Analyzing Graduation Speeches

It never fails; I always cry at graduations.  I’m not sure if it is the playing of “Pomp and Circumstance,” the feel of polyester gowns and mortarboard hats, or the foolhardy grins on the faces of seniors when they cross the stage, but I always cry.18160844_s

While I love graduations, I’m usually lukewarm at graduation speeches.  They are typically trite and overwrought with clichés while trying to impart wisdom that is rarely understood by the burgeoning youth who are only thinking about how many checks they will receive in their graduation cards.

However, there is some benefit to studying the speeches from a variety of standpoints.

They would be a great way to introduce the rhetorical situation and a rhetorical analysis can be done of some the most well-known graduation speeches. Students could be asked to do a variety of things to have a close reading of the speech.  While there are many great graduation speeches available, I have paired specific activities with specific speeches.

Consider asking students to…

  • Identify the top five lessons the speaker seeks to impart and evaluate the effectiveness of communicating those lessons.  The purpose of the graduation speech is to share words of wisdom to the listener.  This might be an activity to first use with a speech to aid comprehension and ensure students understand the message or argument.
  • Analyze the way in which the speech is unified and evaluate the use of a framing device that keeps the speech focused.  It might be content or it might be style, but effective speeches are focused and organized cohesively.  This is clearly seen in Steve Jobs’ speech to Stanford University graduates.
  • Determine which 2-3 devices or strategies are used most effectively and therefore become representative of the speech itself.  A good speech has a clear voice.  Ask students to determine what devices and strategies the speaker uses to maintain a cogent voice.  An excellent graduation speech to analyze for voice is David Foster Wallace’s speech to Kenyon College graduates.
  • Consider how the speech is tailored to a particular audience.  For this, the students might think about the immediate audience by analyzing the college enrollment itself.  Before providing the speech, ask students to provide first impressions of the university itself.  Then, ask students to read the speech, considering how the speech addresses that audience.  Consider using Joe Biden’s speech to the graduates of West Point or Stephen Colbert’s speech at the University of Virginia’s Valediction Exercises, which honors top performing students and professors the day before the official graduation.
  • Then, ask students to think about the broader audience of the speech.  Have students evaluate how the speaker addresses what is occurring socially, historically, or politically during the time of its delivery.   Bono’s graduation speech at the University of Pennsylvania does an excellent job of addressing the cultural climate of the time.

Compare and contrast speeches.  This option steps up the rigor by requiring students to have close knowledge of two speeches.

  • For example, students can analyze two speeches both delivered to Harvard.  I think JK Rowling’s speech pairs nicely with Bill Gates’ address to Harvard graduates.  Both address the nature of failure in interesting ways.  Students can draw inferences about both the speaker and the audience when comparing and contrasting these speeches.
  • Many leaders have addressed graduates multiple times.  Oprah Winfrey has made her rounds as a speaker.  Provide students a copy of her speech to Harvard University (2013) and Howard University (2007).  Students can do an in-depth look at how audience and occasion impact the construction of the speech.  They can also evaluate the consistency of style from one speech to the next.  Are there some trademarks to the speaker’s style that transcends setting?
  • Students also struggle to identify satire, so another option is to have them evaluate the humorous graduation speech.  Both Will Ferrell and Conan O’Brien  have addressed graduates at Harvard University.  Ask students to compare and contrast the techniques used by both and how those strategies enhance the purpose of the speech.
  • Lastly, if working on synthesis, provide students three graduation speeches from the same year and ask them to identify common themes that emerge and begin to consider what these speeches reveal about the time period.

Regardless, keep a box of tissues nearby to curb any tears the speeches bring to mind!


  1. L.Shanna says:

    EXCELLENT! Thanks so much for all these great links.

  2. J. OConnor says:

    I’ve long been a fan of commencement speeches, because, despite the fact that thousands of them are given each year, it’s incumbent upon the presenter to come up with something new and different. And the truly excellent ones are well worth seeing/listening to again.
    The lessons you’ve provided are terrific. I wish my English teachers of yore were half as creative. And, finally, one of my current favorite commencement speeches — that by Arianna Huffington at Smith this year.

  3. Claire says:

    This is a great idea! Thanks so much!

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