Top 5 Commencement Speeches of 2011

I spent the last few weeks watching for the best commencement speeches on YouTube, and I have compiled a list that should inspire you, if not entertain you. This is especially true if you have just graduated, or if you are facing a new transition, or a major change in your life. However, the truly great thing about listening to these graduate speeches is that they are meaningful to whomever listens – provided they’re good, obviously. I find moments of profundity in so many of these words, even while viewing these videos on a computer in Japan, and having nothing to do with the graduations myself. It doesn’t matter. There’s no monopoly on inspiration. So I’m going to keep watching these every year, because they make us think about important things like what we want to be or where we want to go in the future.

In recent decades, American celebrities have increasingly been chosen to give such speeches, and YouTube has made it very easy to receive their words of wisdom. What makes a good speech? The two major points in my opinion are to entertain, and to inspire. I think humor is important because the day is supposed to be a momentous joy, if not a sigh of relief, and I think the best transition – no matter how daunting – is one made while laughing. A smile is a powerful thing, and it takes a true professional to give a funny speech while staying away from a comedy act. USA Today breaks it down further, with a list of 8 aspects of a good commencement speech:

  1. Inspire without being cliche
  2. Talk about yourself in a way that we find meaningful
  3. Use humor (unless you’re not funny)
  4. Rehearse, but don’t sound rehearsed
  5. Be thought-provoking, but don’t push it
  6. Know your audience
  7. Keep the environment into consideration (too hot, raining, etc.)
  8. Keep it short (around 15-20 mins)

Though I agree with these, I’m not necessarily using them all as the criteria for my selections; though they’re interesting things to think about when viewing these videos. And while I want to explain my decisions further, I’ve decided not to more than a few sentences, because doing so would entail criticizing the speeches. Criticizing rather than praising them seems like it misses the point. So here are my choices, with little written justification.


Top Five Speeches

#5: Bill Cosby at Temple University

Cosby gives a no-nonsense speech, serving – among other things – as an ode to parents.


#4: Amy Poehler at Harvard University

With her signature comedic flair, Poehler talks about her generation and the graduates’ generation, and what it will be like for them from graduation onwards.


#3: Tom Hanks at Yale University

Hanks talks about a broad range of topics, with good humor and taste, as an apt send-off for graduates.


#2: Stephen Colbert at Northwestern University

To be honest, the #2 and #1 spot are easily ahead of the rest of the pack, though Colbert’s balance was a tiny bit too weighted towards humor and away from inspiration. However, when he finally uses his analogy of improvisation, his insight is dead-on, and his lesson is profound. His monologue speaks to anyone who has ever thought philosophically about life, and it is a deep message for the listeners.


#1: Conan O’Brien at Dartmouth University

The way O’Brien uses his own experience to impart wisdom just exemplifies his level of professionalism. He is hilarious throughout, and I think that even if you have no desire to be inspired by a graduation speech, his story is fascinating enough that I can easily recommend it to anyone. I was wondering in the beginning about why he would be a good speaker for this occasion, but incidentally he was the best of the whole year. In fact, his speech turns out to be like a TED talk with caps and gowns. Do yourself a favor and watch it.

Photo Credit: Lowry Lou
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