Anatomy Of A Great Commencement Speech : NPR Ed What makes a good commencement address great? We read more than 300 speeches and singled out the qualities that made them rise to the top.
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Anatomy Of A Great Commencement Speech

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Anatomy Of A Great Commencement Speech

Anatomy Of A Great Commencement Speech

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Before the diplomas are handed out, before caps are thrown in the air, before the proud family photos, there is the commencement speech. Some seven million students in the U.S. and their doting relatives have just heard or will be hearing that speech very soon. Some are more memorable than others. The NPR ED Team has sifted through hundreds of past speeches going back to 1774 and has built an online database of the best ones. Here's Cory Turner with a quick tutorial on commencement speech essentials.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: It's meant to give grads one last rush of optimism before they strap on the ankle weights of life. But how does a good speech work? Well, after reading or watching dozens of them for our Ed team database, I've noticed a few patterns.

AMY POEHLER: I can only assume I am here today because of my subtle and layered work in a timeless classic entitled "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo."

TURNER: That's comedian Amy Poehler using rule number one on Harvard: Be funny. She also covers rule number two: Make Fun of yourself, a rule that applies to presidents as well as to comedians.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: I thought the first degree I was given was honorary.

TURNER: In fact, then-President Reagan liked that joke so much, speaking at Notre Dame in 1981, he used it again on the Eureka College class of 1982. Here's another staple of the genre: downplay the genre. Good speakers can never seem to remember the speeches when they graduated.

JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER: Among the many things that I am unable to remember about the speaker that spring morning: name...

TURNER: That's novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, checking two boxes at once last year at Middlebury College. Check: he can't remember. And check: he's funny.

FOER: ...race, physical build and voice. I've run out of fingers.

TURNER: But let's get to the heart of the commencement speech: the message. And here's where things get tricky, because these days there are two very different kinds of speeches. On one side is this one from Steve Jobs.

STEVE JOBS: You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever - because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path.

TURNER: And here's the same message from comedian Ellen DeGeneres.

ELLEN DEGENERES: Follow your passion. Stay true to yourself. Never follow someone else's path - unless you're in the woods and you're lost and you see a path, then by all means you should follow that.

TURNER: Let's call this the "You're Special" speech. Follow your heart because life is about you and your specialness. Well, then comes this insidious other kind of speech.

DAVID MCCULLOUGH, JR.: You're not special.

TURNER: That's David McCullough, Jr., son of the great historian, addressing the Wellesley High School class of 2012. In case he wasn't clear...

JR.: Even if you're one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion, that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you.

TURNER: The goal of the "You're Not Special" speech is to say to grads: as hard as you've worked, you also lucked into plenty, like your parents and your country.

MICHAEL LEWIS: And with luck comes obligation.

TURNER: That's author Michael Lewis, speaking at Princeton the same year.

LEWIS: You owe a debt, and not just to your gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.

TURNER: And how do you re-pay that debt?

OPRAH WINFREY: You must find a way to serve.

TURNER: That's Oprah Winfrey, a few weeks before Lewis, at Spelman College. It turns out 2012 was a big year for the "You're Not Special" speech.

WINFREY: Martin Luther King said that not everybody can be famous but everybody can be great because greatness is determined by service.

TURNER: Service. That word comes up a lot in "You're Not Special" speeches. But sometimes the message isn't even about what you do for the world but how you view it. In short: Are you empathetic? In 2005, writer David Foster Wallace spoke at Kenyon College and he challenged grads there to step outside of themselves and imagine the value and richness of every life, even when they're stuck in line at the supermarket.

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE: It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer hell type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

TURNER: In this way, these two kinds of commencement speeches actually complement each other. Together they say, congratulations. You are special. Just remember, so is everyone else. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.

CORNISH: And you can find the Ed Team's commencement speech database at N.PR/NPRgrad.

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