Graduation ceremonies are boring — but commencement speeches don't have to be

I've been a speaker at a lot of graduations. Here's what I've learned

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published June 24, 2022 9:00AM (EDT)

Rear View Of People Lined Up At Graduation Ceremony (Getty Images / Supachok Pichetkul / EyeEm)
Rear View Of People Lined Up At Graduation Ceremony (Getty Images / Supachok Pichetkul / EyeEm)

"Hey D, we have three high schools and two middle school commencements come in. How many do want to do?" my manager asked me a few years back. I paused. 

Paralyzed with a bit of survivor's guilt, plus a side of "why me?" because my career was so new, I finally said, "I love the kids. I'll do all the events if the dates and times align." 

"You don't have to everything," she responded, slightly annoyed. I respectfully disagreed, because I do — for a number a of reasons. 

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The first reason is I'm a Black man, a first-generation college graduate with a small piece of public success. And as a person who has graduated from multiple universities, I know most commencement speakers don't look like me. My commencement speakers were all old white men wearing nice suits and the shiniest hard-bottom shoes peeking out of their fancy regalia. They didn't wear Air Jordans and they can't tell you who Lil Durk is. They made old white men jokes and old white men references to guys like Clint Eastwood and John Wayne Westerns. I'm sure their intentions were good. I imagine those jokes and references probably landed better when schools were predominantly white, but colleges are much more diverse now and all young people need to see that success comes in different shapes, age groups, genders and hues. 

I texted my manager: SIGN ME UP FOR THEM ALL. That's where my commencement career begin. 

* * *

I know most commencement speakers don't look like me.

OK, so, I can't lie — another reason is bragging rights, especially if you deliver the keynote at a university graduation. Nothing feels cooler than being at a function held out on a courtyard, cocktail in one hand, cigar in the other, and being able to slide into a conversation about a university, "Oh yeah, I did the commencement there the other day ...." as the other person walks away as fast as they can. Not that I've ever done that. 

But I do think being asked to speak at any commencement, from elementary to graduate school, is an honor and worthy of pride. Especially if, like me, you weren't always the perfect student. That, too, delivers hope. Students need to hear and see they aren't going to fail at life even if they're not always perfect. Who better to tell them that we all have the potential to excel in different ways and that a poor GPA doesn't necessarily mean a poor life than the guy who had a poor GPA? 

RELATED: As a recent college graduate, I should be terrified – here's why I'm not

But the main reason why I speak at so many commencements is because graduations tend to be boring — watching off-white paint dry on a rainy day-style boring. At my own graduations, the excitement wore off as I made my way to my seat. The speeches that followed were so uninspiring I wanted to leave even if it meant sacrificing my diploma. The time between entering the arena and having my name called felt like 30 years with lackluster narration. And my last name is Watkins, so I had to wait until nearly everyone in the entire school received their diploma before I got the chance to snatch mine and give our dean that firm handshake. 

Nobody sets out to ruin a graduation. If speakers follow these steps, they and the students forced to listen to them will all win.

My undergrad ceremony was so boring that I never wanted to be a part of a graduation again, which is exactly why I need to do my part.

As a scholar, I believe that we can be better. 

Graduation season is upon us. The time of year for happy endings and beautiful new beginnings as spring fades into summer and schools across the nation shut down. In honor of our wonderful students and young scholars I am going to offer up a guide for commencement speakers. I know nobody sets out to ruin a graduation. I promise if speakers follow these steps, they and the students forced to listen to them will all win.

It's not about you

Yes, we know the school contacted you to speak. Yes, we know they may be paying your full honorarium. And yes, we know they may even be awarding you a doctorate in "Human Letters," but that still does not give you the right to stand behind that podium and hold those students hostage for two hours. Remember it is their day, not yours; you were brought in to offer a shot of inspiration, collect your money and trophies, and take your seat. The only person in America allowed to give a 40-minute commencement speech is Michelle Obama. The rest of us get 20 minutes, max.

Tell a good story

If you are invited to address students, then I'll assume you know how to tell a story. Practice that story, stick to that story and, by all means, avoid rambling. 

Most of the speakers dress like they're going to a funeral, a job interview or to court.

Be inspiring in how you dress, too 

There's nothing wrong with thinking about your commencement day outfit. I attended plenty of graduations before I ever spoke at one, and I've noticed that most of the speakers dress like they're going to a funeral, a job interview or to court. And I get it — dress the part, or dress for the job you want, etc. That line of thinking was extremely popular . . . 30 years ago. But this is 2022. Many of these graduates aren't going to be working in offices — they'll be working from home. So why not use the opportunity to show off your personality — with cool accessories or maybe even — stay with me here — a pair of sneakers the students will respect? This might sound like a trivial suggestion, but I'm serious. Relatable shoes have a way of adjusting your access point; the graduates will take notice and see a piece of themselves in you, and maybe even connect with you on a deeper level.

Do proper research

Conduct your own mini-investigation on the culture and demographics of the college where you plan to speak. Figure out what's popular on campus, who the students are listening to, what really matters to them, and reference those things in your speech so they know you care. 

Looking bored is a job for the graduates, not the commencement speaker.

Again, it's not about you

Be visibly engaged with the rest of the ceremony. Don't sit on stage looking like you're bored out of your mind because you tired yourself out with your hour-long speech. It is not time to go. Looking bored is a job for the graduates, not the commencement speaker. Remember that you could have been out a lot sooner if you didn't tell the entire version of your life story no one requested. Again: time your speech to be 20 minutes long, max — 15 is even better. 

Be a gracious guest

This may be just another speaking gig for you, but it might be the last graduation some of the students will ever attend, so please do everything in your power to make that day special. Smile for photos. Congratulate everyone and show genuine enthusiasm. Have a good time — because if you are not having a good time, students will know and that could be what they remember you for, not your new shoes or your deeply researched and perfectly practiced 19-and-a-half minute speech. 

Follow these simple steps and you could totally change someone's life for the better. Let the commencements begin.

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By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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