HOW TO WRITE A GRADUATION SPEECH
I am not a fan of the graduation speech. I have actually written on this topic before, but every graduation season it comes up again and I remember just how much I hate graduation speeches. I hate them with the kind of hate that usually rises when reading a list of war crimes. And I fully admit that I will do more or less anything to get out of going to a graduation ceremony, short of putting myself in a rocket and having myself fired into the face of the sun.
Why do I have these kinds of feelings about graduation ceremonies? Because they are boring. They are very, very boring. The worst ones are so willfully boring that I would like to bring criminal charges against the organizers. And they don’t have to be. They really don’t. Somehow, someone has gotten the idea that in order to make the concept of graduation legitimate, it must also be tedious, and that does not actually compute.
Of course, some graduations at some awesome schools get awesome speakers. One graduation I went to had Bill Murray as the speaker, and it was the greatest thing I’ve ever heard. Neil Gaiman also just gave an excellent graduation speech that’s been making the rounds of the internet—and justly so, because a great graduation speech is about as rare as a banjo in a rainforest.
I remember my own college graduation. The speaker was some random woman whose speech was themed—and I am not joking about this—“I may have done nothing of major significance with my life, but I am not a failure.” She repeated the words “I am not a failure” fifteen times by my count, and I only started counting about halfway in. Granted, this was at the weird January graduation ceremony that didn’t really feel like it counted as much as the summer one, so I think they let literally anyone give the speech. The summer graduation speaker—the one who spoke to thousands in the football stadium—was Tom Clancy, who mostly talked about his love of submarines. I found this to be equally inexplicable, though it was clear that Tom Clancy did not think Tom Clancy was a failure, and the overall message was decidedly more spirited. And when I say spirited, I mean it was the kind of speech that usually precedes a declaration of war. In fact, now that I look back on it, Tom Clancy may have been declaring war on the University of Delaware, which explains quite a lot of things in retrospect.
If I were put in charge of all graduations everywhere (and I only assume I have not been because of some worldwide bureaucratic oversight), there would be no speeches. The entire ceremony would consist of a reading of the names of the graduates, because that’s fair, but this would be done by one of those speed-talking auction people. Rather than making graduates wait in a line and nervously cross the stage, diplomas would be fired from a specially designed diploma cannon while the 1812 Overture played in the background. Once all the diplomas had been fired, a fog machine would be switched on (just for atmosphere and to discourage lingerers) and all exit doors opened. The entire thing would take about twenty minutes, tops. Ten would be ideal. Because everyone deserves a photo, various backdrops would be available in the lobby, so you could pretend to get your diploma in space, in front of the pyramids, or from the jaws of a great white shark.
But I realize not everyone shares my views on graduations and that some of you will be forced to write and execute a graduation speech. Many of you will turn to the internet for advice on this. I’ve been looking around at some other graduation speech advice pages, and they’re basically all terrible. It is my hope that you will find this page, because I am here to help. If you must write a graduation speech, I hope you will let me be your guide.
1. MISGUIDE THE AUDIENCE
Take it as a given that the second you approach the podium, the audience is settling in for a nice, long afternoon coma. They think you are about to say something like, “When I first entered the door of [INSERT NAME OF SCHOOL] four years ago, I had no idea what wonderful experiences I would blah blah blah blah blah…” You need to get them right from the start, and one of the easiest ways of doing this is by inserting the name of another school, or—even better—something that is not a school at all. Why not start your speech with the line, “Four years ago, when I first became CEO of Alliance Petrochemical Industries Incorporated…”? This is how you can immediately tell who is paying attention. In fact, I see no reason why you shouldn’t just give a forty-five minute annual report for your imaginary company, complete with slides and threats that sales better improve or everyone is fired.
2. TAKE A PHONE CALL
I was watching a panel at a convention once and smack in the middle of it, one of the panelists got a phone call, which she then proceeded to answer. She half-concealed herself behind the curtain behind the speakers’ table. She talked for a good ten minutes or so. I found this so utterly entertaining that I couldn’t take my eyes off of it and talk about it to this day, so clearly this is a great way to entertain during a speech. I suggest that you write two or three very boring lines of opening, then arrange to have your phone ring. For the next twenty minutes, just talk on the phone. Then act as if nothing happened and go right to a few very boring closing lines.
3. EXIT, PERSUED BY BEAR
It is a common jape at large graduation ceremonies to release a few mice. This happened at my graduate school graduation from Columbia University, where we sat in the rain for two miserable hours, while someone said something and mice scrambled around my chair. The real problem with this idea is that it’s a failure to think big enough. If you’re going to release something, RELEASE SOMETHING. I mean, the Kracken, if you can get it. Since releasing animals into crowds often ends badly for the animals—and I resolutely denounce all animal cruelty—the easiest workaround for this is to have several people dressed as bears run into the room.
4. SCREAM YOUR SPEECH
Any speech, no matter how boring, is instantly improved by screaming the entire thing into the microphone.
5. WRITE A SCREED OF INSANE LIES AND MILD, VAGUE THREATS LINKED UP BY FAKE HISTORICAL FACTS
This is your opportunity to shine. I want to see what YOU can do to correct this terrible situation, so I am having a contest. I challenge you to write the best graduation speech ever, once that truly ROCKS THE SOCKS.
There are no restrictions. The speech can be as long or as short as you like (bearing in mind that if you send me a 50 page speech, it had better be incredible). And I am certainly not against a one sentence speech, or even a speech that is shorter than one sentence. I want you to fully embrace the possibilities of simply telling a bunch of insane lies, of deviating from every known conception of the graduation speech.
Submit these speeches to me in writing or as a video by FRIDAY, JUNE 15th. I will choose the three I think best exemplify the spirit of what I suggest, and I will post them and let the PUBLIC see your work and choose the winner, who will get a MARVELOUS PRIZE. Submission should be sent to my email account with the subject line: GRADUATION SPEECH.
No timewasters. Only amazing speeches.