If you’ve been asked to give this speech, you have probably worked very, very hard. And if you’re calling yourself Ravenclawgirl, you are an awesome Harry Potter nerd, and obviously one of the good people. You have earned that time at the podium.

But what is that prize, exactly? It’s the chance to make everyone in the room suffer for ten to fifteen minutes. That, I will admit, is a pretty sweet privilege. But that precious opportunity is too often frittered away in a boring speech. And I don’t blame the boring speech givers for this. Not really. A boring speech is expected. At my high school, I think the administration DEMANDED it. You’re supposed to go up there and drone on about how much you’ve learned and how much you’ll miss everyone but you’ve all grown and must move on, and you have to make a lot of analogies to long roads, paths, and journeys. This is how it must be.

But to what end? Who is this canned speech for? Not you. You lost sleep over it. Not your classmates—they just want to get out and go to the party. Not your parents—they’re too busy messing with the video camera. Not your teachers—they’ve listened to dozens of these.

So why do they make people do it? Why do they sometimes demand to see them in advance to make sure they are BORING ENOUGH?

This is why I’m so glad you’ve come to me.

Whatever you do . . . WHATEVER you do . . . do not read any books on speechmaking by people who consider themselves good speechmakers. Self-styled speech coaches give BAD ADVICE.

They typically follow a pattern. First, they want you to say something that expresses that you are looking back on your four years of school. Believe me when I say that the second you utter the words, “As I look back on my high school years . . .” everyone in the entire room goes into a coma. Unless your very next words are: “ . . . I most remember the day that velociraptor attacked the school and we were all killed and then reanimated a week later using that highly experimental serum . . .” you are done.

Then, they usually suggest that you throw in a few random memories. You know . . . the time so-and-so had a pizza delivered to class, or that time all those people got together and sold all those baked goods to raise money for the local hamster home, or the time the basketball team won the championship. What this REALLY is is a cheap ploy to say people’s names into a microphone. So maybe the popular people get one last taste of microfame. Like they haven’t gotten enough attention in the last few years. Maybe you can work in the names of your friends, but you’re going to leave some people out, and that will make them hate you. You can’t win.

The public is fickle

THEN, they usually advise that maybe you should use examples from your own life where you have overcome something or learned something. This invariability turns into a litany of your own accomplishments and has you saying things like, “When I was captain of the swim team, I learned about the value of teamwork. Even though when I was out there in the pool it was really just me winning all those races by myself, I knew I was a part of a team, even when the other team members really did nothing. That’s what teamwork is. Me being the best, and other people sharing the credit. And that’s something I will take with me as I go on in life.”

I have achieved many things . . .

FINALLY, they always want you to close with a quote. Don’t get me wrong, I like a nice quote. I wrote papers in college that were almost entirely comprised of them. But this step is a cop-out. The implication is that you can’t come up with anything good to say on your own, so you should just scout around online to find someone else’s words—someone you’ve probably never heard of, from something you’ve never read. You can go to sites that have large collections of quotes just for this occasion, so you can REALLY make the speech as generic and typical as possible!

Now that I’ve pointed out the problems, Ravenclawgirl, I want to get to the solutions. Because I have them. I have created some frameworks to make your speech AWESOME and give people what they really want!


Read your boring speech as normal. When you get to the end, to the part with the quote, say, “I would like to conclude with a few words by William Shakespeare.” Start reading from the beginning of Henry V. Keep reading from the entire play, including all stage directions, until they shut off your microphone.


What you will need: a blood pack (corn syrup, water, and red food coloring in a plastic bag with a zipper seal)

As you go up to the podium, pretend to fall and smack your head hard. Quickly dip your hand in your blood pack, then slap the fake blood to your head. Close the bag and conceal it back under your robe. (Don’t use TOO much blood or you will be immediately taken away in an ambulance. Unless that’s your goal. It’s a viable option and highly satisfying to the audience.)

Insist that you are fine and demand to be allowed to give your speech, because this is your big day. And since you’re supposed to be up there to show how you’ve grown and overcome, people will cheer for you. When you get up there, struggle with the pages of your speech. Keep the first page on top, but give the rest a good shuffle. Start reading unsteadily. It will sound all right for about a minute, but then you will get to the shuffled pages. Just keep reading. Do the whole speech this way, until you nearly reach the end, then realize your mistake and request to start over. Reshuffle the pages and repeat. Do this until the school nurse comes and/or they shut your microphone off.


What you will need: a friend in the AV department

For this speech, you have to start off really boring. Go up to the podium and start reading the usual, “When I look back on my four years of high school, I realize how much I have grown and changed. But the road of life is long and winding. We have come this far together, but today we are at a crossroads. And though we may all be going in different directions, we can look back and see where we’ve come from. We have all gathered here today to mark this event, but since I have you all here, I can now reveal that one of you in this very room . . . IS MY MURDERER!”


On that, your friends in the AV department will cut all the lights and play a loud sound effect of a gunshot and some screaming. When the lights come back up, you will be gone. If you want, you can have a friend from the theater department come running in, claiming to be a police detective and demand that everyone remain where they are. You, of course, will have run out a back entrance into a waiting car.

Need more help? LET ME KNOW!

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Posted: Friday, May 8th, 2009 @ 9:43 pm
Categories: ask mj, graduation, speeches.
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  1. holdouttrout Says:

    Speaking as someone who gave a fairly standard boring graduation speech, I applaud your efforts to reduce the boredom in HS graduation ceremonies!

    That being said, my own advice is this: WHATEVER YOU DO, speechwriters, make your audience laugh.

  2. Katie Says:

    The valedictorian is a Ravenclaw. How shocking.

    (I say this not mockingly but with pride, as I too am of the Raven-y persuasion.)

    Also, this was totally hilarious. I HATE HATE HATE public speaking, so I kind of hope I never have to do some big speech in front of my entire high school, but if I do I’m totally taking at least one of these suggestions, maybe more.

  3. Maureen Johnson Books » Blog Archive » HOW TO WRITE A GRADUATION SPEECH Says:

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