The Five Biggest Mistakes Commencement Speakers Make

It’s that time of year again. Most of us know someone who is graduating from somewhere. Many of us will sit through one or more commencement ceremonies. A few of us will even have the honor of being commencement speakers. So what kinds of mistakes do commencement speakers make that are truly egregious? Here’s a short list. Be sure you’re not committing any of these commencement speaker crimes and you’ll be heard.

 1) Not having a theme for the presentation
Few things are more frustrating for an audience than searching unsuccessfully for the theme of a presentation. For a commencement speech this is even more important. Think up your theme and then stick close to it. Be true to it. Do not digress from it. Tell your audience what the theme (point, main idea, take away) is right from the start. Mention it throughout the presentation. Bring it home at the conclusion.

 2)  Not having a structure for the presentation
Listening is really hard work. And everyone in this particular audience is not only listening, many of them will want to remember what you said. Make it easy for them. Tell them there are “Three big lessons learned” or “Five steps to personal success” (but no more than five). This kind of structure will allow them to create labeled buckets in their minds into which they will put the stories and information you’re sharing with them. Forever after they’ll be able to refer to the wise things you shared with them on that special day.

3) Reading the presentation
Nothing SCREAMS insincere like someone reading “It’s such an honor to be here today.” Create notes for yourself that act as mind joggers to keep you on track and remind you of key points. Will it be smooth as silk? Probably not. What it will be is lively, with lots of contact with the audience, because rather than looking at a paper and reading, you’ll be looking out – at them – and communicating. Way way better. Oh, and by the way, be sure to PRACTICE OUT LOUD so that you’ll be super familiar with your content.

The first three mistakes are bad. These next two should be illegal. No kidding.

4) Speaking “off the cuff”
Seriously? You have to have known you were going to be addressing a (probably large) group of people on a day that has great import to them. Odds are there are many audience members who have traveled great distances at significant expense. Many who got to the ceremony extra early to be sure to get a good seat. With all of that effort on their part, couldn’t you have planned and practiced your presentation?

5) TELLING the audience you don’t have formal remarks and will be speaking “off the cuff”
OMG OMG OMG. It’s bad enough that you don’t have prepared practiced remarks, but to brag about it? To begin your presentation with it? How in the world can this be a good thing??? Maybe you’re thinking it makes you more “approachable” “just one of them”. Newsflash: you can’t have a “chat” with hundreds (or thousands) of people. Plus, commencement is a very important day for everyone there. One for which the graduates have been preparing for like, years. A day for which the audience has been imagining for, like, ever. (see above). Please, please, please, if you’re really not going to prepare – make that your own dirty little secret.

If you have been asked to be a commencement speaker; do everyone a favor. Make sure the presentation has a solid theme, a great structure, practice it OUT LOUD with only trigger words and phrases as notes. Not only will you be heard, you’ll have given a memorable, even possibly beloved, commencement speech.


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