Friday, June 22, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Maria Shriver on "The Power of the Pause"

"What are you gonna do?" Journalist and former First Lady of California Maria Shriver used her commencement speech at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School, all communications graduates, to pose and re-pose the familiar question that newly minted degree holders get--and to clue them in that they'll be hearing that all their lives after graduation.

But Shriver urged the graduates not to feel pushed to rush toward things. Instead, she invoked "the power of the pause," and made it a call to action (or inaction, if you like) to the graduates: "Pausing allows you to take a beat -- to take a breath in your life. As everybody else is rushing around like a lunatic out there, I dare you to do the opposite."

The pause applies, she noted, to their work as well as to their lives: "You have the chance to change the way we talk to one another, what we read on the Web and newspapers and magazines, what we see on TV, what we hear on radio. You can help us change the channel." Noble goals aside, she addressed those who were graduating without a job to go to, saying, "And if you don’t have a job yet and someone asks you 'What-are-ya-gonna-do?' Just pause, and be aware of this fundamental truth: It’s okay not to know what you’re going to do! It’s okay not to have all the answers. You don’t have to be like I was at your age and beat yourself up for not knowing."

Here's what you can learn from this commencement speech:
  • Strike a chord with the graduates: Shriver does a great job reflecting the graduates' big worry by using her own experience and the question "What are you gonna do?" It's a simple gesture, and one that too many commencement speakers forget. In this case, it's also clever: Now that Shriver has posed the question, it will seem even more pushy when someone asks the grads that after her speech.
  • Make a metaphor without beating it to death: A communicator myself, I sensed that Shriver's invocation of the pause--contrasted with the fast pace and action-packed world of communication into which these grads are stepping--sounded a lot like the metaphor of a remote control and its pause button. But she stopped short of drawing that picture too distinctly, just noting "you can help us change the channel," and the speech benefits. So too can your speeches let the audience complete the thought, rather than draw a fine line.
  • Sharing insecurities works: Some speakers never want to admit a weakness, and lose the power of storytelling, which requires a lesson from some kind of negative. Shriver admits she wasn't sure of her own path when she graduated, and many in the audience were probably thinking she's in that same place now that her marriage is ending and her role as California's First Lady is over. That makes her theme of pausing even more effective--in effect, she is demonstrating it by having done it. The admission doesn't detract from her power, persuasiveness or appeal to this audience.
The full text of the speech is at the link above on Shriver's own blog--a good example for women everywhere that you should be sure the full text of your speech is published so we can find it online. The video is below. What do you think of this speech?

(Photo by Cindy Gold, USC Annenberg)