Being chosen to write a speech for a graduation ceremony is exciting, but also utterly terrifying, for many people. It’s not just your classmates in the audience, it’s parents and faculty too. And with some incredible student graduation speech examples out there (not to mention the perfection that was Steve Jobs’ speech), there’s a lot to live up to. With that in mind, here are some tips and graduation speech examples to help you create the perfect commencement speech.
- Pick a theme
- Write an outline
- Pen a catchy introduction
- Write a thank-you paragraph
- Look back and look ahead
- End your graduation speech
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1. Pick a theme
The overall goal of graduation speeches is to inspire and move your audience. But there are lots of ways to do this, and picking the right theme is a big part of it. Popular themes are the importance of friendship; perseverance and overcoming adversity; having big dreams and imagination; making a difference. Once you have your theme, it will be easier to choose anecdotes, quotations, and examples to put into your speech.
2. Write an outline
The next step for any commencement speech is to write an outline. Breaking it up into manageable parts not only makes it feel less overwhelming, but it helps to give your speech structure, making it easier for the audience to follow. A good speech will have the following:
- A catchy introduction
- A look back
- A look ahead
- A pithy ending
3. Pen a catchy introduction
Begin by thanking everyone for attending and for choosing you to be their speaker. Then, grab your audience’s attention from the very start with a hook. Lots of people choose to begin with a quotation that captures the theme of the whole speech.
Example: I want to begin with a quotation from Nora Ephron: “Your education is a dress rehearsal for a life that is yours to lead.”
Other ways to hook your audience are by telling a short, personal story that your classmates can relate to, or by giving a statistic or question that fits with your theme. And never shy away from humor. A speech by James Glaser at Tufts University contained only questions, one being: “Would you believe that my 5’1” sister met her 5’4” husband in a short story class?” This would be a very funny way to begin a speech about meeting special people.
4. Write a thank-you paragraph
Now your audience is paying attention, it’s time for gratitude. Thank your teachers and other staff at the school who have made a difference and tell an anecdote about someone to personalize this.
Example: “I know I speak on behalf of all of my classmates when I thank the catering staff, who have made sure we fuel our brains with more than just fries and soda during exam times.”
Now’s the time to thank the families in the audience too. You can do a personal shout-out to your mom and dad, but be inclusive and remember that your classmates will have received support from a range of people.
5. Look back and look ahead
The bulk of your speech will be spent talking about your time at the school and about how you see the future unfolding. Now is the time to focus on the theme that you chose, and to include stories about your shared experiences.
If you chose to focus on overcoming adversity, recall a challenge you faced that you know a lot of other people did too. Share how a lesson you learned at school will help you after you leave, and remind everyone that you have learned much more than what was on the syllabus.
Example: As Rita Moreno said, “The day you graduate, you do not arrive. This is not the end. This is the beginning for you. To graduate is to change gradually.” I know we’ve all changed so much already and we will continue to do so.
6. End your graduation speech
End with some advice and a call to action. Lots of people end with a quotation, and this can be from someone famous or from you.
- George Saunders said, “Do all the other things, the ambitious things—travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes…but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness.”
- C.S. Lewis told us that “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” So let’s go find them.
Writing a great graduation speech
Beginning with a theme and an outline helps focus your speech, which should make it easier for you to write with clarity and to find the right stories and quotations to use. Telling personal stories that everyone can relate to, sprinkled with humor, is a wonderful way to keep people engaged throughout your speech. And, ending with a bang in the form of an amazing quotation will help inspire your audience and leave them feeling upbeat.
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Laura is a freelance writer and was an ESL teacher for eight years. She was born in the UK and has lived in Australia and Poland, where she writes blogs for Lingoda about everything from grammar to dating English speakers. She’s definitely better at the first one. She loves travelling and that’s the other major topic that she writes on. Laura likes pilates and cycling, but when she’s feeling lazy she can be found curled up watching Netflix. She’s currently learning Polish, and her battle with that mystifying language has given her huge empathy for anyone struggling to learn English. Find out more about her work in her portfolio.