Next month, I’m graduating from a two-year Master’s degree program in business. One of the things I wrote in the first week of my writing goal was a two-minute audition for the student committee that selects a graduate to speak at commencement, along with our student body president and keynote speaker. They chose me – I am still really, really honored.
I feel a little bit awkward talking about this – giving a commencement speech wasn’t exactly a goal until the opportunity presented itself. I believe it’s a big responsibility, and I’m anxious about whether I can do it well; I know how lucky I am to get the chance, and this isn’t a humble brag. I seized an exciting opportunity to be challenged – which I think is one of the things Go Mighty is about.
I’m excited about this because I love the art of public speaking. I watch commencement speeches in my free time; my favorite coffee table book is Speeches That Changed the World; I TA my graduate program’s required public speaking classes so I can hear my peers speak, and think about what makes them effective. I don’t love public speaking because I think I’m great at it – I love it because I think it’s so important, and there are so many ways to do it well. (I think I’m capable of loving it because I don’t find it frightening – I grew up doing musical theater and started college as a Theater major, so getting in front of a crowd has never seemed like a big deal to me. I totally understand that it’s a huge deal to a lot of people.) My graduating class is a little over 800 people, and there are usually three or four thousand people at my program’s commencement – I
expect this is the biggest speech I’ll ever give.
(Here I am, giving my Public Speaking final in December – I didn’t know quite what to do with the podium. I’m working on that.)
I think this is an especially challenging speech because it’s a commencement speech, and because it’s short. It’s very hard to say something about graduating that hasn’t already been said
better (David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” is my favorite in the genre), and it’s very hard to say anything substantive in three minutes or less. (Woodrow Wilson said about this, “If it is to be a minute speech I shall need four weeks in which to prepare; if a half hour speech, then two weeks, but if I am to talk all day, I’m ready now.”)
My normal speech-writing process is to truly abhor my first draft, and through the editing process, arrive at a final product that only makes me gag a little while I’m delivering it. This is the hardest part – I want to walk away from this speech confident that I said what I meant to say the best way I knew how to say it. I’m solving some of this with process – giving the speech to kind friends I trust to tell me if it’s trite or terrible – and some of it is just managing my feelings and expectations. As often, two brilliant people have said beautifully what I mean about this latter point:
“Don’t be too precious or attached to anything you write. Let things be malleable.” – Tina Fey, Bossypants
“People are seldom interested in the actual content of a speech. They simply want to learn from your tone and gestures and expressions whether or not you are an honest man.” – Kurt
Vonnegut, Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons