It’s a time of year for new beginnings, starting a new chapter, choosing our paths wisely and marching boldly into the future.
And that must mean it’s commencement time, a season that invariably brings to newly minted grads and their families kernels of wisdom, bits of advice and, if they’re particularly fortunate, even a laugh or two delivered in commencement speakers’ addresses.
Graduates who might argue that enduring a commencement speech while sweating under itchy caps and gowns is the toughest task their academic careers have wrought, should consider this: Consider how difficult it was for that poor speaker up there to come up with a speech that’s not only inspiring, but also bereft of cliches, vapidity and pomposity.
Carlos Holguin has been thinking about this a lot during the past few weeks. On May 19, he will present his own speech at the College of Southern Nevada’s spring commencement ceremony at the Thomas & Mack Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
CSN, like UNLV, brings in no high-profile guest speakers for commencement ceremonies but, rather, lets students compete for a commencement speaking slot. Holguin, who will leave CSN with associate degrees in music and psychology and who plans to major in jazz studies at UNLV, knew a friend who spoke at his own commencement and says that “I knew that’s what I wanted to do when it was my time to graduate.”
So, Holguin, 20, worked on a speech, delivered it before CSN’s selection committee and earned the right to present it during commencement. Holguin says he began thinking months ago about his verbal goodbye to fellow CSN grads, jotting down possible themes and voicing passages into his phone for practice. He also prepared by searching out online videos of inspirational speakers. Apple wunderkind Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address at Stanford. Basketball legend Michael Jordan’s interview with Oprah. Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar doing his thing.
But even before all of that, Holguin faced the most daunting question every prospective commencement speaker must ask.
“When I first decided to apply to be a commencement speaker, I thought to myself, ‘What do I have to say to the graduating class of 2014? What can I say that will inspire those in attendance for years to come?’ And throughout my speech (prep), I kept repeating those sentences to myself.”
Shelley Berkley has delivered more than a few commencement speeches through the years — on May 17, she’ll present yet another one, at her law school alma mater, the University of San Diego School of Law — and, during her time as a U.S. congresswoman from Nevada, has listened to even more of them.
Commencement is “different than any other occasion that you would be asked to speak at,” says Berkley, now CEO and senior provost of Touro University’s Western Division, which includes Touro University Nevada. “It’s a very important moment in many people’s lives, and for a number of people, the highlight of their lives, and you want (a speech) to be significant enough that it makes an impact and yet, you want it to be short enough that you aren’t losing the audience.”
Most important, Berkley adds, a commencement speaker always should “keep in mind it’s their day, not yours.”
The peculiar demands of a good commencement speech can make writing one a relatively high-anxiety task.
“Oh yeah,” Berkley says. “Whenever I’m asked to give a commencement speech, I have a sense of dread that it won’t be the right speech or that it won’t be my best speech.”
However, chalk it up to the fearlessness of youth that Berkley wasn’t particularly nervous when she presented a speech during her own commencement ceremony from UNLV.
“When I gave (that) commencement speech, I was calm,” she says.
She laughs. “It’s all the ones after that, because you’re too young to realize.”
In her own commencement speech, Berkley — like, it’s safe to say, just about every other student commencement speaker in 1972 — quoted both Bob Dylan and the Beatles. She doesn’t recall the Beatles reference, but “I remember that the Bobby Dylan reference was, ‘The times, they are a-changing.’ ”
Daniel Coyle, development director and an academic adviser for UNLV’s Honors College, helps UNLV’s student commencement speakers develop their speeches. While most commencement speeches have an inspirational tone, Coyle says, the best student commencement speeches also strive to put the graduates’ academic experiences into some sort of perspective.
“Certainly, we need inspiration, but we need, as a culture, in those moments … to know, to understand, what the last four years have meant,” he says.
“Overall, one of the biggest things that drives a good commencement speech, I would say, is an overarching theme. There has to be a message that the speaker tries to communicate. It’s not just, ‘Hey, we’ve arrived, let’s celebrate,’ but, instead, it’s a direct message, again, about what these last four years have meant.”
The best commencement speeches also include stylistic artistry, Coyle says, as evidenced by language much more poetic than would be in a business presentation.
For instance, Coyle says, a single sentence from President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address — “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” — has stayed with us for 50 years.
“People still talk about it. It’s part of our culture now,” Coyle says. “And it’s not necessarily because of the message. People have said that message in so many ways. It’s the structure of the sentence, the poeticness, if you can label it that.”
Speech killers, on the other hand, include “overuse of cliches,” Coyle says. “ ‘The closing of one chapter, the beginning of a new one,’ that has become so cliched that people just immediately check out.”
Commencement audiences also can be turned off by a speech that sounds too scripted. Coyle says he encourages student commencement speakers to take advantage of the latitude an audience generally will grant a student speaker over a professional speaker.
“I always encourage students to be more personal with it and don’t sound so scripted, don’t sound so professional. And if it comes to political incorrectness, as long as it’s not overboard, that’s OK.”
As he continues work on his own commencement speech, Holguin is recalling the speech and communication courses he’s taken at CSN.
With a good commencement speech, he says, “the audience has to feel something.
“Emotions are already going to be high, so you’ve got to say something, you’ve got to tell your story, but in a way they can relate to.”
“My theme, pretty much, is greatness, and I know when I tell people I chose greatness, that people roll their eyes,” Holguin says.
In preparing his speech, Holguin researched people he looks up to — Albert Einstein, Michael Jordan, Charlie Parker — to examine what it is that makes them great, and realized that greatness is “deciding what you like to do and finding your passion and following it no matter what anyone says.”
That’s the gist of it, anyway. Holguin says he has his speech down to about 6 minutes, but still wants to trim it. In the meantime, he’s working on his delivery by presenting the speech to others and, even, just in empty rooms, nailing down the inflections he’ll use, figuring out which words he’ll emphasize and trying to figure out how fast or how slow he’ll talk at various points.
Holguin figures that his music training has helped.
“I kind of take the same approach I take to music, in a way,” he says, in that, after a musician learns the notes of a piece, “there’s the performance aspect to it.”
But, as Commencement Day approaches, Holguin sounds confident that all will go well, even if, he says, “I don’t doubt it’s going to get emotional that day.”