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Posted at 04:41 PM ET, 05/17/2011

Writing a commencement speech that doesn’t bore college grads


College students are a tough crowd to please. You have to be funny, but not lame. Inspirational, but not condescending. Intelligent, but not boring.

Writing the perfect college commencement speech is no easy task. Some would say it’s an impossible task.

But here are 10 tips from me and others who have sat through more than our fair share of graduations.

1) Be an interesting person with a fascinating career. Sometimes students begin raving about their graduation speaker as soon as the announcement is made. Just a few of the Class of 2011 braggable speakers: Dartmouth College got Conan O’Brien. Barnard College got Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg. New York University got Bill Clinton. Northwestern University got Stephen Colbert. Miami Dade College got President Obama.
Catholic University students celebrate after graduation Saturday morning. (By Dayna Smith for The Washington Post)

If you know that you are not interesting (but you happen to have a lot of money) and a college asks you to be their graduation speaker, chances are it’s because they want a donation. Do the right thing: Tell the college you will donate twice as much if they book a speaker students actually want to hear.

2) Realize that no one will remember you — and be cool with it. When Al Gore spoke at Johns Hopkins University’s commencement in 2005, he admitted that he could not remember who spoke at his 1969 commencement.

“I have no idea. Unless I've just tricked you into remembering, my bet is that 30 years from now you won't have any idea what was said here, but you will remember the parties tonight. You will remember your families being here, you will remember all the hard work that got you to this point and you'll remember how you felt.”

3) Therefore, keep it short. Very short. Try to say one memorable thing. Maybe it’s a funny story, maybe it’s an inspirational thought — but don’t rattle on and on in doing so. This is especially true if the graduates before you are sitting in dark-colored robes in the blazing sun or inside a stuffy gym lacking air-conditioning.

FLOTUS Michelle Obama gave an inspiring speech to George Washington University grads last year on the Mall. But as her comments neared the 30-minute mark, students sitting near me started unzipping their gowns and checking their cellphones. Remember, even interesting speakers can speak for too long.

4) Actually prepare a speech. Actor Richard T. Jones spoke at the University of Maryland University College commencement Saturday — and proved that even actors sometimes need a thorough script. As Jones rambled about how graduates should think big thoughts, his audience slammed him on Twitter:

Richard T. Jones the actor spoke at my commencement. He had no script and talk off the cuff. What a joke. I was embarrassed for him.less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

Richard T. Jones = Commencement Speech Fail!less than a minute ago via Twitter for Android Favorite Retweet Reply

Wow. So Richard T Jones, has abolutely nothing to say. I'm cringing.less than a minute ago via ÜberSocial Favorite Retweet Reply

5) Oh, and show up. National Public Radio’s Terry Gross was supposed to be Vassar College’s 2007 commencement speaker, but couldn’t attend at the last minute for personal reasons. Instead, she sent a recording of her speech to be played. Even all these years later, I heard from one graduate who was still a little peeved.

6) Try to be entertaining and funny, but skip the cheesy jokes or cliches. And if your name isn’t Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart, the chances of you saying something that’s genuinely funny are fairly low. So, take some advice from Will Ferrell’s 2003 speech to Harvard grads:

“I'm not going to stand up here and try to be funny. Because even though I am a professional comedian of the highest caliber, I've decided to do one thing that a lot of people are probably afraid to do, and that's give it to you straight.” (Disclaimer: Ferrell went on to give a hilarious speech. Ignore that.)

8) Be enthusiastic. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you say, it’s all about how you say it. I dare you to try to fall asleep while listening to the College of William & Mary’s keynote speaker from this year’s commencement, insurance broker and alum Joseph Plumeri.

9) Don’t plagiarize. This year a law student at N.C. Central University was having trouble writing his commencement speech when he found a You Tube video of a Binghamton University student giving a funny speech about average students. So, Preston Mitchum gave nearly the same speech on Friday in front of thousands — and was busted when someone noticed the similarities and word spread via Facebook, according to the News Observer.

Here’s the original speech (but, seriously, don’t steal it):

10) And know your audience. If you claim to know who shot J.R., a large majority of today’s college grads will look at you cluelessly. As they should — most of them were born in 1988 and 1989.

To avoid being culturally clueless, have someone under the age of 24 read through your speech and mercilessly edit it. And take a read through the Beloit Mindset List for the Class of 2011.

If you aren’t familiar with a college campus (or you graduated in a year that predates when these graduates were born) you need to do some heavy research. And make sure you don’t mix your colleges up, like Ann Curry did last year with Wheaton College.

A good example of playing to the audience: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg won over many GWU students on Sunday with an overload of campus references: "It won't be easy to leave a place where you can rub a hippo's nose, break-dance with big George, sit in Einstein's lap, pet a dog named Ruffles and buy a hot-dog from a guy named Manouch."

What advice do you have for someone writing a college commencement speech? Tell me in the comments or on Twitter, @wpjenna.

By  |  04:41 PM ET, 05/17/2011

 
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