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Anatomy Of A Great Commencement Speech

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Cory Turner

writing a good commencement speech

Right now, roughly 7 million students in the U.S. (plus their parents) are sitting through commencement speeches. iStockphoto hide caption

Right now, roughly 7 million students in the U.S. (plus their parents) are sitting through commencement speeches.

It's that time again — graduation season. And that means next week or last week or right this very minute, some 7 million students in the U.S. and lots of doting parents have to sit through a commencement speech.

If you're stuck listening to a particularly bad one — or just need an inspiration infusion — the NPR Ed Team has sifted through hundreds of past speeches (going all the way back to 1774) and built an online database of the very best.

In the process of building this massive hub of hope and optimism, we noticed a few patterns among the best speeches.

Rule #1: Be Funny

Comedian Amy Poehler's 2011 address to Harvard grads is a model of inspirational fun, forcing us to coin a new term: "Funspirational." Actually, a quick Google search suggests we've come late to the "funspirational" party. Oh, well. We do our best — as did Poehler when she kicked off her Harvard speech with this zinger:

"I can only assume I am here today because of my subtle and layered work in a timeless classic entitled Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. "

Funny? Check. Poehler also manages to cover Rule #2.

Rule #2: Make Fun Of Yourself

This rule applies to presidents as well as to comedians. When then-President Ronald Reagan addressed Notre Dame grads in 1981, he used this masterful bit of self-deprecation:

"I thought the first degree I was given was honorary."

We say "masterful" because he's head of the free world. He can't meet the Poehler bar for self-mockery: utter humiliation. It wouldn't be proper. So he finds this crafty little jab to poke fun at himself. And the crowd loved it. In fact, the line was such a hit that Reagan used it again the next year on the Eureka College class of '82.

writing a good commencement speech

Comedian and actress Amy Poehler addresses Harvard University's graduating class of 2011 on the school's campus, in Cambridge, Mass. Steven Senne/AP hide caption

Comedian and actress Amy Poehler addresses Harvard University's graduating class of 2011 on the school's campus, in Cambridge, Mass.

Rule #3: Downplay The Genre

See, good speakers can never seem to remember the speeches when they graduated:

"Among the many things that I am unable to remember about the speaker that spring morning: name, gender, age, race, physical build and voice. I've run out of fingers."

That's novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, speaking last year at Middlebury College. He, like Poehler, checks two boxes at once: He downplays the genre, and he's funny about it.

But let's get to the heart of the commencement speech:

Rule #4: You Must Have A Message

And here's where things get tricky — because these days there are two very different kinds of speeches. On one side is the traditional message:

"You have to trust in something," Steve Jobs told graduates at Stanford in 2005. "Your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path."

Comedian Ellen DeGeneres said much the same thing to grads at Tulane in 2009 (while also crushing Rule #1 on her head like a beer can):

"Stay true to yourself. Never follow someone else's path — unless you're in the woods and you're lost and you see a path, then by all means you should follow that."

Let's call this the "You're Special" speech. Message: Follow your heart because life is about you and yourspecialness .

Then comes this insidious other kind of speech:

"You're not special."

So said English teacher David McCullough Jr. — son of the great historian — addressing the Wellesley High School class of 2012. He then elaborated:

"Even if you're one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion, that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you," he told the crowd.

The goal of the "You're Not Special" speech is to say to grads: As hard as you've worked, you also lucked into plenty, including your parents and your country.

The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever

The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever

"And with luck comes obligation," author Michael Lewis told the Princeton class of 2012. "You owe a debt, and not just to your gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky."

Not quite the message grads are used to hearing as they take a victory lap. Besides, they're in debt enough. But how do they repay this debt, to Lewis' unlucky?

"You must find a way to serve."

That's Oprah Winfrey's advice, speaking at Spelman College a few weeks before Lewis. Side note: 2012 was a big year for the "You're Not Special" speech.

"Martin Luther King said that not everybody can be famous, but everybody can be great because greatness is determined by service," Winfrey told the Spelman grads.

Service. That word comes up a lot in "You're Not Special" speeches. But, sometimes, the message isn't even about what you do for the world but how you view it. In short: Are you empathetic? Are you kind?

In 2005, writer David Foster Wallace spoke at Kenyon College. And, in a speech that went viral long ago and seems to find a fresh audience online every year, he challenged grads to step outside of themselves, to imagine the value and richness of every life — even when they're stuck in line at the supermarket.

"It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred — on fire with the same force that lit the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down," Wallace said.

Torn by this fight for the soul of the commencement speech? Never fear. Oddly enough, these two kinds of speeches — as different as they seem — complement each other. Taken together, they say:

Congratulations. You are special. Just remember ...

So is everyone else.

Speech Writing

Graduation Speech

Barbara P

Crafting the Perfect Graduation Speech: A Guide with Examples

10 min read

Published on: Mar 12, 2020

Last updated on: Nov 7, 2023

Graduation Speech

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Have you ever stood at the threshold of a new journey, feeling a mix of excitement and uncertainty? 

Well, if you're a soon-to-be graduate, that's probably exactly how you're feeling right now.

The big day is coming, and you're wondering, 'How will I write my speech? Can I ask for speech writing help?

Don’t worry!

In this blog, we're going to tell you how to write a graduation speech for students. Get ready to discover the secrets of crafting a graduation speech that not only captures your audience's attention but also leaves a profound impact on your fellow graduates.

Let's transform that uncertainty into inspiration and confidence as we delve into the art of delivering a speech that will make your graduation day truly unforgettable.

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What is a Graduation Speech?

A graduation speech is the heart of your big day, bringing together all your experiences and achievements. 

It's more than just talking – it's a way to inspire and celebrate. It's not just a tradition. This type of speech is a chance to share what you've learned and dream about the future.

Your graduation speech should include everyone – your friends, the tough times you all faced, and the good times you shared. 

Elements of Graduation Speech

Creating a memorable graduation speech involves several key elements that can help you connect with your audience and make a lasting impression. 

Here are the crucial elements you should consider:

All these elements make a strong and memorable speech and help make your graduation successful.

How to Write a Graduation Speech?

Writing an inspirational graduation speech that stands out isn't as daunting as it may seem. 

With a structured approach and a dash of creativity, you can deliver the best special occasion speech that leaves a lasting impact on your audience. 

Here's a step-by-step guide on how to start a graduation speech and create an inspiring address:

Begin with a Memorable Opening 

Start with an attention-grabbing quote, a personal anecdote, or a thought-provoking question. 

This sets the tone for your speech and captures your audience's interest right from the beginning.

Express Gratitude 

Show appreciation to your teachers, parents, and fellow students. 

Express how their support and contributions have been instrumental in your academic journey. This sets a positive and grateful tone for your speech.

Reflect on Meaningful Moments 

Share personal stories and school experiences that have had a significant impact on your life and the lives of your classmates. 

Use these anecdotes to connect with your audience emotionally.

Offer Words of Inspiration 

Provide words of inspiration and motivation. Encourage your fellow graduates to embrace the future with confidence and courage.

Use stories or quotes to illustrate your points.

Share Practical Advice 

Share life lessons and any advice you've learned during your academic journey. 

Offer insights related to pursuing goals, overcoming challenges, and maintaining a positive outlook on life.

Emphasize Unity and Shared Experiences 

Highlight the importance of unity and the bonds formed with your classmates. 

Emphasize the strength of collective experiences and friendships that have been a significant part of your school life.

Discuss Hopes and Dreams 

Talk about your hopes and dreams for the future, both for yourself and your fellow graduates. Paint a vivid picture of the exciting possibilities that lie ahead.

End with an Inspiring Conclusion 

Conclude your speech with a memorable message that resonates with your audience. 

Leave them with a lasting impression or a call to action that inspires them to take on the future with enthusiasm.

Graduation Speeches From Notable Figures 

Notable figures, from celebrities to accomplished professionals, often deliver inspiring graduation speeches, sharing their wisdom, experiences, and advice with the graduates. 

In this section, we explore some remarkable graduation speeches that have left a lasting impact on audiences worldwide.

Taylor Swift Graduation Speech 

Taylor Swift, the renowned singer-songwriter, delivered an inspiring graduation speech that emphasized embracing change and authenticity. 

Her words have motivated graduates worldwide, making her speech a source of valuable life lessons.

“The times I was told no or wasn’t included, wasn’t chosen, didn’t win, didn’t make the cut…looking back, it really feels like those moments were as important, if not more crucial, than the moments I was told ‘yes.’ …” 

Watch complete graduation speech here: 

Rory Gilmore Graduation Speech 

Rory Gilmore, a beloved fictional character from the TV series "Gilmore Girls," delivered a heartwarming graduation speech that celebrated the value of hard work, ambition, and the pursuit of dreams. 

Her speech remains an iconic moment in the series and a testament to the power of perseverance and ambition.

Watch her graduation speech here:

Ree Drummond - Oklahoma State University 

Ree Drummond, known as "The Pioneer Woman," shared her insights and wisdom in a graduation speech delivered in 2022. 

Her address offers a unique perspective on life, success, and the pursuit of dreams, making it a valuable resource for graduates seeking inspiration and guidance as they set out on their own paths.

Listen to the complete speech in this video:

Steve Jobs - 2005 

Steve Jobs' iconic 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University delivered invaluable life lessons and inspiration. 

His words continue to resonate with graduates and individuals worldwide, offering timeless guidance on pursuing one's passions and creating a meaningful life.

Check out his complete speech in this video: 

Graduation Speech Examples for Students 

Looking for inspiration for your own graduation speech? Here is a short graduation speech:

Read some more diverse graduation speech samples to spark your creativity:

Graduation Speech for Kindergarten - Example

Short Graduation Speech

Graduation Speech for Kids

Graduation Speech For Primary 6

8th Grade Graduation Speech

High School Graduation Speech

Explore a collection of inspiring graduation speeches, each offering a unique perspective on this momentous occasion.

Graduation Speech by Students - Example

Graduation Speech for Parents - Example

Graduation Speech by Teacher - Example

Graduation Speech by Principal- Example

Graduation Speech Thanking Teachers

Graduation Speech Ideas - 2023

Here are some interesting and fun graduation speech ideas.

  • Talk about a current school event.
  • Try something new like poetry or metaphors to make your speech interesting.
  • Tell a story about your class, for example, ‘what was the driving force of the class of 2021?’
  • Use quotes from famous and classic books.
  • Use lyrics from the class anthem.
  • Be inspirational and share an inspirational story.
  • Share a humorous experience.
  • Convey a memorable message.
  • If appropriate, add a song with meaning.
  • Appreciate a fellow classmate or a teacher.
  • Connect your speech with your 1st day at school.
  • Significant events that took place in the school.
  • A professor that made you fall in love with a major subject.
  • The long time you spent in the school library and how it impacted your interactions with other students.
  • Tell me about who inspired you the most in your life.

Graduation Speech Writing Tips 

Crafting a memorable graduation speech can be a rewarding yet challenging task. Here are some essential tips to help you write an impactful and engaging speech for your big day:

  • Know Your Audience: Understanding your audience is crucial to tailor your speech effectively.
  • Start Strong: An attention-grabbing beginning sets the tone for your speech.
  • Tell Personal Stories: Personal anecdotes and experiences create a meaningful connection.
  • Inspire and Motivate: Your speech should encourage confidence about the future.
  • Share Practical Advice: Offering practical life advice adds value to your speech.
  • Embrace Humor: Appropriately used humor can engage your audience.
  • Be Concise: Keeping your speech at an appropriate length is essential to maintain interest.
  • Practice and Rehearse: Preparation ensures confidence in your delivery.
  • End on a High Note: A memorable conclusion leaves a lasting impression.

As you take that first step forward, congratulations on your graduation, and we wish you the best of luck in whatever comes next. We hope this graduation speech guide has given you some pointers for what to say in your speech.

If you need further help, you can avail of our assistance and get your speech before the big day.

At MyPerfectWords.com , one of the best " write my essay services ", we help new graduates make their day memorable by delivering quality speeches.

Buy speech from us and get ready to shine.

Barbara P (Literature, Marketing)

Dr. Barbara is a highly experienced writer and author who holds a Ph.D. degree in public health from an Ivy League school. She has worked in the medical field for many years, conducting extensive research on various health topics. Her writing has been featured in several top-tier publications.

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How to Write a Graduation Speech (Graduation Speech Examples)


Have you been asked to deliver a commencement speech? Or have you worked your butt off to become valedictorian or salutatorian, and now you have to deliver a graduation speech? In this post, we will cover one of the more challenging types of presentation creation: How to Write a Graduation Speech . (By the way, I have also included a few popular graduation speech examples as a guide for you.)

This post is a continuation of our How to Create a Presentation series. We are going to break this post down into three parts, though. We will show you how to create a commencement speech in this post. Next week, I’ll show you how to write a valedictorian speech and how to deliver a salutatorian speech. Each of these graduation speeches has a slightly different purpose, but all of them need to be inspirational and funny.

How to Write a Commencement Speech

The commencement speech is often the keynote speech of the graduation ceremony. This presentation should be uplifting and entertaining, but this graduation speech should also teach a life lesson to the graduating students. If you do a search on YouTube of the best graduation speeches, many of these speakers will be famous comedians. When a comedian delivers a commencement speech, and the speech is posted on YouTube, it will always get a ton of views. The humor alone will make people want to watch the video. Three of the most popular of these speeches are by Conan O’Brien, Will Ferrell, and Ellen DeGeneres. The interesting thing about the speeches from these famous comedians is that, yes, they are funny, but the inspiration comes from what they learned from their failures.

“There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life life trying to push you in another direction.” Oprah Winfrey, Harvard University Commencement Speech

A Good Structure When You Write a Commencement Address

Thank the crowd.


Start with Something Funny

How Humor helps your speech

Be Inspirational

The inspirational part of your commencement speech will come from the theme of the graduation speech . (For Sample Graduation Speech Themes , see the section below.) The easiest way to develop a theme is to look for an inspirational famous quote about success. You can do this by just going to Google and type in “success quotes”. Once you come up with a great quote, you can either paraphrase the quote and make it your own or quote the original speaker.

Inspire others with your speech

Tell Stories from Your Own Experience Related to Your Quote (Theme).

This the most important part of how to write a graduation speech. The stories and examples are what the audience will remember. These stories add emotion and inspiration to your graduation speech. They also help you build rapport with the audience. Finally, these stories make your delivery much easier. You don’t have to memorize a lot of material. Instead, just play the video in your head of what happened and describe the incident to the graduates.

For a great example of this, watch the YouTube video on Stanford University’s channel where Steve Jobs gives the commencement speech. I love this speech, because Jobs skips the introduction and the funny stuff and starts his speech with the following. “I’m going to tell you three stories.” It’s simple, and the crowd loves him.

End with an Inspirational Call to Action.

How to end a graduation speech

So as you go on to the next stage in your life and you experience failure… because you will experience failure, use that as a stepping stone to your next success. Persevere. Don’t rest on that success. Use it as a stepping stone to your next success. Persevere, and you will experience a series of successes and failures that will allow you to accomplish something great!”

Use this outline to create a simple 20 to 30 minute speech. (The shorter the better… No one gets a diploma until you finish.)

Sample Graduation Speech Themes

Inspiration comes from failure

If you are having trouble coming up with a theme for your graduation speech, here are a few Sample Commencement Speech Themes. As you read through them, think about which them or quote has been most applicable in your career? Once you choose a graduation speech them, use the outline above to create your speech.

  • Hard Work Leads to Success
“I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.” — Coleman Cox
  • Create Your Own Path.
“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” — Herman Melville
  • Make Things Happen.
“Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.” — Henry David Thoreau
  • Don’t Settle for Average. Strive for Greatness.
“Don’t be afraid to give up the good to go for the great.” –John D. Rockefeller
  • Don’t Wait for the Perfect Opportunity. Look for a Way to Create Your Own Opportunity.
“Opportunities don’t happen. You create them.” — Chris Grosser/blockquote> The Road Ahead is Hard, But It Leads to Success. “Successful people do what unsuccessful people are not willing to do. Don’t wish it were easier; wish you were better.” — Jim Rohn
  • Focus on Your Dream.
“The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus.” — Bruce Lee
  • Learn from Every Mistake to Move Toward Success.
“Success seems to be connected with action. Successful people keep moving. They make mistakes, but they don’t quit.” — Conrad Hilton
  • When Your Why is Big Enough, Your How Will Appear.
“If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way. If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse.” — Jim Rohn
  • Happiness is the Key to Success.
“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” — Albert Schweitzer

Use the Speech Creator as a Guide to How to Create a Graduation Speech

Once you have chosen a them, and you have a few stories to inspire your audience, use our Online Speech Writer to help you organize your thoughts. (It’s free.)

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  • Craft your speech in minutes—no memorization or notecards needed.
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10 Steps For Writing An Unforgettable Graduation Speech

  • Pick A Theme
  • Begin With Gratitude
  • Motivational Quotes
  • Get Personal
  • Add Your Personality
  • Avoid Cliches
  • Create A Call To Action

School is almost out, but for many students, there’s one more major task to complete before summer: graduation. Whether you’re graduating from high school or earning a college degree, a graduation ceremony is a huge milestone. And, if you’ve been asked to speak at graduation, you might be feeling the pressure right now.

Graduation speeches of all kinds date back to at least the 1600s, and though a lot has changed since then, these kinds of speeches still contain similar key elements that help make them effective, inspiring, and something every graduating student and their loved ones look forward to.

Public speaking can be nerve-racking in any setting, particularly when you know the audience is filled with people’s cousins and grandparents who are likely to remember this day forever, but fear not! We’re here to help with these 10 key steps to follow to write and deliver a truly unforgettable graduation speech.

1. Pick a theme.

If you want the audience to feel moved and inspired by your speech (Who doesn’t, right?), then it helps to build your speech around a central theme or message. Think about what’s important to you as the speaker and what you’d like others to take away from your words. Once you have a theme, it will be easier to select the quotes and anecdotes that tie back to that central idea and create a speech that leaves your audience in awe.

🎓 Here are some popular themes to consider:

  • Embracing failure.
  • Overcoming adversity.
  • The importance of having big dreams.
  • Facing change with grace.
  • Taking responsibility for your future.
  • Learning from past mistakes.
  • The importance of friendship.
  • Becoming a lifelong learner.

2. Begin with gratitude.

When you step up to the mic on graduation day, you’ll need to begin with a few formalities. First, thank the previous speakers, as well as everyone in attendance. Then, express your feelings about the privilege of being asked to address the audience on this momentous occasion. Go ahead and write this part down so you don’t forget to do it on the big day. Here are some examples:

Thank you, [name of previous speaker], and thank you, friends, family, faculty, and fellow graduates for being here today. It’s an honor to celebrate this milestone with you as your valedictorian.

Thank you, [name of previous speaker]. Graduates, loved ones, and distinguished faculty members, it is an honor to be here with you today. I’m so grateful to [name of school or university] for the privilege of being your [type of speaker].

3. Use a motivational quote.

The greatest commencement speeches typically include a motivational quote, whether it’s from a famous person, a beloved teacher, or something your grandfather taught you. The right motivational quote will tie into your theme and serve as a thesis statement for the message you hope the audience will take from your words. Consider these celebrity quotes from other powerful commencement speeches:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” — Steve Jobs , Stanford University, 2005

“You must lead. You’re never too young to lead. You’re never too old to lead. We need your leadership now more than ever before.” — John Lewis , Harvard, 2018

“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.” — Rita Moreno , Northeastern Illinois University, 2015

“Ultimately, your life is made up of moments. So don’t miss them by being lost in the past or anticipating the future.” — Jessica Lange , Sarah Lawrence College, 2008

“You are full of complexities and wonders that haven’t even begun to surface. Life’s unpredictability will draw these out and what defines you now will be mere shades and hues of a more vibrant you over the next five, 10, 50 years. Honestly, I can’t think of anything more liberating than that, knowing that life will look differently than you think it will.” — Octavia Spencer , Kent State University, 2017

4. Get personal.

When Conan O’Brien delivered the commencement speech at Dartmouth University in 2011, he talked about being fired from his dream job and what that failure taught him. Some lauded it as one of the best graduation speeches of all time.

Sharing personal anecdotes, even ones that mention failures or humiliations, is a powerful way to connect with your audience and drive your message home in a personal way. When writing your speech, draw on your experiences as a student and be clear about how those experiences shaped and prepared you for what lies ahead.

Learn how to a sensational graduation card here.

5. Infuse your personality.

Graduation speeches may follow a formula, but that doesn’t mean they need to be boring! Use your personal sense of humor, unique story, and life experiences to give the speech character and charm. What does this look like in action?

In 2016, author John Green brought levity to his commencement speech when shared with the graduating class at Kenyon College that the best life advice he ever got was, “You’re a good kid, but you need to learn when to stop talking.”

At the University of Virginia in 2016, late night host Stephen Colbert joked that people should leave their cell phones on because “I wouldn’t want you to miss a text or a tweet while I’m giving my speech.”

You may not be a famous comedian or author, but being uniquely yourself can help your speech shine.

6. Reflect, then look ahead.

You and the rest of your graduating class are sharing a major life milestone, and you’ve all worked hard to get to this point. What has life been like during your years in school? What experiences have you shared, and how have those shaped you as people moving forward into the next phase of your life?

In your speech, include real-life examples of the things you’ve faced in your time as students. Put those events in context in your life, and remind your audience that you have all learned so much more than just what was on the course syllabi.

7. Avoid clichés

The tricky part of writing a graduation speech is being inspiring without resorting to clichés. If you use personal anecdotes and weave personality into your speech, it’s unlikely that you’ll fall back on tired, overused statements. But, sometimes they still sneak in. If that’s the case, try to swap them out with a fresher take.

Here are some ideas:

  • Instead of talking about the “real world” as a future destination, talk about how you already live there and you’re ready for whatever life throws at you.
  • Instead of defining a typical graduation word (like courage or future ), talk about the words that come to mind when you think about school and what they mean to you.
  • Instead of talking about what you’re “leaving behind,” talk about what lessons and people you’re taking with you.

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8. Create a call to action.

Graduation speeches serve two important purposes: celebrating everything that came before graduation day and building excitement for everything that will come after it. The easiest way to leave people inspired is to include a call to action. This doesn’t mean providing strict instructions for some task they must complete. Think of it more as broad instructions for how to meet the challenges ahead.

Your call to action should restate the theme of your speech and give the audience a clear takeaway message to carry with them. Need some examples? We have a few:

“Whatever you want to do, do it now. For life is time, and time is all there is.” — Gloria Steinem , Tufts University, 1987

“Let excellence be your brand.” — Oprah Winfrey , Spelman College, 2012

“Fight for the job you want, fight for the people who mean the most to you and fight for the kind of world you want to live in.” — Elizabeth Warren , Suffolk University, 2016

9. Keep it brief.

While you surely have a lot of great things to say, no one wants to sit through a 12-page speech. Graduation ceremonies are already long, and the audience is usually asked to listen to multiple speeches. Keep this in mind, and say what you’d like to say in the briefest way possible. Aim for a speech that falls between 500 and 750 words, and time yourself to make sure you don’t exceed 10 minutes during delivery.

10. Practice, practice, practice.

The only way to ensure your speech flows, makes sense, and holds people’s attention is to practice reading it out loud. Practice by yourself in front of a mirror, being careful to notice and edit any places where you trip over words or have awkward pauses. Once you’ve perfected the solo read-aloud, ask a parent or friend to serve as an audience. This will help you test out your jokes and polish your anecdotes based on their reactions. By graduation day, you’ll be ready to take to the stage like a pro.

Need more inspiration? These graduation quotes should do the trick.

writing a good commencement speech

Ways To Say

Synonym of the day

This writer analyzed 100 graduation speeches — here are the 4 tips they all share

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writing a good commencement speech

Steve Jobs has been credited over the years with popularizing any number of other people’s inventions, from the personal computer to the tablet to the mobile phone. But none of these gifts may be as enduring as one of his rarely credited contributions to contemporary life — popularizing the viral commencement address.

On June 12, 2005, Jobs stood before the graduating class of Stanford University and reminded them that he had never graduated from college. “Truth be told, this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation.” He then told three stories about his life. “That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.”

That speech , coinciding as it did with the rise of internet virality (the first TED Talk would be posted on TED.com exactly 12 months later; the iPhone was introduced exactly 12 months after that), launched a global obsession with pithy, inspirational talks. Jobs’s speech has since been viewed more than 40 million times on YouTube.

Graduation speeches, long viewed as the burdensome interruption before diplomas were granted and mortar boards were tossed, have since become big business. Kurt Vonnegut, Ann Patchett, Carl Hiaasen, J.K. Rowling, Mary Karr, David Foster Wallace and many others have all had their commencement speeches published as books.

I’ve been fortunate to give a handful of commencement addresses over the years, and I confess to a fascination with the genre. The internet has been a boon this hobby. There are thousands of commencement speeches on the web. Can we learn anything from their messages?

I’ve spent the last few years gathering and coding hundreds of life stories, looking for patterns and takeaways that could help all of us live with more meaning, purpose and joy. I decided to put some of my coding tools to work, analyzing 100 of the most popular recent commencement speeches.

Here are the four tips they all contain:

1. Dream big

“I think it is often easier to make progress on mega-ambitious dreams. I know that sounds completely nuts. But, since no one else is crazy enough to do it, you have little competition. There are so few people this crazy that I feel like I know them all by first name. They all travel as if they are pack dogs and stick to each other like glue. The best people want to work the big challenges.” — Larry Page at University of Michigan , 2009

“We don’t beat the reaper by living longer. We beat the reaper by living well and living fully. For the reaper is always going to come for all of us. The question is: What do we do between the time we are born, and the time he shows up? Because when he shows up, it’s too late to do all the things that you’re always gonna, kinda get around to.” — Randy Pausch at Carnegie Mellon University , 2009

“Graduates, we need you. We need you to run companies and make decisions about who has access to capital. We need you to serve at the highest levels of government and determine our country’s standing in the world. We need you to work in our hospitals and in our courtrooms and in our schools. We need you to shape the future of technology. We need you because your perspective — the sum total of your intellect and your lived experience — will make our country stronger.” — Kamala Harris at Tennessee State University , 2022

2. Work hard

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.” — Steve Jobs at Stanford University , 2005

“I just directed my first film. I was completely unprepared, but my own ignorance to my own limitations looked like confidence and got me into the director’s chair. Once there, I had to figure it all out, and my belief that I could handle these things, contrary to all evidence of my ability to do so was half the battle. The other half was very hard work. The experience was the deepest and most meaningful one of my career.” — Natalie Portman at Harvard University , 2015

“When you’re doing the work you’re meant to do, it feels right and every day is a bonus, regardless of what you’re getting paid … But make it your life’s work to remake the world because there is nothing more beautiful or more worthwhile than working to leave something better for humanity.” — Oprah Winfrey at Stanford University , 2008

3. Make mistakes

”Fail big. That’s right. Fail big … It’s a new world out there, and it’s a mean world out there, and you only live once. So do what you feel passionate about. Take chances, professionally. Don’t be afraid to fail. There’s an old IQ test with nine dots, and you had to draw five lines with a pencil within these nine dots without lifting the pencil, and the only way to do it was to go outside the box. So don’t be afraid to go outside the box.” — Denzel Washington at University of Pennsylvania , 2011

“The world doesn’t care how many times you fall down, as long as it’s one fewer than the number of times you get back up.” — Aaron Sorkin at Syracuse University , 2013

“My experience has been that my mistakes led to the best thing in my life. Being embarrassed when you mess up is part of the human experience of getting back up dusting yourself off and seeing who still wants to hang out with you afterward and laugh about it. That’s a gift. The times I was told no or wasn’t included wasn’t chosen, didn’t win, didn’t make the cut, looking back it really feels like those moments we’re as important if not more crucial than the moments I was told yes.” — Taylor Swift at NYU , 2022

“Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.” — Conan O’Brien at Dartmouth College , 2011

“Empathy and kindness are the true signs of emotional intelligence.” — Will Ferrell at the University of Southern California , 2017

“So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it: What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly. Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth? Those who were kindest to you, I bet. It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.” — George Saunders at Syracuse University , 2013

So what can we learn from these themes?

Every era in American life has its own standards of what it means to be a success. Shortly after America’s founding, success was all about character. Led by Benjamin Franklin, Americans embraced virtue, industry, and frugality. In the twentieth century, success was all about personality. Led by Dale Carnegie, Americans embraced salesmanship, reinvention and charisma. Today, led by Steve Jobs, Americans are embracing meaning, authenticity and bliss. Or, as Kermit the Frog put it in a 1996 commencement speech at Southampton College , “May success and a smile always be yours … even when you’re knee-deep in the sticky muck of life.”

Dream, work, fail and smile are as good a foursome of American identity today as I know. And if those ideas don’t inspire you, you can always embrace the far more practical advice erroneously attributed to Kurt Vonnegut in a commencement speech that he never gave at MIT, but was instead delivered by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich in an imaginary speech to graduates she published in an old-fashioned newspaper, “Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97: Wear sunscreen.”

This post was adapted from one published on his newsletter The Nonlinear Life; go here to subscribe.

Watch his TEDxIEMadrid Talk now:

About the author

Bruce Feiler is the author of seven New York Times bestsellers, including The Secrets of Happy Families and Council of Dads, both of which became the subject of TED Talks. His latest book, Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age, from which this post and TEDx Talk are adapted, describes his journey across America, collecting hundreds of life stories, exploring how we can navigate life’s growing number of transitions with more meaning, purpose and joy. To learn more, visit brucefeiler.com, follow him on Twitter (@brucefeiler), or sign up for his newsletter The Nonlinear Life. 

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6 Secrets to Writing a Memorable Graduation Speech, Even If You've Never Done It Before

If you're facing writer's block, get inspired by these essential graduation speech ideas.

Nora Horvath is an editor and writer with nearly a decade of experience covering lifestyle. Highlights: * Editorial intern at Prevention * Assistant editor at Real Simple * Associate features editor at Food Network Magazine and The Pioneer Woman Magazine * Senior editor at Weber Shandwick

writing a good commencement speech

Maggie Seaver is the digital health and wellness editor at Real Simple, with seven years of experience writing lifestyle and wellness content. She spends her days writing and editing stories about sleep, mental health, fitness, preventive health, nutrition, personal development, relationships, healthy habits, and beyond. She loves demystifying complicated health topics, debunking wellness fads, and sharing practical, science-backed solutions for healthy living.

writing a good commencement speech

It's not easy to give advice to your peers, and it's even harder to do it in front of a room full of their friends and relatives at college graduation (or high school, middle school, or elementary school, for that matter). Whether you were chosen to speak at the commencement podium because of your top-of-class grades or were elected class speaker because of your charisma, there are probably countless memories, tidbits of wisdom, and funny one-liners you want to include. And after what seems like 100 other speakers, you want to grab people's attention—not put them to sleep.

Since you're also graduating, you don't need to use this time to answer all of life's existential questions, although you might feel like trying. After all, you're still figuring it out yourself. Instead, talk about what you know, reflect on the big memories you share with your fellow classmates, and use our tips below to write the most memorable speech of the day.

Gather Inspiration

Before you start writing, find inspiration from some of the most memorable high school and college graduation speeches in history. NPR put together a database of over 350 speeches , categorized by message, school, and speaker's name, so it's the perfect resource for graduation speech ideas about where to start. (If you're looking for something unconventional, try watching David McCullough Jr.'s speech from Wellesley High School in 2012.) And don't forget about celebrities you love: read through the most encouraging quotes from famous graduation speeches to spark inspiration for your own address.

Give It Structure

All engaging stories have a beginning, middle, and end—think of your graduation speech the same way. Be thoughtful about how you open your speech to grab people's attention, how you plan to keep their attention throughout, and finally, how you'll tie it all together with a neat, closing message. Giving a speech structure won't make it boring or formulaic—it'll make it easier for your audience to follow (and for you to deliver it).

Stick With a Theme

If you're trying to string together a bunch of quotes that have nothing to do with one another, you're going to confuse your audience more than inspire them. Find one core message or a theme that really resonates, and build the rest of your graduation speech around it.

Keep It Short

There's nothing worse then sitting in a hot auditorium or tent outside while listening to someone ramble on endlessly. At most, people will remember one funny joke, a great anecdote, or the general message, so cut out extra fluff and only include the parts you think are the most important.

Practice Out Loud (and Often)

As Richard T. Jones showed us in his infamous speech at University of Maryland University College in 2011, improvisation is not the way to go when you're supposed to be giving people advice on one of the most important days of their lives. Make sure you actually write a speech—and practice it out loud—so you don't end up repeating the same idea over and over again.

Infuse Your Personality

In 2016, Harvard University graduate Donovan Livingston did his commencement speech in spoken-word poetry , an interest of his. Though his message touched on common grad themes—the power of education in the world, following your passions with your degree, and reaching for the stars—his delivery also changed the way people heard these ideas. Not all speeches need to be straight-forward and full of classic Robert Frost quotes. If you highlight your strengths and talk about things that make you excited—in other words, if you be yourself—people will listen.

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10 Great College Commencement Speeches

portrait of Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.

Editor & Writer

writing a good commencement speech

Each spring, college students face one final hurdle, one last lecture standing between them and freedom: the commencement speech. Speakers range from the world-famous to the virtually unknown. Some require an exorbitant fee for their appearance, often in addition to an honorary degree. But most charge nothing and are happy for the opportunity to share whatever pearls of life-tempered wisdom they might have.

The majority of commencement addresses are utterly forgettable, offering familiar refrains and failing to reach beyond well-worn platitudes . But every now and then a speech excites, inspires, and sticks in the minds of graduates long after the ceremony concludes. It's usually because of the quality or stature of the speaker, the circumstances under which the speech is delivered, or the power of the message — or all of the above. Some speeches may not seem memorable in the moment but become so over time.

Choosing the "best" college commencement speeches is like choosing the best colors: It's largely subjective. Here, though, are 10 notable examples that deserve our attention, along with some honorable and special mentions.

Chadwick Boseman, Howard University, 2018

Actor Chadwick Boseman spoke at his alma mater just two years before his untimely death. He praised student protesters and encouraged graduates to find a purpose, not just a job.

Favorite quote : "Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember, the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose."

Abby Wambach, Barnard College, 2018

An Olympic and World Cup soccer champion, Wambach challenged graduates at this women's college not to be Little Red Riding Hood, head down and fearfully staying on the path, but to be the wolf.

Favorite quote : "Women are feared as a threat to our system — and we will also be our society's salvation. Our landscape is overrun with archaic ways of thinking about women, about people of color, about the 'other,' about the rich and the poor, about the powerful and the powerless — and these ways of thinking are destroying us. We are the ones we've been waiting for."

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Wellesley College, 2015

The Nigerian-born author and MacArthur Fellowship winner spoke about gender injustice at this women's college.

Favorite quote : "Do not twist yourself into shapes to please. Don't do it. If someone likes that version of you, that version of you that is false and holds back, then they actually just like that twisted shape, and not you. And the world is such a gloriously multifaceted, diverse place that there are people in the world who will like you, the real you, as you are."

Shonda Rhimes, Dartmouth College, 2014

Rhimes, a television producer and showrunner, returned to her alma mater to offer thoughts on the differences between dreaming and doing.

Favorite quote : "Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams. Fleeting, ephemeral, pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It's hard work that makes things happen. It's hard work that creates change."

George Saunders, Syracuse University, 2013

In an address on " failures of kindness ," the writer and Syracuse professor exhorted students to treat others with kindness while pursuing life goals.

Favorite quote : "Do all the other things, the ambitious things — travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) — but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness."

Ellen DeGeneres, Tulane University, 2009

While peppered with her trademark humor ("commencement," broken down, means "common cement") DeGeneres' speech had a serious message about courage and loss, referencing her decision come out on national television and the aftermath.

Favorite quote : "Really, when I look back on it, I wouldn't change a thing. I mean, it was so important for me to lose everything because I found out what the most important thing is, is to be true to yourself. Ultimately, that's what's gotten me to this place. I don't live in fear, I'm free; I have no secrets and I know I'll always be OK because no matter what, I know who I am."

Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005

Apple's co-founder was confronting his own mortality when he delivered this famous speech about making sense of life and death.

Favorite quote : "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College, 2005

The prolific author, who would take his own life three years later, delivered a speech titled " This is Water ," an exploration of the true value of a liberal arts education.

Favorite quote : "The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: 'This is water.'"

Bono, University of Pennsylvania, 2004

U2's lead singer began his talk by saying, "My name is Bono, and I am a rock star." He then discussed the challenges facing Africa and reflected on each individual's potential to change the world.

Favorite quote : "Sing the melody line you hear in your own head. Remember, you don't owe anybody any explanations, you don't owe your parents any explanations, you don't owe your professors any explanations. You know, I used to think the future was solid or fixed, something you inherited like an old building that you move into when the previous generation moves out or gets chased out. But it's not. The future is not fixed. It's fluid."

John F. Kennedy, American University, 1963

Just months before his assassination, President Kennedy spoke about world peace against the backdrop of the Cold War and the burgeoning arms race.

Favorite quote : "I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on Earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children. Not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women. Not merely peace in our time but peace for all time."

Honorable Mentions

  • Taylor Swift , New York University, 2022 "In your life, you will inevitably misspeak, trust the wrong person, underreact, overreact, hurt the people who didn't deserve it, overthink, not think at all, self-sabotage, create a reality where only your experience exists, ruin perfectly good moments for yourself and others, deny any wrongdoing, not take the steps to make it right, feel very guilty, let the guilt eat at you, hit rock bottom, finally address the pain you caused, try to do better next time, rinse, repeat."
  • Barack Obama , Howard University, 2016 "Change is the effort of committed citizens who hitch their wagons to something bigger than themselves and fight for it every single day."
  • Peter Dinklage , Bennington College, 2012 "Raise the rest of your life to meet you. Don't search for defining moments because they will never come."
  • Jane Lynch , Smith College, 2012 "Don't have a plan. Plans are for wusses. If my life went according to my plan, I would never ever have the life I have today."
  • Stephen Colbert , Northwestern University, 2011 "No more winning. Instead, try to love others and serve others and hopefully find those who love and serve you in return."

Special Mention

Various Speakers , Colleges and High Schools Nationwide, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic robbed the class of 2020 of its graduation ceremonies, along with all the festivities throughout the spring leading up to that momentous occasion. To help graduates celebrate virtually, numerous celebrities, politicians, business leaders, musicians, and sports stars offered words of congratulations and inspiration via online commencement "events."

Robert Smith , Morehouse College, 2019

Billionaire investor Robert Smith shocked the audience by announcing his intent to pay off the student loan debt of the graduating class. That gesture resulted in a $34 million donation.

George Marshall , Harvard University, 1947

Not especially memorable for its poetry, Secretary of State George Marshall's speech at Harvard introduced the European Recovery Program, a comprehensive effort to rebuild Europe after World War II. It became known as the Marshall Plan .

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How to Write the Best Commencement Speech – Tips & Examples

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Amanda Green was born in a small town in the west of Scotland, where everyone knows everyone. I joined the Toastmasters 15 years ago, and I served in nearly every office in the club since then. I love helping others gain confidence and skills they can apply in every day life.

So, the school principal announced that you’d graduate as the class valedictorian. She also asked you to prepare a commencement speech to send off your classmates with wisdom.

Your commencement speech makes up a substantial part of the graduation ceremony, so you have to make it worth your audience’s while. Here’s a complete guide on how to write a commencement speech with examples.

The Purpose of a Commencement Speech

writing a good commencement speech

The purpose of a high school or college commencement speech is to celebrate past experiences from the school and look forward to the future. This is usually given by a graduate. But in some schools, celebrities, politicians, and other notable people also give commencement speeches at graduations.

Like any other speech, a commencement speech also includes an introduction, body, and conclusion. But the body should discuss the following:

  • Past memories at school
  • The present (graduation ceremony)
  • Future dreams and plans

How to Give a Good Commencement Speech

Here are some senior speech ideas and tips to prepare you for graduation.

Pick a Theme

To make your graduation speech more significant to your fellow graduates, try building it around a central message or theme. What do you think is essential to your classmates? Here are some examples.

  • Embracing failures in life
  • Following your dreams and working for them
  • Education is the key to success
  • Learning from your mistakes
  • Keeping your friendship
  • Lifelong learning
  • The importance of having big dreams
  • Building a community dedicated to wisdom
  • Overcoming adversity
  • Facing change with grace
  • Taking responsibility for your future
  • Staying grateful

Once you have picked a theme, it will be easier to outline your address. It’s also more convenient to select the best quotes and stories associated with the idea.

Can We Write Your Speech?

Get your audience blown away with help from a professional speechwriter. Free proofreading and copy-editing included.

For example, share stories about your hardships in school if you’re talking about overcoming adversity. Then, research quotes that talk about not giving up.

Start By Thanking Everyone

Learning how to start a commencement speech is essential to catch the audience’s attention. Before sharing life goals, life advice, and your favorite story, begin by thanking the people for their time.

Show appreciation to the graduation class for making it to the end of their high school or college experience. Thank the parents and teachers for their support and everyone for being present at the commencement ceremony.

Another nice thing to do is publicly thank a specific person. Think about a person who helped you at school. Below is an example.

“Thank you, Mr. Smith, for that wonderful speech, and thanks to all the parents, teachers, classmates, and everyone in this room for attending the 56th commencement ceremonies of St. Jude High School. But most of all, I would like to thank my mom for being present today and in every important event of my life.”

Don’t Make It All About You

Valedictorians are usually tasked to give commencement speeches because they represent the whole class. If you’re the valedictorian, congratulations on being on top. But that doesn’t mean you’ll speak only about yourself onstage.

No one wants to hear about why you made it to the podium and the rest of your classmates didn’t. Remember that you represent them. So, you have to speak about them, too.

Talk about your incredible peers and other notable people in high school or college. Share their personal experiences if they allow you. But you can still include personal stories and observations from high school. Balance is key! Consider this example.

“Today, Regis High School has produced another batch of successful graduates. You are the Class of 2022. You finished high school at a historical time. You are born educated in technology… born to be problem solvers… and born to change the world.”

Introduce Yourself

Being the class valedictorian doesn’t mean everyone in the room will instantly know you. For instance, some of your classmates’ parents might not be familiar with your face. You might also need to introduce yourself to VIPs and special guests at the event.

Your self-introduction doesn’t have to be complicated. State your name and why you were chosen to give the speech. For example:

“Good afternoon, everyone. I am Reena Guerrero, Class 2022’s valedictorian.”

Watch Famous Speeches

You can learn a lot from watching famous commencement speeches on YouTube or listening to them on different applications.

Also, consider watching other types of insightful speeches so you can receive guidance on speech writing. Or watch a hilarious speech so you can take inspiration from their jokes.

But make sure to refrain from copying even a single sentence of the speech. Otherwise, you can get accused of plagiarism. Live your life with integrity and understand that your educational experience differs from the speaker you’re watching.

Reflect on the Past

Make your graduation speech memorable by looking back on your favorite memories with the incredible student body. Consider fun memories like your prom, homecoming, and other parties. But make sure these stories are relevant to your theme.

For example, if you have a primary message about courage, talk about classmates who never gave up on a group project. Share a story about a school organization that stood up to bullying.

Recognize your strong friend for continuing his studies despite challenges. This is also the right time to thank a special teacher for being a compassionate person.

After taking a trip down memory lane, it’s time to focus on the future. Imagine your classmates’ next career step and everyone’s professional life after school. Don’t leave them sad about the past. Make them excited about their future. Below is an example.

“North Salem High School was a rollercoaster of experiences. We went through so much during the last four years. We often debated trivial situations, such as basketball games and prom dresses. But despite the fighting, we’ve always known we had each other’s backs. No one leaves the class until everyone understands the lesson. No one also gets left behind in terms of all the fun!”

Use a Motivational Quote

Your graduation speech is an opportunity to insert your favorite quotes. Make sure they still align with your key messages.

Famous Quotes from Business Leaders and Other Public Figures

writing a good commencement speech

“If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.” – Fred DeVito “The future rewards those who press on. I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself. I don’t have time to complain. I’m going to press on.” – Barack Obama “If you want to be the best, you have to do things other people aren’t willing to do.” – Michael Phelps “Keep your face toward the sunshine and shadows will always fall behind you.” – Walt Whitman “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” – Arleen Lorrance

Hilarious Quotes for College Students

“I’m sick of following my dreams. I’m just going to ask them where they’re goin’, and hook up with them later.” – Mitch Hedberg “The best advice I can give anybody about going out into the world is this: Don’t do it. I have been out there. It is a mess.” – Russell Baker “The main difference for you, between life yesterday and life tomorrow, is you can go to the bathroom whenever you want. It’s a pretty big responsibility, but you’ve earned it.” – Eugene Mirman “Life is an improvisation. You have no idea what’s going to happen next, and you are mostly just making things up as you go along.” – Stephen Colbert “So be wise, because the world needs more wisdom. And if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave as they would.” – Neil Gaiman

Create a Call to Action

One of the best graduation speech ideas during the graduation ceremony is to motivate your classmates to chase the real dream. For example, convince those attending medical school to heal poor communities. If you have classmates pursuing liberal arts education, ask them to uplift marginalized sectors, such as immigrant communities.

Inspire Your Fellow Graduates

While the school’s already out, you still have a huge task to finish: your commencement speech. Writing one for your graduation ceremony is both an honor and a responsibility, so make sure to prepare in advance.

Public speaking can be challenging. But I hope these tips and examples help you write the best commencement speech.

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6 tips to write a great graduation speech (with examples) 

6 tips to write a great graduation speech (with examples) 

Updated November 24, 2022

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. 

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 .

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Guide to Writing an Excellent Commencement Speech

Table of Contents

Graduation is a key part of any person’s life. It is a transition from academic life to a more vital stage, be it higher education or professional life. As with all forms of change, the transition can be a scary phase. Learning  how to write a commencement speech  is crucial to any authority figure.

Not only is it a way to calm the nerves of graduates, but it’s also an opportunity to inspire a new generation. If you want to master the art of writing an impactful speech, read on. 

What is a Commencement Speech?

 It is an inspiring address given to graduating students to motivate and encourage them as they transition into the next stage of their lives. It provides insight into success, offers advice for challenges, and encourages graduates to pursue their passions. 

A good commencement speaker utilizes anecdotes from personal experiences, humor, and powerful language to captivate the audience and impart a timeless message. 

The writer’s expertise can be demonstrated by presenting pertinent facts alongside humorous stories to drive home key points. 

Using uncommon words, he can create an impactful narrative that resonates with the audience and remains memorable well beyond the moment of delivery.

Esteemed leaders usually give commencement speeches not just because of their authority.

The Significance of a Commencement Speech

 A commencement speech is an important opportunity to advise and guide those beginning a new chapter in their lives . As such, you should craft your speeches carefully and imbue them with the speaker’s experience and wisdom. A commencement speech serves as both a source of knowledge and a vehicle for inspiring others. 

Personal experiences and examples relevant to the audience allow the speaker to impart essential lessons that will help guide graduates into their future. 

Commencement speeches are significant to the audience because they help mold and direct the potential in each individual. The following section will show readers how to write a moving commencement speech.

group of fresh graduates students throwing their academic hat in the air

How to Write a Commencement Speech

Prepare thoroughly.

Before starting to write a commencement speech, take time to research and reflect on the topic. Gather as much information as possible about the school’s culture, values, and goals so that you can incorporate these elements into your address. Additionally, preparation is essential because it grants you the confidence needed for effective delivery.

Choose your ideas carefully, and make sure to keep your speech short and inspirational. Long speeches tend to be tedious. 

Invoke Emotion

Try to evoke emotions in your audience while maintaining professionalism. Emotional stories, inspiring quotes, and anecdotes are great ways to engage listeners with your message. Few things can move people the same way that emotions do.

Emotions also make your speech more memorable. Many principles of Psychology point out that people are likelier to remember the feelings introduced by an experience than specific details. 

Speak From Personal Experience

To make your words more meaningful and authentic, draw upon personal experiences. For example, share moments of success or lessons learned along the way that demonstrates your knowledge and insight.

Personal anecdotes come across as authentic and credible, thus creating a deeper connection with your audience. 

Balance Humor and Seriousness

While it’s important to keep things lighthearted, remember to be serious. Use well-crafted jokes and humorous comments when appropriate but avoid going off-topic. Again, it’s a matter of tact and context. 

End with a Powerful Closing Statement

After delivering an impactful message, end strong by tying together all of your points. A memorable conclusion will inspire and motivate audiences, thus fulfilling the main purpose of your speech.

Sample Commencement Speech

Good morning everyone, and congratulations to the Class of 2021! Today is a day for celebrating all that you have achieved. However, as someone who experienced the hardships, successes, and lessons life can bring, I want to leave you with some key advice. 

 First, be bold in your endeavors and take calculated risks. Life is full of challenges, but don’t let them paralyze you; look for opportunities to grow. As Teddy Roosevelt said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Second, don’t just strive to succeed – strive to learn. By proactively seeking out knowledge and wisdom, you’ll reap the rewards far beyond those of monetary gain. Finally, never forget the power of self-reflection and introspection. In an age of immediacy, it’s easy to get caught up in distractions. Take time to observe yourself objectively, so you can identify areas of improvement and further develop personally. 

 I am confident that each one of you will make use of these values and go forth to achieve greatness. Thank you, and congratulations once again – my heartiest felicitations to the Class of 2021!

A commencement speech is a structured message that imparts wisdom and words of comfort to graduates . Effective speeches can leave lasting impressions and may even influence the outlook and behavior of your audience. This is why you must learn how to write a commencement speech.

The same principles apply if you’re writing a graduation speech for college or high school graduates. Use these tips to set an example for a younger audience.

Guide to Writing an Excellent Commencement Speech

Abir Ghenaiet

Abir is a data analyst and researcher. Among her interests are artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural language processing. As a humanitarian and educator, she actively supports women in tech and promotes diversity.

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16 Best Graduation Speeches That Leave a Lasting Impression

By Kristi Kellogg and Noor Brara

Listen to words of wisdom from the best graduation speeches.

Some of the most impactful and inspiring sentiments are shared during graduation speeches delivered by the leaders we look up to. Graduation speeches from celebrities , entrepreneurs, authors and other influential thinkers are motivational, inspiring, thought-provoking and just might make you reach for the nearest tissue. After four years of hard work, stress, and exhausting self-discovery, lucky graduates are privy to a life-changing speech to top it all off.

Here, we rounded up up 16 of the best graduation speeches of all time, including words of wisdom from Natalie Portman, Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and more.

1. Steve Jobs: Stanford, 2005

"You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it."

2. Michelle Obama: Tuskegee University, 2015

"I've found that this journey has been incredibly freeing. Because no matter what happened, I had the piece of mind knowing that all of the chatter, the name-calling, the doubting...all of it was just noise. It did not define me, it didn't change who I was, and most importantly, it couldn't hold me back."

3. Natalie Portman: Harvard, 2015

"I just directed my first film. I was completely unprepared, but my own ignorance to my own limitations looked like confidence and got me into the director's chair. Once there, I had to figure it all out, and my belief that I could handle these things, contrary to all evidence of my ability to do so was half the battle. The other half was very hard work. The experience was the deepest and most meaningful one of my career."

4. Amy Poehler: Harvard University, 2011

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"What I have discovered is this: You can't do it alone … Listen. Say 'yes.' Live in the moment. Make sure you play with people who have your back. Make big choices early and often."

5. Meryl Streep: Barnard College, 2010

"This is your time and it feels normal to you but really there is no normal. There's only change, and resistance to it and then more change."

6. David Foster Wallace: Kenyon College, 2005

"Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master."

7. Barack Obama: Howard University, 2016

"You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. I’ll repeat that. I want you to have passion, but you have to have a strategy. Not just awareness, but action. Not just hashtags, but votes."

8. Kerry Washington: George Washington University, 2013

"You and you alone are the only person who can live the life that can write the story that you were meant to tell."

9. Conan O'Brien: Dartmouth College, 2011

"There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized. Today I tell you that whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality … Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen."

10. J.K. Rowling: Harvard, 2008

"I stopped pretending to be anything than what I was. My greatest fear had been realized. I had an old typewriter and a big idea. Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life."

11. Oprah Winfrey: Harvard University, 2013

"Learn from every mistake because every experience, encounter, and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you and force you into being more who you are. And then figure out what is the next right move. And the key to life is to develop an internal moral, emotional G.P.S. that can tell you which way to go."

12. Joss Whedon: Wesleyan University, 2013

"You have, which is a rare thing, that ability and the responsibility to listen to the dissent in yourself, to at least give it the floor, because it is the key—not only to consciousness–but to real growth. To accept duality is to earn identity. And identity is something that you are constantly earning. It is not just who you are. It is a process that you must be active in. It's not just parroting your parents or the thoughts of your learned teachers. It is now more than ever about understanding yourself so you can become yourself."

13. George Saunders: Syracuse University, 2013

"Do all the other things, the ambitious things … Travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop)—but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness."

14. Nora Ephron: Wellesley College, 1996

"Be the heroine of your life, not the victim."

15. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Wellesley College, 2015

"As you graduate, as you deal with your excitement and your doubts today, I urge you to try and create the world you want to live in. Minister to the world in a way that can change it. Minister radically in a real, active, practical, get your hands dirty way."

16. Admiral William H. McRaven: University of Texas at Austin, 2014

"If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can't do the little things right, you will never do the big things right."

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Commencement Speech Examples (PDF)

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  • Ceremonial Speech Examples & PDF
  • Speech Outline Examples

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Why is it Called a Commencement Speech?

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How to Write a Commencement Speech

1. acknowledge notable people, 2. congratulate the students, 3. share some wisdom, 4. leave them with a challenge, sample commencement speech.

sample commencement speech

Commencement Speech Example

commencement speech example

College Commencement Speech

college commencement speech

Standard Commencement Speech

standard commencement speech

Superintendent Commencement Speech

superintendent commencement speech

Commencement Speech Format

commencement speech format

How to Give a Great Commencement Speech

  • It is important that before you write and deliver your speech, you must first know your audience. The audience in the commencement ceremony is comprised of professionals and lay persons. With it’s diversity comes a large threat of offending someone with the words you say. Always get to know who are you talking to to avoid offending and becoming an awful commencement speaker.
  • You should be able to fully understand what the ceremony is about and what it’s not. Your speech must be uplifting and inspiring to the students. Do not talk about yourself too much; it’s okay to use your experiences as reference for some words of wisdom but don’t overdo it. The ceremony is not about you, but it’s about the graduates and their guests.
  •  Avoid controversial topics such as religion, race, creed, sexual orientation, political opinions, negative view of other professions etc. These topics and so much more can cause conflict and controversy. Different people have different opinions about these topics, so it is much better to leave it as is. Like how you normally avoid it in normal conversations, it is more likely if you don’t talk about it in your speech as well.
  • Balance the serious with the humorous. Don’t overdo by sounding like a hip and happy person as forcing it can easily can become annoying. Plus, the main goal of your speech is to inspire and challenge the graduates in their new journey.
  • Don’t dwell in the past and don’t get too technical. A little bit of history about the university and profession is acceptable but too much of it, as of everything else, blurs the message. If you want to share some technicalities, make sure you use terms that lay persons can understand.
  •  It is distasteful and inappropriate to talk about success in terms of money or high volume practices. Such talk contradicts the virtue that success is not measured by material things but how others react and respond to a person.
  • Finally, keep it short and simple. Long speeches end up being forgotten; short but insightful speeches are remembered even after the ceremony itself. Five to 10 minutes is just about the right duration for a speech. Speakers who carefully choose their words, who quickly gets to the point, and concludes enthusiastically are greatly appreciated during times like this.

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Student Reflection Commencement Speech

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Commencement Speech Guidelines

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writing a good commencement speech

How to write a great graduation speech

writing a good commencement speech

Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology

  • By Edwin Battistella
  • May 10 th 2015

It’s graduation time at many of the nation’s schools and colleges. The commencement ceremony is a great exhalation for all involved and an annual rite of passage celebrating academic achievements. Commencement ceremonies typically feature a visiting dignitary who offers a few thousand inspirational words.

Over the years, I’ve heard more of these speeches than I care to admit and have made my own checklist of suggestions for speakers. For those of you giving commencement speeches or listening to them, here’s my advice:

1. Be just funny enough

The best speakers are knowingly wry and a bit self-deprecating. Here’s Michael Bloomberg, opening his 2014 Harvard Commencement address, with a typical opening:

I’m excited to be here, not only to address the distinguished graduates and alumni at Harvard University’s 363rd commencement but to stand in the exact spot where Oprah stood last year. OMG.

Compare that with President Kennedy, speaking at Yale in 1962, who invoked the Cambridge-New Haven rivalry to tease his hosts a bit:

Let me begin by expressing my appreciation for the very deep honor that you have conferred upon me. As General de Gaulle occasionally acknowledges America to be the daughter of Europe, so I am pleased to come to Yale, the daughter of Harvard. It might be said now that I have the best of both worlds, a Harvard education and a Yale degree.

Then again, presidents can get away with that sort of thing, but most speakers can’t.

2. Be like Shakespeare


Keep the diversity of your audience in mind. You are speaking to students, but the students are not all the same.  There are honor students—summa, magna, and cum laude–as well as those who are still sweating out a few grades. You are also speaking to families and to the university faculty.  Shakespeare had that same problem—needing to address those in the Lord’s room, the galleries, and the ground pit. He solved it by repeating himself, expressing ideas in both the Latinate phrases and in plain Anglo-Saxon, as when he combined unfamiliar words like incarnadine with familiar ones like red .

Here is Ellen DeGeneres, giving the commencement speech at Tulane in 2009. Talking about the honorary degree she is receiving, she plays with the languages of her audience:

I thought that you had to be a famous alumnus – alumini – aluminum – alumis – you had to graduate from this school.

She speaks to both the people who are not quite sure of the singular of alumni , and to those who are.

3. Think about bite-sized ideas

Your speech is likely to come up as a topic of discussion later in the day at lunch or dinner, if only to deflect attention from other topics like job interviews and loan repayment. What will the different audiences take away from your speech? What will students say when Grandma asks, “So what did you think of the speaker?”

As you develop your theme, try to have a memorable, quotable line for each segment of your audience—the grads, the families, and the faculty. And remember that your audience can’t rewind your speech or mark it with a yellow highlighter, so be sure to illustrate your easily-recognizable theme with smaller, easily-digestable examples.

Neil de Grasse Tyson did this in his 2012 speech at Western New England University.  His theme was the prevalence of fuzzy thinking and the desire for choices rather than fresh thought. He touched on the theme repeatedly, with examples ranging from a lunch date with his sister, to a spelling bee, to a job interview, throwing in an allusion to Plato (for the faculty) and ending up with the point that thinking is painful hard work. Journalist Sharyn Alfonsi also did it in her commencement address to the journalism school at Ole Miss in 2013, as she talked about work and perseverance, and illustrated those values through her own career’s challenges, including job applications, tough days, and bad bosses. Choose examples that everyone can relate to and can talk about over lunch.

4. Avoid the “Real World” and other clichés

Be careful when using clichés in your speech. Tempting as it may be to tell the graduates that they are about to enter the “Real World” (where you have thrived), you should avoid that. Savvy students will see you as out of touch, since many of them have been working all along and are often managing any number of real life issues.

You may want to avoid talking about the value of their education as well. They know the value. That’s why they went to college. (It’s the cost they are worried about.)

And don’t tell them they are going to die. What if someone had just died on campus? Steve Jobs could get away with talking about death at Stanford in 2005 (“And yet death is the destination we all share”), but he had cheated death at the time.

On a rare occasion, though, you can subvert the clichés. Jon Stewart, speaking at William and Mary in 2004, presents the so-called “Real World” this way:

Let’s talk about the “Real World” for a moment… I don’t really know to put this, so I’ll be blunt: we broke it… But here’s the good news: you fix this thing, you’re the next greatest generation, people.


David Foster Wallace took the liberal arts cliché by the horns in his 2005 speech at Kenyon College, telling the audience:

So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about “teaching you how to think.”

Wallace then used that to suggest a new perspective—that education is about choosing what to think about.

And screenwriter Joss Whedon, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, tricked up the death theme at Wesleyan in 2013, opening with a reference to the horror genre and the live-life-to-the-fullest cliché:

What I’d like to say to all of you is that you are all going to die.

5. Keep it short

Unless you are a national leader using the speech to announce a major policy, you won’t need more than 20 minutes, tops. Twelve minutes would be even better. The average speaker reads about 120 words a minute, so that’s about 1,400-2,400 words or 9-15 pages (double spaced, 16 point font). Sitting in the sun, the students, families, and faculty will all appreciate brevity.

Here is Poet Laureate Billy Collins speaking at Colorado College in 2008:

I am going to speak for 13 minutes. I think you deserve to know that this will be a finite experience. It is well-known in the world of public speaking that there is no pleasure you can give an audience that compares to the pleasure they get when it is over, so you can look forward to experiencing that pleasure 13 minutes from now.

One of the most memorable commencement addresses at my institution was given by a retired speech professor, Leon Mulling. It was just one-minute long, consisted entirely of verbs (Go. Do. Create. Laugh. Love. Live . ) and received thunderous applause.

6. Above all: relax and enjoy yourself

To do well as a commencement speaker, you need gentle humor, Shakespearean universal accessibility, something memorable for each audience, both a theme and relatable examples, an awareness of clichés, and brevity. And if it makes you nervous to think that college graduates, families, faculty, and even YouTube will be scoring your speech, remember—there’ll be another commencement speaker up on the stage next year.

Image Credit: “Graduation Day” by Md saad andalib. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr .

Edwin L. Battistella teaches linguistics and writing at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, where he has served as a dean and as interim provost. He is the author of Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology  (OUP, 2014),  Do You Make These Mistakes in English? (OUP, 2009), Bad Language (OUP, 2005), and The Logic of Markedness (OUP, 1996).


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Recent Comments

Very good advice and a fun article to read. My graduation speaker 45 years ago was the president of an African country and he spoke about something relating to Africa. It was memorable. The “it” was the weather that afternoon. It was hot and humid and the gowns were an extra layer on top of regular clothes. Oh, the campus political environment was also memorable. I wore an “equal” sign stenciled on a white cloth armband, urging equal admissions of men and women; the university was concerned that admitting more women would reduce long term importance of the college (useless nonworking women) plus eventual lower alumni donations. Oh, yes, and there was Carling Black Label beer at the reception afterward, chosen because it was donated by an alumnus. My father attended. My girlfriend’s parents were there, watching her graduate, and they had some suspicions about us, but thought we were being really careful. Yeah, that was pretty much it.

I loved it thanks

Really good

I will be a commencement speaker this spring at a Pennsylvania university and I thought your article was a great start for me as I prepare. Thanks!

Comments are closed.

writing a good commencement speech

Back to Graduation

10 Tips for Writing the Best Graduation Speech

Good afternoon everybody….

We won’t sugar coat it. Writing a speech is tough. It’s why people get paid big bucks to do this as ghostwriters for others. It’s why great lines from great speeches get passed down from one generation to the next.

But relax. You’re not the President of the United States addressing the nation trying to keep things calm after alien spacecraft have just landed on the White House front lawn.

Odds are, instead, you’re one of two things. You’re either the valedictorian (congrats by the way) or you’re the person who submitted their name and speech idea to the graduation committee and was selected to speak at graduation as well (so congrats to you, too.)

Now, about the speech. While it’s certainly up to you what you can say, we just thought that we’d pass on a few tips on how to not make your speech the kind that doesn’t have lines getting passed from one generation to the next – because of how awful it was.

So, with that said here are our top 10 tips for writing a graduation speech. And, some bonus tips for giving a virtual graduation speech.

1: Start out by thanking someone. The fact is you probably didn’t make it through high school all by yourself.  Very few people, if any, do anything without a lot of help from someone else. So, show a little humility.

It’s always good to recognize parents, teachers and friends. But what might be nice to do instead is to publicly thank a specific person. One person who helped you, who made a difference and believed in you. Maybe it’s a coach, a counselor, a teacher or your dad. Whoever. Thank them in front of everybody. And then encourage everyone else to find someone who was instrumental in helping them make it to graduation and tell them to thank them as well.

2: Don’t make it all about you. If you’re the valedictorian, then once again, congratulations. You did well.  But nobody really just wants to hear about why you made it to the podium and they didn’t. That’s not to say you can’t infuse personal observations in your speech, just don’t turn this into a “My life in high school” speech.

Matter a fact, instead of just crafting your speech in the cold confines of your bedroom, why not instead go out and talk to your classmates. Find out what they’re interested in. What has inspired them and what they’ll remember most. Your class’ graduation should be about all of the students, not just you. It’d be nice if your speech recognized all their collective memories.

3: Google it. That’s what it’s there for.  Looking up famous speeches online is a great way to get inspiration. Whether it’s a YouTube video of comedian Seth MacFarlane’s commencement speech at Harvard (hilarious!) Or reading Winston Churchill’s famous “We shall never surrender” speech (goosebumps!) Seeing how other people have done things well in the past is a good point of reference for how you should be doing it today.

4: Keep it short and sweet. Yes, your speech is important, or you wouldn’t have been asked to give it. But don’t go overboard. People aren’t there to see you drone on and on. They’re there to either celebrate their own accomplishments or the accomplishments of family and close friends. You don’t want people to be checking their watches during your speech or hoping you’ll hurry things up.

Therefore, don’t ramble on forever. Your speech should be no more than 10 minutes unless you’ve been given instructions otherwise. Think about how long do you usually sit still for a YouTube video? There’s a reason the more popular ones aren’t very long. Learn from that.

5: Don’t say anything you’ll regret in 20 years. Matter of fact, let’s amend this to, “Don’t say anything you’ll regret 10 minutes after saying it.” Most kids who are selected to be graduation speakers are the kind who have always set a good example. That said, every year, there’s always a few who want to take a controversial stand, call out a teacher or administrator, or make an inappropriate joke. Hint: Don’t be that kid . Instead, write a speech you can show to your own son or daughter 20 years from now and say, “See, that’s how it’s done.”

6: Inspire your fellow students. Commencement isn’t just about celebrating the fact that you finally earned your diploma. It’s also about looking forward to all the places life will take you after graduation. You want your fellow students to leave your speech feeling as though they’ve got the world by the tail and can do anything now that they’re graduates .

7: Don’t use famous quotes. Famous quotes are great for yearbook entries, not graduation speeches. So, put the famous quotes book away. You  are the graduation speaker. People want to know what  you  have to say.  The crowd doesn’t want to hear what Nietzsche or President Kennedy or King Ferdinand has to say.

8: Don’t write “what’s expected.” If you write a speech that’s expected, then what’s the point in anyone showing up? If it’s something we’re all expecting to hear, then the odds are we’ve already heard it and there’s no need to hear it again. Be original.

9: Be specific. Details make things interesting. There’s nothing particularly original or interesting when you say something like, “You know during our freshman year, we were somewhat unsure of ourselves, lost in this big school, and apprehensive about the future.”

But the details that can make it far more personal and relatable.

Example: “You know, it’s amazing how much we’ve all changed in the last four years. On my first day here at school, I could barely reach my locker. I remember thinking most of the senior football players probably were at least 28-years-old. And sadly, I got lost trying to find Freshman English and had to ask for directions – twice. Today, I’m proud to report that I can reach my locker, the football players don’t look older than I do, and I can find any class on this campus. And if all that’s true, just imagine how different will we all be two, four, or ten years from now.”

10: Make your final point your most important point. There’s a reason we’ve saved this for last. Obviously. But the contents of your speech should all along be leading up to the final point of the speech – which will be the most important part. This should be the line that people remember, and that people take away from your speech. You can end it with a quote (not someone else’s famous quote – we already discussed that), a memory, or words of wisdom to impart on your class, just as long as you end it with a punch. The punch can be a funny story. It can be a snappy re-cap, or a call to action. Such as Kennedy’s inauguration speech where he said, “My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

BONUS TIPS! The Virtual Graduation Speech

Given the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools have either cancelled their graduation plans, or postponed them. Others, however, have chosen to do them virtually . If that’s the case with your school, here are a few tips to help your virtual speech go as smoothly as possible.

First of all, you’ll probably want to change your speech to state the obvious. That it’s being given virtually. Whether or not that changes the rest of your speech will be up to you.

You’ll also want to make sure you look your best. Be sure your light source is in front of you or to your side. If the light is behind you it will make you look too dark. Keep the background clear of distractions. Look at your web cam when you speak, not the screen, and finally use the same gestures and mannerisms you would when normally speaking.

From a technical standpoint, be sure your microphone is turned on and, if it is at all possible, do a rehearsal to make sure your equipment is working properly. Also, place your camera (computer) on a level surface that’s not going to shake or wobble.

Whether you stand or sit down is up to you. However, this is one instance where YOU get to determine the atmosphere when giving a speech, so simply do what makes you feel the most comfortable.

In the end, your speech shouldn’t be overwhelming or daunting. Instead, just think of it as connecting with your graduating class one last time before you all go your separate ways. And, as a plus, if you’re planning a career which will involve public speaking, you can think of this as a great way to practice.


Additional Resources

Do something: an organization making changes.

Have you ever wanted to volunteer for a cause you’re passionate about but had trouble finding the right one to get behind? DoSomething.org gives young people the voice and ability to make big changes. With 4.3 million members and counting, this organization is on a path to make a huge difference in the …

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The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever

Looking for some new words of wisdom? Check out our hand-picked selection of commencement addresses, going back to 1774. Search over 350 speeches by name, school, date or theme — and find out what they have in common with pop songs — on our blog: n.pr/ed .

By Jeremy Bowers, Emily Davis, Danny DeBelius, Christopher Groskopf, Anya Kamenetz, Meredith Rizzo, Sami Yenigun

Thanks to Cristina Negrut, the creator of http://graduationwisdom.com/ where many of these speeches were first collected.

May 19, 2014, Last updated: July 2, 2015

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  • EXPLORE Random Article

How to Write a Graduation Speech

Last Updated: July 24, 2021 References

This article was co-authored by Patrick Muñoz . Patrick is an internationally recognized Voice & Speech Coach, focusing on public speaking, vocal power, accent and dialects, accent reduction, voiceover, acting and speech therapy. He has worked with clients such as Penelope Cruz, Eva Longoria, and Roselyn Sanchez. He was voted LA's Favorite Voice and Dialect Coach by BACKSTAGE, is the voice and speech coach for Disney and Turner Classic Movies, and is a member of Voice and Speech Trainers Association. There are 11 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been viewed 40,611 times.

If you are giving a graduation speech you should take your time to write a speech with your specific audience in mind that conveys a message you care about and that shows your personality! Making a worthwhile speech takes time researching, writing, editing and rehearsing, but if you put in the right effort your work will pay off and make your graduation all the more memorable. Above all, care about what you say. For example, David Foster Wallace deeply believed that school should not teach you what to think. He thought that school should teach you the freedom to decide how to think, and he gave an inspirational speech to Kenyon College in 2007 that is still being written about and talk about today. [1] X Research source

Considering the Practical Things

Step 1 Ask about the details of the program.

  • It is often important that you thank certain individuals in your speech. This may mean the dean and special faculty, for example, so ask about how to address these individuals, including how to say their names.

Step 2 Write a speech that appeals to everyone in your audience.

  • For example, David Foster Wallace's speech he chose to talk about not getting involved in the rat race but deciding to ignore the pressure of the world that tells you you must make lots of money and buy lots of things. Even though this speech is for the students, anyone can relate to the rat race and high expectations from the world to succeed to make lots of money just to spend it all.
  • Write down a list of the different groups of students you might want to consider: honors students, athletes, students who know what they are doing after graduation, students who do not know what they are doing, etc. Make sure in your speech that you aren't assuming that all the students in attendance are attending college, if that is note the case.
  • You don’t have to make your speech generic or overly general because you are writing for to a wide audience. Pick a universal theme, and you can consider adding parts to your speech that will speak to the different groups, if you like. If your theme is broad enough, like overcoming adversity through perseverance, you don't need to worry about making it appeal to different audiences. Everyone can relate to overcoming hard times.
  • Make sure that your vocabulary is varied and diverse. Try not to alienate anyone in your audience. For example, if you use the word ¨benevolent" to describe your teacher, as in ¨Mr. Garcia was such a benevolent teacher¨, you can follow it up with a description that will show the meaning of the word, ¨he was always so good to us, he let us play card games in his classroom at lunch¨. [2] X Research source

Step 3 Ask about how long your speech should be.

  • If your speech is for a smaller audience or for a less formal affair, you may want to ask about how long the past graduation speeches have gone. Perhaps the speech should be shorter, around five minutes or less.
  • Remember, too, that your speech may feel a lot longer or shorter than it actually is. If you want communicate effectively, try slowing down your speech. This might mean you will have less time to say what you want to say.

Step 4 Find out if there are other rules for graduation speeches.

  • Some schools may ask you to send your graduation speech to someone who will read it first to make sure it is well developed and/or appropriate for the graduation ceremony. Additionally, you may have to practice your speech with one of the staff before the ceremony.

Step 5 Ask about the speeches that went over well in the past.

  • For example, perhaps they dedicated a lot of time and effort as a class when they decorated a float that won a prize in a parade. You could consider incorporating that piece of information into your speech, like ¨It took me a lot of persistence and grit to get through that final term paper. However, it wasn't nearly as much work, or as much fun, as decorating that float with this class the night before the parade.¨
  • Do not feel compelled to replicate that speech. You can, however, use that information to help you decide what you should write about based on your own life, values and experiences.

Step 6 Give yourself plenty of time to write, edit and rehearse your speech.

  • Start working at least two to three weeks before you have to give your speech.
  • Rehearse your speech in the place where you plan on giving it, if possible. Being familiar with the surroundings should dampen any unease or nerves.

Deciding What to Talk About

Step 1 Brainstorm before you get started writing your speech.

  • Once you have ideas from talking to your friends or family or thinking about what you want to say start writing down experiences that match those ideas.
  • For example, if you were driving toward the theme that David Foster Wallace used of learning how to think instead of what to think. You might have brainstorm about a time that you decided to learn how to knit to make all of your friends and family gifts for Christmas instead of buying them gifts. Talk about how much your grandmother loved the scarf you made her and how that ended up bonding you two together. When you think back to why you care so much about making gifts instead of buying them you realize that you want to question the pressure that is put on you to spend a lot of money to buy everyone Christmas presents. That is your theme.

Step 2 Decide on a message for your speech.

  • For example, you may want to talk about how giving your time to volunteer work will end up making you a happier and healthier person.
  • Write out your most important life experiences and lessons learned, and decide what a main take away from those stories/lessons could be. For example, after working at the soup kitchen every weekend during my senior year, I learned life lessons from people I never expected to learn from. Homeless people who I saw freely give others some of their prized possessions ended up teaching me how to give freely.
  • Some examples of common themes in graduation speeches are: believing in/liking yourself, taking risks/putting yourself out there, failing is necessary for success, giving back helps you as an individual, being persistent pays off, being okay with not being perfect, overcoming adversity, good friendships save, and there are different paths to take through life/there is no one right answer. [7] X Research source
  • Giving thanks and congratulations is another style of graduation speech you can choose to write. In these graduation speeches individuals talk about all that they have come through as a class to get to graduation. They also might take more time to talk about and thank the individuals who helped them along the way.
  • These speeches tend to be less focused on giving advice and the individual giving the speech and more focused on the group as a whole. Listed here is a wikiHow article on writing a graduation thank you speech. [8] X Research source

Step 3 Read and watch really good graduation speeches to get ideas for your graduation speech.

  • See if you can pick out a few main themes in the graduation speech, usually it will not be very difficult to find because it will be repeated several times. Writing those down will help you see how they craft their speech around those ideas.
  • For example, you could take note that David Foster Wallace uses a simple metaphor to get across his main idea. He uses the metaphor of a fish being aware that he is in water as compared to a person who realizes that he is in a society that influences us to think and act. This metaphor shows us how important it is to be aware of the obvious realities of being in society that others might miss. It also how shows us how isolating it can be to be aware.
  • Likewise, think about using a similar convention, for example, a short joke or a metaphor that illustrates your main point.

Step 4 Choose a speech structure that will help you communicate your message.

  • In the first speech structure, you highlight a few, typically one to four, main take-aways, or themes. You show address those ideas through personal anecdotes or nonfiction stories to impart some wisdom to the graduating class. The people who choose this structure generally feel that they have simple, yet important wisdom that might help the graduates succeed in life. For example, Steve Jobs used this structure and told just three stories about his life. The first story he told was about how he “connected the dots” in his life. [10] X Research source
  • In the second structure, make a list of five to ten tips that you have acquired that you give as advice to the graduating class. If you had trouble honing in on one to three themes or take-aways, this might be a good option for you. You can highlight important things that are both big and small in this kind of speech. For example, an admiral gave a speech about the ten essential life tips he learned from the Navy that including tips to both make your bed, and never, ever give up. [11] X Research source
  • In the third, you tell a condensed version of your life story. Go for this option if you feel like you have a very powerful personal story that illustrates some important ideas about how to be successful or how to overcome adversity. You don’t have to start with the beginning of your life, instead talk about the important things that have made you who you are. For example, music producer Jimmy Iovine used this structure and started his speech by talking about a rebuke John Landau gave him. Jon said, ¨this is not about you¨, and that advise gave Jimmy the courage to keep working when his ego was fed up. [12] X Research source
  • In the last speech structure, you develop one main idea as an argument and use observations from life, your personal history, etc., to support this main idea. This option is good if you are really passionate about conveying one central idea to your audience that you are entirely convinced needs to be heard by everyone. This is perhaps the most difficult speech to write because it is much like writing an argument; your ideas need to be logical and well organized. For example, David Foster Wallace follows this structure. He makes a claim that the real value of education isn’t learning what to think but gaining the freedom to choose how to think. He stays with this theme and develops his ideas like an argument. [13] X Research source

Step 5 Show your personality in your speech.

  • You can use humor to convey your personality. For example, Sumner Redstone, giving a speech to DeVry University, starts his speech with some self-deprecating humor that points out that people won't enjoy sitting through his speech. Redstone says that he is glad to go first in the program, and he quotes Mark Twain who recommends swallowing a frog at the start of the day to get the worst thing out of the way. Here Redstone makes himself the toad to make his audience laugh.

Step 6 Don’t give a speech about something unless you really believe in it.

  • Being passionate about what you are talking about will show in your delivery, as long as you practice. Speeches involve much more than the words you say, and oftentimes much more can be said through the emotions you convey when you deliver your speech. Think about all of the ways you can put emotion into a simple phrase like ¨I would die for you." A lot of meaning balances on the way you say those words.
  • Practice putting emotion into your speech to give it meaning. Rehearse what you will say in front of a mirror several times to see how you look, and don't be afraid to use gestures.

Step 7 Consider the enthusiastic mood of the occasion.

  • Because everyone has gone through a lot to get to this point, you may want to take a minute to genuinely congratulate them on their accomplishments.

Step 8 Avoid cliches.

  • You should avoid these cliches because they have been overused, and the people in your audience will most likely not be inspired by these topics. [15] X Research source
  • Do not confuse universal themes for cliches. Some of the best, most powerful speeches have very simple messages. For example, giving back helps you grow as an individual. Even though this theme that has been explored before and will be explored again, the theme still rings true and bears repeating.

Going Through the Steps in the Speech Making Process

Step 1 Organize and develop your writing into an introduction, body and conclusion.

  • After your speech you want people to be able to easily remember what you talked about so they can discuss what you said.

Step 3 Have someone else edit your speech and give you feedback.

  • Send the same person your revisions each time you make a major edit.

Step 4 Practice your speech out loud in front of others.

  • Make sure to practice your pacing, and slow down if you have a tendency to read quickly through your speech. Use a timer when you practice giving your speech in front a mirror or your family/friends.
  • Practice enough times so that you have the things you want to say internalized. This means that when you go into autopilot mode in front of an audience you will be more likely to remember because of your muscle memory. [20] X Research source
  • If you get stuck, look at someone you trust in the audience and breath deeply for a couple of seconds to calm yourself down while you try to collect your thoughts.

Expert Q&A

Patrick Muñoz

  • Practice out loud until you have internalized the essential parts of your speech. Thanks Helpful 2 Not Helpful 0
  • Remember to write a speech that will speak to everyone in your audience. Thanks Helpful 2 Not Helpful 0
  • Find someone who knows about writing or speech making to help you edit your speech. Thanks Helpful 2 Not Helpful 0

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  • ↑ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/william-mcguinness/david-foster-wallaces-bri_b_3239411.html
  • ↑ http://blog.oup.com/2015/05/how-to-write-graduation-speech/
  • ↑ http://www.graduationwisdom.com/speeches/how-to-write-a-graduation-speech.htm
  • ↑ Patrick Muñoz. Voice & Speech Coach. Expert Interview. 12 November 2019.
  • ↑ http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/brainstorming/
  • ↑ https://www.wikihow.com/Write-a-Graduation-Thank-You-Speech
  • ↑ http://www.graduationwisdom.com/speeches/0014-jobs.htm
  • ↑ http://www.graduationwisdom.com/speeches/0149-Admiral-McRaven-Best-Commencement-Speeches-2014.htm
  • ↑ http://www.graduationwisdom.com/speeches/0140-Jimmy-Iovine-Commencement-Speech-at-University-of-Southern-California-2013.htm
  • ↑ http://www.graduationwisdom.com/speeches/0015-wallace.htm
  • ↑ http://www.jostens.com/grad/grad_cp_hs_grad_guide_graduation_speech.html

About this article

Patrick Muñoz

To write a graduation speech, choose a structure that will help to communicate your message. For example, you could highlight a few main themes through personal anecdotes or nonfiction stories. Alternatively, you could make a list of 5 to 10 tips that you want to advise the graduating class about. If you have an interesting or powerful personal story, you can use it to illustrate important ideas, such as overcoming adversity or becoming successful. To learn how to show your personality in your speech, keep reading! Did this summary help you? Yes No

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40+ Graduation Speech Ideas and Tips

Written by  Shutterfly Community Last Updated: Aug 14, 2020

Graduations and commencements ceremonies mark major transitional moments in your life. They celebrate all the hard work you put into your education and achievements, and look forward to the future. Through the years of school, you’ve made new friends, developed new skills, and discovered new things about yourself. And it can be extremely difficult to summarize these experiences into a single graduation speech. How do you explain how much the experience meant to you? How do you properly send off all your incredible peers? Don’t worry– we’re here to help you craft that perfect graduation speech. When you’re ready to put pen the paper, look to our graduation speech ideas below.

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The process on writing a graduation speech, graduation speech themes, commencement speech ideas and tips.

Even if you love to write, or have a lot you want to say–writer’s block is a common obstacle when it comes to speech writing. The best way to beat it? Just start writing. Know that your first draft (or the ten or twenty after that) doesn’t have to be perfect, or even very good. Just start writing all your thoughts down and eventually your speech will start to take shape. For specific guidance on speech writing, look to the steps below.

male valedictorian speaking at graduation

How To Start A Graduation Speech

Ready to start writing? Do your best to follow the guidelines below:

  • Find all the inspiration you can. Search for and save your favorite graduation speeches, look for the perfect quotes , and try to determine the key themes to what inspires you.
  • Pick a theme. Once you’ve found all your inspiration sources and come up with a general idea of what you want to talk about, make a list of key themes. Circle the one most important to you.
  • Write down your favorite quotes and messages, and start planning where in your speech you want them to appear.
  • Start off by introducing yourself. Not sure what to say? Use the graduation speech introduction examples below.

Graduation Speech Introductions Examples

  • “Thank you [person who introduced you]. And thank you to the students, teachers, parents, and staff who made these four years everything that they were.”
  • “It’s my honor today to deliver the commencement address for this incredible student body.”
  • “It is my pleasure to welcome students, families, and faculty to graduation day at [school’s name]. Every one of you have made an impact on the graduates who sit here today.”
  • “I stand here before you, looking back on four years of legacy we’ve all made together.”

How To Write A Graduation Speech

Once you’ve reached the body of your speech, consider keeping the tips below in mind:

  • Take time to write out things you want to cover. Don’t edit yet, just write. Try to stay as undistracted as possible while doing this step.
  • Take stock of your key messages and favorite phrases. Save these. Consider highlighting them to keep track.
  • When in doubt, tell a story. Talk about your personal experiences and relate them to the whole class.
  • Check out our graduation messages and wishes for special messages you might want to include.
  • Once you’ve exhausted everything you want to say, take a break. Don’t edit until at least 24 hours later.
  • Cut down everything that you don’t absolutely love. As painful as it might be to cut down your work, it’ll pay off in the long run.
  • Connect the dots, but stay concise and to the point. Keep it simple.
  • Repetition of key points can help your peers remember more of your speech.

How To End A Graduation Speech

Once you’re ready to end your speech, use these guidelines to find a memorable ending.

  • End with something memorable that ties it all together. This may be a quotes, repetition of your central message, or just a fun send off.
  • Start to edit. Cut it down. Then cut it down again.
  • If appropriate, consider closing with one of these graduation bible verses .
  • Have someone edit your speech for you. A fresh pair of eyes makes a world of difference when it comes to editing.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Even if you have great presentation skills, only practice makes perfect!

Grad makes a speech in her graduation ceremony.

Looking for the perfect graduation speech theme to tie it all together? Then check out our favorite funny, creative, and general themes for graduation speeches below:

Funny Graduation Speech Ideas

  • Touch on Current (School) Events: A lot can happen in four years. Take the opportunity to reflect on past school happenings like beating your rival school, an accidental mishap in one of the science labs, or a senior prank. The students will surely love it.
  • Turn Humility to Wisdom: Mistakes turn into lessons learned, and humility can help you turn funny and embarrassing stories into wisdom for the ages. Share them with your peers.
  • Insta-Worthy: Find inspiration for our funny graduation captions to use for your graduation speech.
  • Make it a Classic: Use the classic, hilarious quotes from our graduation quotes and sayings resource to keep your speech lighthearted and fun.

Creative Graduation Speech Ideas

  • Step Out of Tradition: Step away from the traditional grad speech format. Try something like spoken word poetry, or using unique patterns and metaphors in your speech.
  • Tell a Unique Story: We’re always ready to listen to new and interesting stories. What makes your experience so unique? What lesson has it taught you?
  • Children’s Book Inspired: Use the classic children’s book quotes we’ve found for you to inspire a nostalgia filled grad speech.
  • A Class Anthem: Use lyrics from a special graduation song to inspire a full speech, and connect back to the song for a theme your peers will love.

Class President Graduation Speech Ideas

  • Never Give Up: Inspire your class to always keep striving for their goals by utilizing our words of encouragement .
  • A Thankful Class: Take the chance of delivering the graduation speech to thank everyone who helped make it happen. Feel free to browse our gratitude quotes and appreciation quotes for help.
  • Inspire Them Until the End: Center your commencement speech around a key inspirational idea or message. Visit our resource on inspirational quotes about life for help finding one.

Graduate Gives Speech In Auditorium

Want a few final tips and tricks for making your graduation speech extra special? We’ve got you covered. Look to our advice below:

High School Graduation Speech Ideas

  • Look to the future. Talk about the multitude of opportunities and possibilities your class has.
  • Thank your teachers and parents. You can never thank the adults in your life enough for supporting and helping you all these years.
  • Recall class memories. Nostalgia is a powerful tool that when used well can make a speech more memorable.
  • Try not to rely on pop culture references. Pop culture fads come and go, and using them in your speech might mean it won’t age very well.
  • Ask yourself: what makes this class unique? If you have an answer, feel free to share it.
  • Is there anything you want to say but can’t fit it into your speech? If so, you may know exactly what to write in your yearbook for friends and classmates.

8th Grade Graduation Speech Ideas

  • Focus on the positive. Even if not everything was always perfect in your school experience, it’s important to focus on the positive during a graduation speech.
  • Keep it short and sweet. Long speeches typically mean not everyone will be able to pay attention. Keep it short and to the point.
  • Remember to be inclusive. Talk about things that all of your peers can relate to, not just individual groups.

Elementary Graduation Speech Ideas

  • Keep it short and simple.
  • Use a lighthearted tone- Don’t try to make it too sentimental. Keeping the kids happy means the ceremony will go smoother.
  • Give examples and short stories from the year. Elementary students usually connect to stories well and this will help keep their attention.
  • Remember kids love to laugh. A joke here and there might be the perfect touch.
  • If you’re helping a student write a speech, walk them through it. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but their parents are sure to love it.

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Resources Related to Graduation Speech Ideas

If you liked this resource on graduation speech ideas and you’re looking for similar content, make sure to check out our related graduation resources.

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