Saturday, 9 November 2013

How to give a good graduation speech: a tale of three speakers

Photo Claudia Leisinger

In my time, I’ve taken part in quite a few graduation ceremonies, including the one where the guest of honour told the graduates to stop singing, and listen to what she had to say. I’ve made speeches, handed out certificates, smiled, shaken hands, and mispronounced names. Fortunately, graduations being a time to celebrate achievements with friends and family, audiences are usually very forgiving.

It’s a long time, however, since I graduated myself. Recently I was reunited with my classmates at a graduation ceremony in London. Given my previous experience of graduation ceremonies, I listened to the speeches and observed the ceremonies with a professional pair of ears and eyes. I was looking forward to sharing the stage with my beloved tutors and peers, all of whom had supported and challenged me in different ways. And I was also up for some gentle joshing over champagne and canapes. It was a wet and windy Friday evening, and because of this, perhaps, the promise of a glass of wine was more than usually pleasing.

A tale of three speakers

The first speaker talked about himself. The second speaker talked about somebody else. And the third speaker gave a pitch perfect talk about what she had learned about teamwork and conflict resolution, ending with three powerful messages for us to take away.

Talking about yourself and other people

When giving a speech, it’s OK, and even a good thing, to talk about yourself. I sometimes tell a joke against myself in order to connect with my audience. It’s a well-known technique for putting yourself on the same level as your audience. It’s also good to talk about other people. When I talk about leadership I always speak about leaders I know, and the skills and qualities that make them a leader for me.

Start with your audience

What I really liked about the third speaker was that she kept her talk firmly on intersection of leadership and learning, which was the place where we had all met more than a year ago. The third speaker started with her audience. A transatlantic rower, she talked about what she did, and what she had learned.

Be clear about your messages

Then she shared three simple and elegant messages about to lead a team when the going gets tough:

Have a conflict resolution plan before you start a project
Spend time with different people to avoid factions or cliques, and
Share your vulnerability with your team when you don’t know what to do.

Be modest about your achievements

The other thing the third speaker did was to keep a balanced perspective on what she had done. She didn’t pretend to be a superhero. Yes, she had had to face waves the size of a double-decker bus. And also, she remembered the beauty of seas, gleaming with phosphorescence, and stars so bright she felt she could reach out and touch them.

So what are the lessons for graduation speakers?

Start and finish with your audience

Be modest about your achievements

Whatever you say, have a reason for saying it to your audience

Give your audience something to take away and use

Be authentic

Be brief

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