In short order, she opens this 2014 Harvard Law School Class Day address by assuming she's getting a law degree, getting interrupted and corrected, poking fun that she's a Dartmouth grad and thus to be looked down upon, claiming she wanted to buy a speech online but was denied the use of her credit card...and comparing herself unfavorably to another speaker with Indian heritage on the program.
And that's just the intro. Harvard's also a juicy target, and she tackles it with verve:
And let’s be honest, Harvard Law is the best of the Harvard graduate programs, okay, I can say this, we're amongst friends. The Business School is full of crooks, the Divinity School is just a bunch of weird virgins, the School of Design is like European burnouts, and don’t even get me started on the Kennedy School. What kind of degree do you get from there, Public Policy? You mean a Masters in Boring Me to Death at a Dinner Party, I'm sorry. The med school is just a bunch of nerdy Indians—I can say that! Preet can say that. The rest of you, you are out of line—that is racial, how dare you.Like all good humor, there's a vein of truth just underneath the surface, and it emerges frequently as the speech progresses. Lines like "Celebrities give too much advice, and people listen to it too much," as well as the torrent of self-deprecation, tell us Kaling takes her work seriously, but doesn't take herself too seriously.
That doesn't mean, however, that she failed to strike a serious tone in this speech. It involved her family, fairness and the future she saw for the graduates:
my own network television program. The continents traveled, the languages mastered, the standardized tests taken over and over again, and the cultures navigated are amazing, even to me. My family's dream about a future unfettered by limitations, dependent only on "what you know" and not by "who you know," was possible only in America. Their romance with this country is more romantic than any romantic comedy I could ever write.
And it's all because they believed, as I do, about the concept of the inherent fairness that is alive in America. And that here, you could aspire and succeed. And that, my parents believed, their children could aspire and succeed to levels that could not have happened anywhere else in the world.
And that fairness that my parents and I take for granted, that many Americans take for granted, is in many ways resting on your shoulders to uphold. You represent those who will make laws and affect change. And that is truly an amazing thing. And more than any other group graduating today from Harvard, the laws that you write in the next five to ten years will affect this country in a fundamental way.What can you learn from this famous speech?
- Make 'em laugh: Humor can erase that "who does she think she is?" reaction some in the audience might have when sitting before a speaker, even one who's not a celebrity. But more than that, it offers the audience surprises, requiring their attention. And, as speechwriter Peggy Noonan has noted, good use of humor in a speech means the rest of us will be repeating your best lines the next day.
- Take a noble goal and make it real: "The rule of law" and "justice" are the terms lawyers use to discuss the noble goals of their profession. Kaling takes those concepts and transforms them into everyday "fairness" by describing them through the eyes of her immigrant parents. By letting the graduates know her family was counting on them to uphold fairness, Kaling makes a pact with the graduates, a speaker tactic that encompasses a call to action and establishes a direct relationship between the celebrity speaker and the audience. It's a personal, moving moment.
- Don't take the circumstances too seriously: You didn't miss the "it's an honor just to be asked" and the "let me thank our esteemed hosts" moments in this speech, did you? While your next speech may not involve poking this much fun at the host institution, do take a look at your remarks and think about whether there's too much hot air in them. Your audience will thank you.
I'll be leading Be The Eloquent Woman, my day-long workshop on women and public speaking, as a pre-conference session at the European Speechwriter Network's autumn speechwriters and business communicators conference in Amsterdam. The workshop is 23 October and the conference is 24 October. You'll learn how to speak with confidence, content and credibility to subvert the common expectations of women speakers. Please join me!