Rice Speechwriting

Avoiding Cliché Topics in Graduation Speeches

Graduation season will soon be upon us and with it the same tired clichés that you have heard in countless speeches.

“Follow your dreams.”

“Don’t do it for the money.”

“Follow your passions.”

“Never give up.”

Countless readings of “Oh The Places You’ll Go.”

If you are giving a graduation speech, how can you avoid falling into the trap of a clichéd message?

Even though graduation speeches might be quickly forgotten by the graduating class, some are still reprinted in alumni magazines, local newspapers, and online venues. Plus, for the parents, teachers, and administrators, who have sat through those speeches, they will appreciate a unique spin on the common tropes.

Here are some practical tips to avoid clichés for graduation speeches and any speech you give:

Start with awareness

Watch a few graduation speeches to see what common themes tend to pop up and how the speaker takes the expected route or unexpected route. You will quickly learn the common quotations and stories that seem to pop up through speech after speech. Resist the urge to use them.

Some common quotes, stories, and themes, include:

-The story of the scorpion and the frog

-The story of the two wolves (“the one you feed is the one that grows”)

-Robert Frost’s “The Path Less Traveled”

– “Be The Change You Wish to See in the World.” — attributed to Gandhi

– Any story involving Everest and a tired metaphor about climbing a mountain

There are often transcripts to graduation speeches online — read them if you don’t have the time to watch. Become aware of what’s already been done and what hasn’t.

Tell unique stories to gain unique insight

Search your own life for stories to tell that are unique to you. Come up with your own less from what you learned from setbacks, failure, or unexpected turns of events. You can see this on display in Steve Jobs’ Stanford Commencement speech along with Admiral McRaven’s. Each tells short stories that only they could tell and each draws a unique lesson from them.

Think about your own life and the stories you want to tell in your speech. Can you draw a lesson unique to that story that could be applied generally to someone’s life?

Take the common wisdom and reverse it, upend the cliché

If you read Cal Newport’s “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” one of the conclusions he arrives at is that we shouldn’t follow our passions — instead, we should work hard at the things we are good at first and the passion will follow.

You can do the same thing for your speech — find common and clichéd advice and turn it on its head. Find a saying, some common wisdom, something that you wanted to use originally and see if you can argue against it. For some examples, the demotivational poster website, www.despair.com does just that. Check it out for some dark humor that has some truth to it.

To see what I’m getting at, answer the following questions to help brainstorm some ideas. I set them up as debates as you’ll soon find yourself answering them and writing your speech as your answer (or maybe there’s no answer at all and just questions).

What happens when your talents and your dreams diverge, which one should you follow?

What should the goal of a successful life be? Is it the pursuit of external rewards or inner rewards? Are both possible?

Do successful people really lead a balanced life or do they pursue a single goal at the expense of many other goals?

When is it OK to quit something? (A bad job, a bad relationship, a bad home)

Look to other sources for inspiration

If you are still having a tough time in finding something new, look to poems, op-eds, books you’ve been reading, for new takes. You could even look to song lyrics, movie quotes, and pieces of dialogue, as other sources of inspiration. You should of course credit the author if you quote them, but a key idea may be enough to get started.

Ask yourself what you would have wanted to hear at your graduation

Think back to your graduation from high school or college, what would you have wanted to hear from that speaker? What key advice — practical or more lofty would have helped prevent a problem you encountered? Would the advice have even mattered? You don’t want to be a downer but you can be a bit irreverent if that’s your personality.

Photo by Tai’s Captures on Unsplash

Eddie Rice is a speechwriter and public speaking coach. The excerpt above is from the upcoming book, “Toast: Short Speeches, Big Impact.” Find out more about him and his book at ricespeechwriting.com/toast-book

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