How to write a speech for graduation: Graduation speech ideas
This guide will help you write your graduation speech–whether you are a student member of the class or you’re a guest speaker invited to address a graduating class. We’ll cover graduation speech questions such as,
- How long should my graduation speech be?
- What should go into the graduation speech outline?
- Should my graduation speech be funny or inspirational, or both?
- Which graduation speech examples should I watch for inspiration?
- How to write a graduation speech;
- Should i give the graduation speech
As a graduation speech writer, a graduation or commencement speech can be one of the toughest to write because so many different audience members have to be addressed. Your commencement speech isn’t just for the graduating class but all who are in attendance of the graduation ceremony. Graduation day becomes a speaking event to not one group but many. Yet by following the speech writing advice in this guide, you’ll be well on your way to creating a memorable graduation speech.
What makes a good graduation speech?
You probably want to create a standing ovation with your speech–one that leaves a lasting impression on your classmates and teachers and the entire crowd.
To figure out what makes a good graduation speech, let’s start out with what would make a poor one and reverse the qualities:
A poor graduation speech is…
- Filled with cliches (“Follow your dreams…”)
- Ill-prepared: it was clear that the speaker wrote it the night or hours before
- Disorganized: the speaker didn’t have a theme or path to get to their conclusion
- Filled with general advice and platitudes (similar to cliches)–the speaker didn’t choose specific stories or advice that might help the graduating class and it was just general platitudes that you’d find from a vanilla motivational speaker
A great and memorable graduation speech…
- Contains unique stories and perspectives that only that speaker can give
- Prepared well in advance of graduation day
- Organized around a familiar graduation speech template
- Combines humor, inspirational, and practical advice, into one speech
Let’s get a foundational question out of the way first, “How long should a graduation speech be?”
For a student graduation speech, such as a valedictorian or elected class speaker, I’d recommend around 10 minutes. If you’re the main “commencement speaker,” I’d suggest a bit longer, around 15 minutes. If you assume a speaking rate of 140 words per minute, that comes out to 1400 words for a 10-minute speech and 2100 words for a 15-minute speech. However some famous speakers can get away with 18 minute or 26 minute graduation speeches.
One thing to keep in mind about graduation and commencement is that there are usually multiple speakers and the entire list of names for the graduating class has to be read. That means a long ceremony. Therefore, speakers should err on the side of shorter speeches for graduation.
How to write a speech for graduation
Step 1: Determine a theme for your graduation speech or how to make a graduation speech less cliche
For how to make a graduation speech interesting or to figure out what to write about, you want to start with your theme. Your theme is your speech idea–it’s the driving idea that will bring together your life lessons, personal experience, mistakes, and practical advice, all into one coherent speech.
Here are some questions to help you come up with your theme:
1. Have you watched other graduation speeches for themes? This guide contains numerous graduation speech examples to watch. See if you can pick out the main message from each speaker and how that message diverted from what you typically expected to hear.
2. Can you take common or cliche graduation speech advice and turn it on its head? What if we didn’t follow our dreams? What if we took the easy path rather than the hard one? What if it was OK to quit something rather than never give up?
3. What advice or life lessons can only you give because of your unique experiences in life?
4. If you were to give your Last Lecture (like Randy Pausch), what would you say?
5. Are there quotes from books, music, or movies, that would resonate with the graduating class that you could use as a basis for your theme? Goodreads is a great place to start to go beyond cliche quotes you’ll find on every other website.
6. What have you learned from your mistakes? What practical and life-lesson advice can you give based on those mistakes?
Step 2: Create a graduation speech outline/graduation speech template
Once you have your theme, rather than jumping immediately to all of the stories and lessons you want to share, it’s often easier for speakers to start with an outline and fill in from there.
This step often answers the question, “What to stay in a graduation speech?”
Here are a few speech structures that have been used well by speakers in their commencement address:
3 Stories, 3 Lessons: In this graduation speech sample from Steve Jobs’ Stanford Commencement Address, he tells three stories each with its own lesson at the beginning (you can put yours at the end if you’d like).
Topical Speech Structure: Admiral McRaven does this in his famous “Make Your Bed” speech where the speech is divided into 10 lessons each with a story or piece of advice after them.
Group-based: Many graduation speeches fall into this category where the person talks to each group in the audience and gives them a message–the parents, the teachers, the students, etc.
Step 3: Gather graduation speech quotes, people to thank, stories, examples, statistics (if needed)
Next, you want to brainstorm ideas for what to include that would work well with your theme and outline.
- What stories of your school experience can you share?
- Can you tell stories about your fellow graduates and classmates?
- What are some of your favorite school memories–either from when you attended or as a student of that class?
- Is there a funny story that the whole audience would understand?
- What personal stories can you share that are instructive to members of the class? These could be moments of mistake, failure, triumph after defeat, anything that shows your humility.
- What message do you want to send to the parents of the class?
- Is there an inspiring quote or set of inspirational quotes that you want to use? Are they not the typical cliche quotes from Gandhi (“Be the change…”), or JFK, (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”)? Choose something that hasn’t been used 10,000 times already.
- Is there a shocking statistic that fits well with what you want to say? Don’t bog everyone down with numbers but if there’s something that stands out, go ahead and use it.
Most of these topics deal with how to tell stories in graduation speeches. When telling them, you can go the long route and tell the whole story from beginning to end, but other times, you may just need to give the audience a few sentences to make your point. Tailor the length of your story to the time allotted. In the speech examples above, McRaven used very short stories, vignettes, told in just about a paragraph whereas Steve Jobs told three longer stories. Use both as a model depending on the approach you take.
Step 4: Writing a graduation speech and editing it
Now that you have a theme, outline, and have gathered your ideas, it’s time to turn what you have into a coherent speech.
One way to start writing your graduation speech is to write to the outline you chose. Speakers often find it easiest to start with the middle portion of their speech–the main lessons and stories, and to add on the opening and closing at the end.
If you’re wondering how to write a funny graduation speech, the quotes, stories, and examples you use, will drive the humor. Start with funny stories (rather than one-liner jokes) and you should get the laughs that you expect. If you’re a High School Musical fan, you can take some inspiration from Troy Bolton’s graduation speech.
Once you have the main part of your speech written (or created), you’ll want to add on your opening and closing. It’ll be easier to figure out how to open a graduation speech or how to end one if you know what the main portion will be. Speakers often ask, “How to start off a graduation speech or how to start an interesting graduation speech?”
Here’s how to open a graduation speech:
- Acknowledge important people in attendance (don’t thank too many or you’ll lose your audience–just the person who introduced you and the most senior people in title in attendance)–a simple, “Superintendent Smith, Principal Anderson, Parents, Family, Class of 2021!” works.
- State your theme
- Start with an anecdote or quote relevant to the speech
- Stay away from overused phrases like “momentous occasion”
How to end a graduation speech
- Come back to your theme
- Connect back to something you said in the opening–like a quote or story–some speakers start a story and then end it in the closing
- Sum up everything you’ve said and pair that with your theme
Step 5: Practice Your Graduation Speech
Next, you’ll need to practice your speech. Public speaking is a skill like any other and the more you practice the better you’ll be.
Here are a few ways to practice:
1. Give the entire speech the whole way through and keep practicing it until you are comfortable with it
2. Practice the individual portions of your speech and then practice the whole thing together
3. Scaffolded memorization/practice: Give your speech from its full text, create an outline that contains most of the information, then give your speech until comfortable. Keep creating a smaller and smaller outline until you just have bullet points.
Famous Graduation Speech Examples:
Sometimes it’s easier to just watch graduation speech examples to figure out what to say. While watching, consider:
1. What is the theme of the speech?
2. What stories did the speaker choose to use?
3. How did the speaker avoid typical cliches?
4. How did they start their graduation speech? How did they end their speech? What did they put in the middle?
Funny graduation speeches
Tim Minchin graduation speech at the University of Western Australia
Jim Carrey graduation speech at Maharishi International University
Amy Poehler at Harvard Class Day
Rashida Jones at Harvard Class Day
Will Ferrell graduation speech at USC
Inspirational graduation speeches
David Foster Wallace, “This is Water” at Kenyon College
Neil Gaiman at the University of the Arts
Kerry Washington at GW
Short Graduation Speech Examples
Dr. Corey Hicks at Concordia University of Chicago
Nursing graduation speech
Medical School Graduation Speech
Business School Graduation Speech
Law School Graduation Speech
Teacher graduation speech
Conclusion for how to write a graduation speech:
The next step to write your speech is to put time aside to think through your theme, outline, stories, and to watch graduation examples. One option is to use the Graduation Speech Swipe File that I’ve put together that includes more speeches to watch along with more brainstorming questions to help you out. Download it below.