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The Power of Words & Commencement Speeches

By Martie Hevia | Blue Beach Song™

[Updated: June 15, 2010 | 9:00 a.m. PST]

President Obama gave a spring commencement speech today, May 1st, at the University of Michigan. It was a good speech and it reminded me that graduations are just around the corner.

Every year, around this time, most of us probably reflect on our own graduations… from kindergarten, from grade school, from high school, from college, from trade school, or from grad school. We think about the moment, what it signifies to complete a stage in our lives and move on to the next, and we remember the words… spoken or written, from our parents and family, from our teachers and classmates, and, sometimes, from our commencement speakers.

Unfortunately, these keynote speakers, who have been asked to commemorate this important event with an inspiring, moving, or introspective speech, don’t always leave us with memorable words; sometimes they leave us feeling a bit cheated. If you turn out to be one of those graduates whose commencement speaker made your mind wander in sheer boredom, or you were not fortunate enough to have the President of the United States speak at your graduation, I will leave you, at the end of this post, with some excerpts from inspiring commencement speeches.

But first, a word about words from this logophile…

Words can be powerful. They can inspire or incite, depending on your point of view. They can change the world or they can change your mind. They can help you explore everything from outer space to your inner-most feelings. They can expose you to new things or help you see old things in a new way. What power that is!

Words can be artfully beautiful, as well. Depending on how they are woven together, they can produce some incredibly beautiful cadences and rhythms, imagery and feelings – not unlike composing music with notes or a painting with colors.

But as powerful and as beautiful as the words themselves can be, the way we consume words, hearing them or reading them, alone or in a group, through songs, poetry, books, speeches, and in a myriad of other ways, can affect the impact of the words delivered. Some mediums, like songs, offer a more immediate and emotional experience; and other mediums, like books, give you time to taste, chew and digest the words, to re-read and analyze them, to stop and think, and then to continue reading or walk away.

Speeches, however, are unique and powerful in ways difficult to explain. They are written with particular attention to the way they will sound, as much as the way they will be read. They are intimate and public; impacted by the venue, the event, and the audience’s reaction. They can be experienced in the moment, read soon thereafter in newspapers, or shared much later with future generations.

The times in which the speech was written and the time that has passed since it was written, can change the perspective or add greater understanding for future readers. For example, whenever I re-read The Gettysburg Address, I can’t help but think about the way it was experienced by those who listened to President Lincoln give this beautifully written speech on a bloody battlefield, by those who read it the next day in the newspapers along with the pundits’ commentaries, and by those of us who, generations later, have quietly read aloud those words to ourselves, imagining the moment, and, with perspective, understanding its importance in history.

Ellen DeGeneres, Commencement Speech, Tulane University, 2009

A commencement speech offers a powerful way to deliver a message… the cadence, the ambiance, the occasion… every little aspect has impact and import. The graduates, sharing the experience and affecting each other’s reactions, are emotionally open, expectant, and vulnerable. As such, the author-speaker has a special responsibility to carefully craft his words, think about the feelings he wants to evoke and the actions he wants to inspire. The impact is immediate. The import is palpable. The speaker and the audience are in the moment together… an emotional moment.

This June, graduates will be listening to the commencement speaker invited by their school or university to give that all-important speech. Although that speaker will have the honor, responsibility, and opportunity to mark that important moment of graduation with some words of wisdom and inspiration, they won’t always succeed, and graduates may walk away un-inspired and un-impressed.

If you are one of those graduates that has been deprived of that great moving speech, and you are not alone, don’t despair, great commencement speeches, full of advice, inspiration and wisdom, are only a click away on the Internet. But you will find that throughout your life there will be moments when you need to feel inspired, not just at graduation, and when that need comes, I hope you will reach back in history and (re-) discover speeches that changed the world, that marked momentous events, that inspired and motivated people to action.

Seek out these gifted writers and talented speakers, their words can feed your soul and make you feel renewed. Feel the power and beauty of a perfectly crafted message, listen to the cadence, absorb the moment, and allow yourself to be moved. And if, like me, you are not much for ‘pomp and circumstance,’ skip your graduation altogether, take a book of inspirational speeches with you, head for the coastal mountains, hike to a great spot on a cliff overlooking the ocean… and reflect on the moment! (It worked for me.)

Congratulations to all the new graduates! Wishing you all the success in the world.

Martie Hevia © 2010 | All Rights Reserved

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Memorable Excerpts from Commencement Speeches

  • “But we cannot expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question somebody’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism… For if we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we will become more polarized, more set in our ways. That will only reinforce and even deepen the political divides in this country. But if we choose to actively seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs, perhaps we can begin to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from.” [Barack Obama, Commencement Speech at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, May 1, 2010 – URL: ]
  • “Replace cynicism with its old-fashioned antidote, skepticism. Don’t confuse success with excellence… Insist on heroes. And be one. Read. The book is still the greatest man-made machine of all — not the car, not the TV, not the computer. Write. Write letters. Keep journals. Besides your children, there is no surer way of achieving immortality. Serve your country. Insist that we fight the right wars… Do not let your government outsource honesty, transparency, or candor. Do not let your government outsource democracy. Steel yourselves. Your generation will have to repair this damage. And it will not be easy. Insist that we support science and the arts, especially the arts. They have nothing to do with the actual defense of our country — they just make our country worth defending. Do not lose your enthusiasm. In its Greek etymology, the word enthusiasm means, ‘God in us.'” [Ken Burns, Documentary Filmmaker, Commencement Speech at Georgetown University, Washington D.C., May 20, 2006 – URL: ]
  • “Here’s the point: when we don’t pay close attention to the decisions made by our leaders; when we fail to educate ourselves about the major issues of the day; when we choose not to make our voices and opinions heard, that’s when democracy breaks down. That’s when power is abused. That’s when the most extreme voices in our society fill the void that we leave. That’s when powerful interests and their lobbyists are most able to buy access and influence in the corridors of Washington – because none of us are there to speak up and stop them.” [Barack Obama, Commencement Speech at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, May 1, 2010 – URL: ]
  • “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” [Steve Jobs, Commencement Speech at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, June 12, 2005 – URL: ]
  • “Forget old definitions. They were based on the idea that what happened to men was politics, and what happened to women was culture. That division was just a way of keeping certain parts of life immune to change. In fact, the personal is very often political. And revolutions, like houses, get built from the bottom up, not the top down.” [Gloria Steinem, Commencement Speech at Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts, May 17, 1987 – URL: ]
  • “Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself. You need to take up the challenges that we face as a nation and make them your own. Not because you have a debt to those who helped you get here, although you do have that debt. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate than you, although I do think you do have that obligation. It’s primarily because you have an obligation to yourself. Because individual salvation has always depended on collective salvation. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential.” [Barack Obama, Commencement Speech at Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois, June 4, 2005 – URL: ]
  • “Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love… Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.” [Steve Jobs, Commencement Speech at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, June 12, 2005 – URL: ]
  • “At a time when our security and moral standing depend on winning hearts and minds in the forgotten corners of this world, we need more of you to serve abroad…At a time when our ice caps are melting and our oceans are rising, we need you to help lead a green revolution…At a time when a child in Boston must compete with children in Beijing and Bangalore, we need an army of you to become teachers and principals in schools that this nation cannot afford to give up on…At a time when there are children in the city of New Orleans who still spend each night in a lonely trailer, we need more of you to take a weekend or a week off from work, and head down South, and help rebuild…At a time of war, we need you to work for peace. At a time of inequality, we need you to work for opportunity. At a time of so much cynicism and so much doubt, we need you to make us believe again.” [Barack Obama, Commencement Speech at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, May 28, 2008 – URL: ]
  • “So I know that the decisions that I made after college worked out. But at the time I didn’t know that they would. See college is not necessarily predictive of your future success. And it’s the kind of thing where the path that I chose obviously wouldn’t work for you. For one, you’re not very funny. So how do you know what is the right path to choose to get the result that you desire? And the honest answer is this. You won’t. And accepting that greatly eases the anxiety of your life experience. … But the unfortunate, yet truly exciting thing about your life, is that there is no core curriculum. The entire place is an elective. The paths are infinite and the results uncertain. And it can be maddening to those that go here, especially here, because your strength has always been achievement. So if there’s any real advice I can give you it’s this. College is something you complete. Life is something you experience. So don’t worry about your grade, or the results or success. Success is defined in myriad ways, and you will find it, and people will no longer be grading you, but it will come from your own internal sense of decency which I imagine, after going through the program here, is quite strong…although I’m sure downloading illegal files…but, nah, that’s a different story. Love what you do. Get good at it. Competence is a rare commodity in this day and age. And let the chips fall where they may.” [Jon Stewart, Commencement Speech at The College of William & Mary College, May 20, 2004 – URL: ]

Memorable Commencement Speeches – Videos

    Ellen DeGeneres, Commencement Speech, Tulane University, 2009

    Steve Jobs, Commencement Speech, Stanford University, 2005

    John Legend, Commencement Speech, University of Pennsylvania, 2009

    Ken Burns, Commencement Speech, Penn State University, 2010

    Ronald Reagan, Commencement Speech, Notre Dame, 1981

    Randy Pausch, Commencement Speech, Carnegie Mellon University, 2008

    Barack Obama, Commencement Speech, Wesleyan University, 2008

    Wynton Marsalis, Commencement Speech, Northwestern University, 2009

    George H. Bush & William Clinton, Commencement Speeches, Tulane University, 2006


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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 2010-May-2 5:18 PM

    I dont remeber the comencement speech at my graduation I was too nervous however I do remeber a speech that a professor gave us the last day of a journalism class that I took my last semester in college it was about working hard and not giving up and going beyond the finish line or something like that like a runner

    and always having an ideal to look up to
    I dont remeber the exact words but I remeber way it moved me and what it made me feel I think that is the bottom line of the power of words their power to move

    nice post amiga


    • 2010-May-2 8:54 PM

      Thanks, Tania, for sharing your memories of those powerful words. It is a magical time – you graduate so full of hope and wonderment about what the future will hold for you. Everything is possible at that moment. It is a powerful feeling to be so full of hope. -Martie

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