The Top Commencement Speeches of the 21st Century

On your graduation day, you are overwhelmed and just waiting for the formal speeches to end, so you can hold your degree and fling your cap in the air. But some speeches are worth listening to and remembering. Here are some of the speeches you would wish had been given at your graduation day.

Steve Jobs, Stanford University (2005)

Students at Stanford got lucky in 2005, to be the ones to hear Steve Job’s story from himself on their graduation day. Steve Jobs sketched a brief sketch of his life to give the students his most important message,

“Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish,” he said. Jobs narrate how he had begun his life in adversity and continued to face poverty. He emphasized that the one thing that kept him going through everything was love. He loved what he did even after being diagnosed with cancer, being fired from Apple, and facing much criticism. He continued to thrive because, at the end of every failure, he loved his work, and he would continue to invest in his work no matter what the situation turns out to be.

In a compelling speech, which contained the essence of years of his experience, Steve Jobs had clearly shown students how much it matters to love your own work and continue working at all costs.

David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College (2005)

The American writer delivered a moving speech titled, “This is Water,” which arguably became one of the best commencements speeches ever delivered. Delivered as a very smooth, rather long speech, David Foster started with a short anecdote, where fish, swimming around in the water are surprised at the mention of the word water. Foster relates how the most obvious things around us are the most ignored ones.

In a moving account of the flaws in the thinking abilities, and lamenting the education that did not give students the freedom to move out of a certain frame, David Foster sure left an impact on all the educationists and learners present at the moment.

In a heartfelt account of the things he had observed and learned throughout his experience, Foster pleaded at the end with the students to not just let the speech go, but to think about it and remember that “This is Water.”

J.K Rowling, Harvard (2008)

Everybody wants to know the thought behind Harry potter, what inspired Rowling, and how did it become a success. On her commencement speech at Harvard, Rowling carried the imaginative style of an author and emphasized the significance of failure and imagination in a person’s life. She began by narrating her account of failure, and how the failure of one thing gave her the total freedom to try another. She urged students to embrace failure and use it as an inspiration for something new and adventurous. “Rock bottom became the solid foundation upon which I built my life,” she says.

During her speech, she gave a moving narrative of the torture victims she had met at Amnesty International and focused on the power of imagination to empathize with fellow human beings. She urged the students not to be limited to a certain mindset, but go with their imagination and see open doors ahead.

Her speech, indeed, motivated the class of 2008 to do something productive when they step into the working life.

Conan O’Brien, Dartmouth College (2012)

Standing out of the line of speakers who would simply tell new graduates to follow their dreams, Conan O’Brien showed them a reality with a touch of satire. He relayed how the world was unfair and how the rich and powerful get the most of it. In an inspirational address, he confessed and told them how his take on life had changed over the years. He had beforehand told students at Dartmouth that they mustn’t be afraid of failure, but to the class of 2012, he presented a new view and emphasized that failure should be avoided at all costs.

In a motivating yet, distinctive end, he told the students that to follow their dreams was a clichéd thought process. According to him, dreams change and it was okay if the dreams changed – one should stay persistent.

Sheryl Sandberg, Harvard Business School (2012)

An alumnus of the same institution, and the COO of Facebook, Sheryl delivered an account of the best leadership skills and success in a speech embedded with honesty and personal experience. Sheryl, a billionaire philanthropist, went on to explain the lack of gender equality that was a hindrance in the way of women climbing the ladder of success.

Sheryl questioned the students on how do they plan to lead, and relayed her personal accounts of being in the chair. She stressed the fact sufficiently that it is hard to question authority, and that is what lets leaders get on with some invalid decisions.

She urged the students that when they find themselves having authority over others, they should develop a personality that allows the subordinates to give advice and question their policies. According to her, this step was important for a better and harmonious working culture.

She left students with a question, “what kind of leaders do they think they will be?

Oprah Winfrey, Harvard (2013)

Having touched many lives through her show and philanthropist efforts, Oprah Winfrey gave the students graduating from Harvard, some moving pieces of advice. Oprah said concisely, that failure is not the signal to lose hope and become despondent, but it was merely life-changing your direction and moving you someplace else.

Her story was a personal account of failure. After being the most popular person on TV for 25 years, she had stumbled and was unable to define her life. But she believed that success lies in only one goal, which was “to fulfill the highest, most truthful expression of yourself as a human being.”

She emphasized the value of graduating from Harvard for students who could now go out and out these Harvard credentials to use. She told them it was up to them how they used the honor. She urged them to hold on to empathy and humanity. Moreover, she told the students to fearlessly go out and test their abilities, and not be afraid of failure.

Will Ferrell, USC, 2017

Will Ferrell delivered perhaps the funniest commencement speech. Funny but inspiring, Will’s speech was a narrative of his life’s story, adorned with limericks and short anecdotes to keep the audience smiling. Comedian that he is, his speech reflected the best of his comedian side, motivation and inspiration to new graduates, who were about to face the world of reality.

He relayed an account of his years as a young boy, vulnerable and scared. But he did know he wanted to be a comedian, and encouragement at the right time steered him towards his goal. However, he admitted that the success he truly believed in was that of reaching the highest steps of humanity. “Empathy and kindness are the true signs of emotional intelligence,” he said.

With a lot of love and leaving the graduates with a memorable day full of a comic speech so true to his self, he signed off.


Speeches that are delivered, leaving all the clichés behind, in all honesty narrating the true and bitter experiences of life, become written in the pages of history. Graduating students are often scared about what will confront them next. A little piece of advice from people who have lived through the odds, does them wonders, in the least, letting them know what to expect out there.