Friday, August 1, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Rashema Melson's high school valedictory speech

Try this sometime: Go to high school, working hard and rising to the top of your class. Get into Georgetown University. And do it while you're living in a homeless shelter. Rashema Melson of Washington, DC, did it, and that journey propelled her to the valedictory speech at Anacostia High School in June, with a speech and story that captured worldwide attention.

The first few minutes of Melson's speech are a charming recitation of thanks to the teachers and administrators who helped her achieve her ambitious goals. The rest of her speech was brief and inspiring--something many commencement speakers fail to achieve--so here it is:
Throughout my journey here, I have learned that time doesn’t wait, pity, or adjust for or to anyone, and life is not fair. Life is not fair. But despite that harsh reality, you must keep striving for success through the pain, tears, and feeling of lost hope. People say life is short, live it up; I say life is endless, turn up, earn it up, but don’t burn it up. Your life decisions lead you to where you end up. 
For the longest I was in the struggle, trying my best, but I started to think it would never be over. I started to give up, but then God gave me a sign that he wasn’t putting me through this to punish me, but to show others how to be resilient and persistent in the goals of life. 
I see a promising future ahead, and I didn’t do it all alone. I had gracious help, for which I will be forever grateful. Before I receive my diploma and head on to Georgetown, I just want to leave you all with a piece of advice, class of 2014; always be who you truly are on the inside, never be afraid to go after your dreams, and regardless of the negative forecast that has been predicted upon us, beat the odds and let the sun shine. The future lies within reach of our hands, and if we keep striving and don’t let anyone knock us off our path or deter us from our goals, we can do anything we put our mind to, no matter what. Resilience, perseverance, discipline, determination, and dedication is the key to your success. Each step we take is paved with possibilities. Now go unlock the door to your future.
What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Rhetoric works, and you should use it: "People say life is short, live it up; I say life is endless, turn up, earn it up, but don’t burn it up," is a classic example of epistrophe, a figure of speech in which you repeat words or sounds at the end of a series of phrases or sentences. (Anaphora does the same, but at the beginning of a sentence or phrase.) Epistrophe puts the emphasis at the end, and it's a powerful construction, used well here.
  • Use equal doses of hope, reality and restraint: Melson never refers to her homelessness. "I have learned that time doesn’t wait, pity, or adjust for or to anyone, and life is not fair. Life is not fair," is as bracing and real a sentence as one could want here--and all the more powerful because it sums up her experience with a deft touch. When she turns to her hopeful message, that, too, is not overdone or cloying. If she can keep this up, she has a wonderful speaking career ahead. The simplicity here works.
  • Make that call to action: Compact and compelling, "Now go unlock the door to your future" is a wonderful call to action, suggesting that the graduates must act in order to achieve their futures.
Many of you know that I advise speakers not to load up a litany of thanks in their speeches, but here may be an occasion in which it actually works--and Melson is thorough in thanking those who helped her. In the context of her amazing achievement, the thank-yous are a gracious touch.

You can watch the video at the link below. What do you think of this famous speech?

Video: The Moving Commencement Speech From Student Who Became Valedictorian While Homeless

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!