I heard a number of commencement speeches this graduation season, some good and some – well – they should have been shorter. Reflecting on them I wondered, what makes a good commencement speech, and what would I say if I were asked to be a commencement speaker?
Below is my response, in the form of my speech to the 2011 graduating class at Mentor University. Mentor University is not at real university, but that’s OK, because this isn’t a real commencement speech.
I rise to the podium and proceed as follows:
A good commencement speech should be:
- Wise – providing useful advice and insights into the future;
- Entertaining – to amuse the spirits of graduates, family, and friends; and
- Short – it's hot, it’s stuffy, there is impending rain, and all anyone really wants is to see their graduate get his or her diploma and then go out to eat.
- Keep learning
- Appreciate feedback
- Ask good questions
Here’s the first: Keep Learning.
Now that your schooling is completed, you are prepared to learn. When you learned to drive a car, you first obtained a learner’s permit and then a driver’s license. But the real development of your driving skills, the continuing process of mastering those skills, began after you received that license. So it is with the diploma you receive today – treat it as a license to learn.
To stretch this analogy further, you did not learn to drive alone. At first you had a teacher, but then, license in hand, you were alone behind the wheel. You learned from other drivers. You learned habits from them – ways of interacting – safe and courteous habits, we hope, but also perhaps, ones less so. So too in the world of work. You will learn from others. Be conscious of what you learn and whose habits you acquire. Learn what is right and good.
Here’s the second: Appreciate Feedback.
At the foundation of your continuing education and personal growth is the feedback – positive and negative – that you can receive from those who are close to you. Encourage and benefit from it. Think of it this way – if I hadn't asked my kids for feedback on this presentation, you'd be hearing a longer speech.
And the third: Ask Good Questions.
Whether at a job interview, on the job, or in a meeting, ask good questions. The key to asking good questions is listening. Listen to what others say, and ask about what they meant; clarify before you evaluate. As Moses Maimonides said, “Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not understand.’” People learn more about you from the questions you ask than from the answers you give.
I said I would say three things. I said them. I'm done.
The audience bursts into delighted and rambunctious applause.