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How to Figure a Brilliant Speech

Congratulations, I think. Your old high school has bestowed on you the great honor of giving the commencement address at the June graduation.

Okay, maybe you haven’t been honored that way. But let’s pretend. Once you know how to give a great commencement speech, you’ll have the tools to create any kind of inspiring talk. (You’ll find these tools greater detail within my book, Word Hero.)

The first thing we need to do, obviously, is to find a theme for our speech. If we were giving a business presentation instead of a commencement address, we’d already have a theme; but even then we’d need some central rhetorical focus. Are we going to dwell on the product exclusively, or compare it with the competition? Will we talk about the idea or theory or just stick to the concrete facts? A commencement address is even more of a blank slate, assuming you don’t plan simply to do the standard “follow your dream” theme. When in doubt, flatter your audience. Tell them that the naysayers are wrong about them. Then come up with a Word Repeater that will bring the kids out of their seats.

So we go through the Pith Method, writing down key words for what we’ll repeat. Then we base our speech on what we come up with. We get out a notebook and scribble some phrases or sentences. 

The critics are wrong.
Kids are no better or worse than before.
You have to prove yourself.
Don’t let them stop you.

Just from those lines, I see a couple of juicy words that might make a Word Repeater: “wrong” and “prove.” “Wrong” is a great word to say loudly, because it’s very sound symbolic—“wrong” rhymes with “strong,” sounding strong. “Prove” is something an ambitious young person wants to do with herself. Can we use both words in a sentence? Sure we can. 

You: Prove them wrong. 

Love it. Here’s the anchor for your whole speech: The old farts say kids these days are ruining civilization. Prove them wrong. That could be the title of your speech, in fact. And the phrase can inform your outline. Start by saying how honored you are to speak to the generation who will run things someday. Then talk about the world they’ll be inheriting. Jon Stewart did this in a famous 2004 speech to graduating college seniors at his alma mater, William & Mary. After talking about the real world, he hilariously tossed them a metaphor, making our planet sound like an expensive gadget. 

Stewart: I don’t really know to put this, so I’ll be blunt. We broke it. Please don’t be mad.  

The metaphor works well in speeches because it allows you to talk about big, complicated, abstract things as if they were concrete. Environmentalists do this with Planet Earth, turning it into a mother, a spaceship, or a fragile organism. Conservatives do it with the economy, making it into a machine or a miracle from God. Liberals do it with cities, pretending they’re villages or families. Nearly every speaker these days, unfortunately, turns life into tourism by calling it a “journey.” (A word of advice: Don’t make life a journey. It has been used often enough to qualify as a road-weary cliché.)

Once you describe the world the graduates will inherit someday, you can talk briefly about how different their lives have been from those of their elders: born with the Internet, able to write with their thumbs on tiny keyboards, etc.

Now you come to the fulcrum of your speech. I like having a speech with a fulcrum—a climactic moment that tips the balance of your thoughts. Up till now you have openly agreed with the adult’s perspective on kids. Now tilt things. In this case, talk about how many adults feel that kids these days haven’t been brought up right. That they don’t have the right stuff to grow into leaders. Then you can ask your young audience: “Are they right?” Some kids or even adults may shout, “NO!” Whether they do or not, you can add, “I don’t know if they’re right or wrong.” Pause. “That’s up to you.” Now’s the time for your big Word Repeater. You glance down at a simple list of words: 

Video games
Lack discipline

Now gazing at the graduates, you fire away with your Word Repeaters, which we’ve placed at both the beginning and the end of each line. 

You: They say that video games are ruining your ability to think. Are they right? Prove them wrong. They say your parents coddled you—worried too much about your self esteem. Are these critics right? Prove them wrong. They say you’re spoiled, given everything, don’t know how to work hard. Are they right? Prove them wrong! They say you’re selfish, self-centered, that you’ll grow up thinking only of yourself and not of your community or your country. Are they right? Prove them wrong!

When you use Word Repeaters in front of a sizeable audience, consider using a different tone for each one. In this case, you can gradually turn up the volume on “prove them wrong” until you’re practically shouting that last line. Or, even better: pronounce that last sentence slowly. 

You: Prove…them…wrong!

Your audience should be plenty stirred up by this. Look studiously down at your notes while they applaud and try not to smile. You did it—you delivered your figurative payload, giving the graduates something they will remember. Having delivered it, let it sink in. Take your time. In performing memorable words, think about the tone of voice, and give your audience a rest for brief periods, especially if they have responded well to a line.

When the applause dies down, you ask: “How can you prove them wrong?” Then feel free to repeat the Prove Them Wrong line a few more times, this time at the beginning of consecutive sentences. To prepare this part of the speech, you go through the same process you did for your climactic lines, writing a list of simple phrases. 

Commit to learn
Stay fit
Learn to lead

You: Prove them wrong by committing to learn. Learn all you can—not just on the Web but through good books. Prove them wrong by staying fit and eating right. Prove them wrong by volunteering in your community, serving your country, and voting in every single election. And prove them wrong by learning what it takes to lead!

Yeah, some of that sounds a bit clichéd. Next thing you know you’ll be talking about your journey. But I hope you found the process helpful. Start with the Pith Method. Write detailed notes for when you need them, and simple lists for when you don’t. Use Word Repeaters to hammer in your key memorable line and make your audience feel like participants. Remember: what seems like crushingly dull repetition on paper can sound positively thrilling in person. I’ve sat through many terrific speeches thinking, “I should publish that in my magazine.” Then, when I read the text, I realize you had to have been there. Word Repeaters, and metaphors that turn your audience into warriors or saints, bring up the emotion in the room and make you look eloquent.

Word Repeaters can also help you create your ending. Let’s finish the commencement address. 

You: Prove them wrong, and you, my friends—you—will become the Greatest Generation.

And the crowd goes wild! The part of the crowd that’s not checking text messages, I mean. Or maybe those bowed heads mean they’re immortalizing your words on Twitter.