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    Speeches that Make the Grade: Elements of an Effective Speech


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    This most recent college graduation season, chock full of high-profile commencement speakers, gives us a fresh opportunity to look at what makes a memorable and effective speech.

    While the Internet has turned this symbolic ceremony into a never-ending series of viral moments, the commencement speech, like any other speech, provides an opportunity to influence people’s thinking, open their minds to new ideas, and inspire a course of action. There are more than a few lessons we can take away on effective public speaking from the Class of 2016 commencement speeches. Here are just a few:

    Pique Their Interest from the Start

    “Today will be a bit different. We will still do the caps and you still have to do the photos. But I am not here to tell you all the things I’ve learned in life. Today I will try and tell you what I learned in death.”

    Sheryl Sandberg at University of California, Berkeley

    Got your attention? It got ours, too. Audiences are most engaged in the very beginning of a speech, giving you a limited window of time before they make the decision to tune in or out, so use these seconds wisely. It’s critical to signal to the audience in those first few minutes that they’re about to hear something they’ve never heard before. A presentation expert I’ve worked with many times likes to say, “Start your speech in the middle.” What she means is that we need to lose the boring preamble and get right to the heart of the matter.

    Sandberg’s speech, which goes on to discuss her journey through the death of her husband is touching and deeply personal from her very first opening words all the way through to the end, keeping her audience emotionally and intellectually engaged. (Read the rest of her speech here).

    Make ‘Em Laugh

    “I come here for a simple reason -- to finally settle this pork roll vs. Taylor ham question. I'm just kidding. There's not much I'm afraid to take on in my final year of office, but I know better than to get in the middle of that debate.”

    President Obama at Rutgers University

    Humor, when used well, can be the best supporting actor of a great speech. It’s not the main inspirational message, but it’s a perfect way to relax your audience, get them on your side and prepare them to be open to hearing the more serious points of your speech. I once heard one of the creators of “Funny or Die” say that people are most susceptible to influence when they are laughing. He believed that was because people’s guards are down, they are feeling happy and less suspicious and therefore more willing to accept ideas unlike their own.

    President Obama’s reference to a shared joke that Rutgers’ students understand, relate to, and can laugh at is a perfect way to grab attention early on and make the President appear one of them. It’s important to be careful not to over-do the laughs, though. Too much can distract or take credibility away from your message. A good speech isn’t stagnant; it’s not a steady stream of jokes or a one note tangent. It has highs and lows and bits of comic relief to give your audience a welcome mental breather. (You can read the rest of the President’s keynote here).

    And I would be remiss if I didn’t give a nod to Boston’s own Matt Damon and his very effective commencement address at MIT. It’s another great example of the power of using humor well when speaking in front of a crowd.

    Be a Storyteller

    "My dear, terrified graduates—you are about to enter the most uncertain and thrilling period of your lives. The stories you are about to live are the ones you will be telling your children and grandchildren and therapists...They are the stories in which you figure out who you are. There will be moments you remember and whole years you forget.”

    Lin-Manuel Miranda at the University of Pennsylvania

    When presenting to a crowd, being a storyteller is key. Whether you’re pitching, presenting, or inspiring the troops, your goal should be to engage your audience with your “story” whatever it is. You want to create an honest connection with your audience. Feel free to be colloquial or even reveal a flaw or two (and, of course, the lessons learned).

    In this case, Miranda, a genius storyteller whose musical Hamilton has taken the world by storm, took this a step further, centering his speech around the importance of living those stories—his own (which he shared throughout the speech) and those that the graduates will experience in the years to come. You can read the rest of his incredible story here.

    And Of Course… Have a Compelling Message

    “If you see something that’s not right, not fair, not just, do something about it. Say something. Do something. Have the courage. Have the backbone to get in the way. Walk with the wind. It’s all gonna work out….If you go out and do what you must do, you have the power, you have the ability, not just to change America, but you have to change the world and create a world community at peace with itself.”

    John Lewis, US Congressman and civil rights activist, at Washington University

    After you have grabbed your audience’s attention in your opening lines, warmed them up with humor and your willingness to share your personal story, make sure to get to the point, and you state it as plainly and as succinctly as possible... Be careful not to take too long to get here or you audience may become confused, distracted, or even worse—bored.

    After sharing his stories about growing up, finding his way in the world and learning to stand up for what you believe in, Lewis arrived at his inspiring punchline. He leaves his audience feeling empowered and able to envision themselves changing the world. Talk about impact.

    Your message is the part where you create excitement and inspire. Tell your audience why they should care about what you’re talking about. Be relatable, be passionate, and be honest. If there isn’t a message, a speech has no point. (Read the rest of John Lewis’ speech here).


    There were so many other great commencement speeches this year. Which did you find particularly inspiring or effective? What techniques worked best in your opinion? Share the lessons you’ve learned so that we can all graduate to become great public speakers.

    Sue Parente

    About Sue Parente

    What inspires me? Brave communicators who dare to put "right" before "safe."

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