Commencement Highlights 2015

Spring signals rebirth, improved weather, and the time for commencement–meaning talks that inspire, advise, and occasionally drone on much too long. As a rhetorical lesson, we can learn something not just from the advice (or cliches) that speakers love to direct to the new graduates. One key to making your speech great is to focus on things that really matter:

Today’s spiraling millennials know intuitively that having a sense of one’s purpose in life is the key to well-being. And research clearly shows they are right. In a 2009 study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers interviewed 806 adolescents, emerging adults and adults about their purpose in life. A key finding of the study was that being able to articulate a life purpose was strongly associated with much greater life satisfaction than failing to do so.

via How to Avoid Commencement Clichés –

Not to say that the rudimentary skills of public speaking don’t matter, as well. Oh, that if we could all polish our skills for say, 30 years on a late night talk show like David Letterman!

Talk — relatively spontaneous, genuine, unrehearsed conversation — was, of course, the main point of the genre when the “Tonight Show” was pioneered by Steve Allen back in 1954, redefined by Jack Paar when he took the helm in 1957, and turned into a national institution by Johnny Carson in the ’60s and ’70s. Here was a place where show-business celebrities could drop at least some of their public persona and give us a glimpse of what they were “really” like. Sure, that glimpse was always a little stage-managed — the conversational topics screened, the anecdotes carefully baked. But those nightly sessions on the “Tonight Show” guest couch were a relaxed, human-scale refuge in a hype-filled showbiz world.

Mr. Letterman, like Mr. Carson before him, understood this. He never shirked his publicity duties (“let’s show the clip”), and he valued guests like Martin Short and Steve Martin, who came primed with fresh material. But he took the interviews seriously. He asked real questions and actually listened to the answers. He rarely fawned, or let his guests off the hook. He poked their sensitive spots and cut through the phoniness.

When he talked to politicians and other newsmakers, he was informed, even passionate. (As the years went on, he did less and less to hide his liberal political views.) When he baited guests like Donald Trump and Bill O’Reilly, his quips couldn’t totally hide the disdain. When he talked to ordinary civilians — dog owners with their stupid pet tricks, kids showing off their science projects — he was naturally curious, engaged and winning. Whenever a star came on and tried to play him — Joaquin Phoenix in his sullen faux-rap-star phase, for example — Mr. Letterman showed no patience. He didn’t want a performance; he wanted people.

via NYT | “David Letterman Knew How to Talk

Other highlights worth noting from the Commencement 2015 season?

  • Ed Helms takes apart any journalistic respect that Rolling Stone might have previously possessed at UVa:  “It has been said that a rolling stone gathers no moss,” Helms said. “I would add that sometimes a rolling stone also gathers no verifiable facts or even the tiniest morsels of journalistic integrity.” [HuffPo]
  • Kayne encourages Art Institue of Chicago grads to be bold:  ‘I’m sorry’ is something that you can use a lot,” he told the crowd. “It gives you opportunity to give your opinion, apologize for it, and give your opinion again.”
  • The notable documentary filmmaker Ken Burns hits on the issue du jour at Washington University at St. Louis–with Baltimore, Ferguson, and other recent events still simmering under the surface: “Remember: Black lives matter! All lives matter. Reject fundamentalism, wherever it raises its ugly head. It’s not civilized.” He also advises, “Be about the unum, not the pluribus.”

Want more? Check out’s list of their top commencement speeches of all time, including a few of my favorites from George Saunders, David Foster Wallace, Neil Gaiman, and Vaclav Havel.


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