Friday, June 29, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Viola Davis's commencement speech "Go on and live!"

Many actors dread public speaking, mainly because they prefer to work from scripts and memorization. Not so Viola Davis, who makes every speech a thrilling performance--mainly because it's clear she isn't acting.

In this speech, following presentation of an honorary degree, Rhode Island native Davis admitted she might not have been so down to earth 10 years earlier: "I would’ve made a lot of stuff up and been very self-congratulatory, and self-righteous about what a wonderfully dramatic speech I gave,” she said. “Thank God this is not 10 years ago.”

Davis uses a scene from The Exorcist, of all things, to urge the graduates not to keep their authentic selves pushed away in a drawer like a special piece of jewelry only worn on special occasions, but something they should wear every day. "If I do not know who I am, it is because I think I am the sort of person everyone around me wants to be," she says, noting that acting out others' wishes for you is a kind of possession. Then she drives her point home:

You see, the two most important days in your life are the day you were born, and the day you discover why you were born. Now, I have only been able to slay dragons when I have kept these two important facts in sharp focus, because at some point in life, it will indeed suck: Loss of a loved one, health issues, marriage, children, loss of passion, the discovery that what you thought you wanted in life, you don't. You veer off course. But all the while that purpose, that thing you were specifically and divinely made for, will be moving in front of you.
Here's what you can learn from this commencement speech:

  • Use examples to lead us to your point: This speech is about finding and staying true to your authentic self, and Davis uses the indelible images from The Exorcist to make her listeners understand just how much of an out-of-body experience you can have when you drift from your true purpose. It's an invisible visual, one that sticks with the audience and underscores her theme.
  • Give us your enthusiasm: Davis doesn't just read her lines here. We can see and sense her humor, passion, regrets and enthusiasm--that secret sauce of personality and emotion that so many speakers leave out. She's present and eager to go, and so is her audience.
  • Give the grads a road map: Her narrative is so clear that you can see the years ahead of this class of graduates. There's the day you were born, the day you figured out what you were born to do, and then all that veering off course--and back on course--that form the path on which Davis leads us. Rather than toss a collection of advice and anecdotes at them, this speaker has a progression that's easy to follow, and easy to recall.
A nice coincidence for me: My own college classmate, Vicki-Ann Downing, wrote this great article about Davis's speech for Providence College. What do you think of this commencement speech?


(Providence College photo of Davis)