Thursday, May 13, 2010

Watch lights fade in every room: Cautions about commencement speeches

I've never given a commencement speech, but as a college senior, I judged the entries from fellow students who wanted to speak, along with a committee of faculty.  One entrant wanted to give a real downer of a speech, a doom-and-gloom scenario about all the traps waiting for us in the future.  Trouble was, he wanted to open the speech by reeling off three paragraphs of dire predictions, each one ending with Breathe deep the gathering gloom, a line from the epilogue to the Moody Blues song, "Nights in White Satin." 

The rest of the committee found many things to dislike about his approach--the tone, the facts, the lack of a hopeful view--but I had the winning argument for putting this speech aside:  I knew that the moment the speaker said, "Breathe deep the gathering gloom," the entire class of thousands of graduates would immediately respond with "WATCH LIGHTS FADE IN EVERY ROOM," the next line in the Moody Blues number. And then all hell would break loose.

Commencement speeches are fraught with all sorts of perils like this one. It may be the most focused audience out there--but they're not focused on you, for the most part. Commencement speakers may have the toughest job, even tougher than standing between the audience and lunch, because they're standing between seniors and graduation.  It's easy to trip up as a commencement speaker and tough to be memorable on a day that's a happy blur for most of the participants. More likely, you'll be remembered for something like getting an entire stadium to chant lyrics like our would-be speaker might have done.

Maybe that's why this time of year brings an annual parade of parodies and advice on commencement speeches.  The San Jose Mercury-News offers an approach that nods to the trite nature of most commencement speeches:  a fill-in-the-blanks "Mad Libs" style speech, with words you can choose from to fill in the blanks, leaving almost nothing to choice. This one's geared to graduates, rather than those called on to inspire them.  And faculty tips on commencement speeches -- remember, they have to sit through more than you ever will -- can be heard in this NPR 'Talk of the Nation' interview.  Students call in and share their views, too.  Politicians and Oprah don't fare well in this estimation, but Dr. Seuss and Mr. Rogers scored high. (In the Mr. Rogers example, he unified the audience and let them participate and use some of their high energy by suggesting they all sing his "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" song together.)

Have you given a commencement speech?  Sat through many?  What's your advice or best story about pitfalls and pratfalls? Share, too, any that inspired you or that remain memorable. It's a field where the speakers need all the help they can get.