In this column, professional speechwriter Chandler Dean provides partly satirical, partly genuine “How To” advice focused on a hyper-specific subcategory of speeches—from graduation speeches to wedding toasts to eulogies and all the rhetorical occasions in between.
Congratulations! You’ve been asked to speak in front of everyone you know, plus a bunch of people you don’t.
Maybe you were chosen because you earned the highest GPA in your graduating class. After all, everyone knows that the best public speakers are the ones who can calculate the Riemann sum of a closed interval in accordance with the trapezoidal rule.
Or perhaps you’re getting up there because you were nominated by a teacher or administrator who sees in you that most inspiring of oratorical qualities: harmlessness.
Either way, your peers had absolutely nothing to do with your selection, and now they’re your audience. So here’s how you can win them over, crush your speech, and maybe even make some friends for the next three months before everyone moves away forever.
Take it from me: a person who genuinely—not a bit—spoke at his middle school, high school, and college graduation ceremonies. Get this opportunity right, and you too can enjoy a long, fulfilling career where you bring up your high school days a lot.
First things first:
Shamelessly pander to the senior class.
There is no demographic more jingoist than high school seniors are about themselves. Right now, for one last day, you’re still at the top of the heap—until tomorrow, when you become one of the most useless adults in the world. So, by all means: fan the flames one last time.
You might be tempted to open your speech with the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of “commencement,” or perhaps an inspirational quote from Nelson Mandela. I promise that nothing you could possibly come up with will play better than yelling, “WHAT UP, CLASS OF 2024?!?” and maybe playing the airhorn sound effect from your phone.
Remember: you’re talking to a group of riled-up teenagers who have been waiting for this moment for four years, and now your school is making them wait another four hours to seal the deal. They are ready to scream. You just have to give them the cue.
See this actual call-and-response from my remarks to the graduating class of the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts:
When I say “Class,” you say “of.” Class! Class!
When I say “20,” you say “14.” 20! 20!
When I say “brain,” you say “washed.” Brain! Brain!
How’s everybody doin’?
Sure enough, they let me know how they were doin’. They were doin’ “woo.”
Even better: if you went to a school that had sports—I say as if it’s a curious anomaly instead of the thing 99 percent of people experience—invoke your mascot or team chant or whatever.
In general, there are two kinds of reactions that you want to get from any given speech: “Oooh, I didn’t know that!” or “Oooh, I agree with that!” And there’s nothing that high school seniors agree with more than that they are awesome.
As a corollary:
Make fun of your rival school.
Because the other thing that high school seniors agree with is that different high school seniors suck.
I personally got a lot of mileage at my middle school graduation speech by making fun of our perennial opponents, the Pershing Pandas. It didn’t matter that the panda is a beautiful, majestic, conservation-reliant, vulnerable species. It didn’t matter that our mascot, the Johnston Greyhound, would objectively be squished in a fight with a panda, and it also evokes coach buses. I just said that the Pershing Pandas were lame, and everyone was pretty much into that.
And speaking of safe targets:
Make fun of yourself!
Self-deprecation is often a smart strategy for public speakers anyway; it can help you seem more relatable and less self-important (but not so much less self-important that you wouldn’t agree to be one of the only people in a room of thousands who gets a microphone).
But this is an especially useful tool when your audience is a bunch of bored teens who will be actively searching for stuff to make fun of for the duration of the ceremony. The goal is for you to get to you before they get to you.
Are you quiet? Loud? In a weird club? In every club? In no clubs? Are you on the morning announcements? Did you only go to this school because your mom is the assistant principal? Look into your heart. Find the thing about you that might be mildly annoying. Mildly point it out. And mildly win the day.
Once you’ve made it clear that you love your fellow seniors, hate their enemies, and fall somewhere in between on yourself, get to the heart of it:
Share something you learned over the past four years.
And by that, I mean something you learned about life. Not, like, the laws of thermodynamics. Although, now that I think about it, you could probably come up with a solid metaphor about those. I’m thinking, like, the energy that got the Class of 2024 this far can’t be created or destroyed—it’s always existed in you. And maybe going forward, you could say the entropy in all of your lives will only increase, but that’s okay; it’s the way of the universe.
You know what?
Screw it: find a way to get the laws of thermodynamics in there.
Or whatever nerdy stuff you’re into. The more specific, the better. If you’re a theater kid, quote your favorite play. If you’re a football player, recount your favorite play.
The psychologist Carl Rogers once wrote, “What is most personal is most general.” That quote is so universally applicable that I’ve stolen it instead of coming up with something myself.
Don’t try to encapsulate the whole human experience—or even the whole high school senior experience—by zooming out and speaking in generalities. What did you learn? How have you changed? What does this moment mean to you? If you can articulate what you’re truly thinking and feeling, the chances are pretty good that it will resonate with your graduating class.
Of course, you might be thinking or feeling things that don’t fit neatly into the traditional expectations for this kind of speech. You may not believe you can get away with being honest—about your experiences, or even your identity.
So, once you’ve perfected your script…
Consider going off-script.
Many schools will require their graduation speakers to submit their speeches for approval beforehand. But, like, come on, dude. What are they gonna do if you decide to go off the rails? Take away prom? It would be weird if you went next year anyway!
The beauty of graduating high school and embarking toward adulthood is that from now on, you can only be held accountable to four entities: yourself, the government, God, and whoever gives you money. So unless you’re angling to get one of those incredibly lucrative jobs in secondary education, specifically at your high school, you can truly do whatever (legal stuff) you want up there.
Your mind might go to chaos—yes, you can technically use your platform to accuse a teacher of drinking on the job—but when I think about graduation speakers ditching their script, I think about courage.
I think about the young man in Florida who protested his state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law—and his principal’s censorship—by delivering a thinly veiled allegory about the struggles of being a “curly-haired” student.
I think about the class president in Pennsylvania who criticized his school’s unwillingness to listen to student voices—only to have his point proven when they cut off his mic.
I think about the valedictorian in Texas who broke from her sanctioned remarks to address how her would-be dreams and ambitions could be precluded by the state’s six-week abortion ban.
These brave remarks illustrate a couple of truths. One is that you gotta have someone film your speech just in case you do something wild that could go viral. And the other is that once you’re in front of that microphone and audience, the stage is yours. There’s nothing stopping you from speaking up for what you believe in. Except whoever is operating the AV system.
Now, look—the above examples all reflect these students’ unique circumstances. Using your speech to stage a protest may not be authentic to you. In that case, you can nevertheless electrify the crowd by making a big show of tearing up your prepared remarks and pretending to speak from the heart. Just make sure you’ve printed a second copy to read from the heart.
Ultimately, this is all a long way of building up to the only rule that really matters:
Everyone—students, parents, teachers—expects this whole day to be mostly boring. If your speech can manage to defy that expectation, even for just a few minutes (and you really should make sure it’s only a few minutes), you can call it a valedictory victory.