The commencement speech: “As filling as a cracker, as memorable as a sneeze.” That’s prominent speechwriter Mike Long’s take on the annual rhetoric ritual. Writing in his fun (and free) Prose for Pros enewsletter, Long says, “The rhythms, setups, and payoffs of the springtime address come as natural to an American speaker of English as cluelessness to a DMV clerk, and in a vocabulary as finite, cramped, and specific as a linguist might collect at a Starbucks counter.”
His prescription? “Death to the commencement address. Let’s start hiring DJs.”
Writing around this time last year on my personal blog Writing Boots, I was only slightly less dismissive of the commencement speech-as-communication. I said I didn’t think commencement speeches were written for “rigorous and constructive purposes”:
Commencement speeches … are essentially ceremonial and symbolic events, rather than communication opportunities. They are form, not substance.
They say: We invited This Important Person to bless Our Graduating Class and Honor Our Institution with a few words the nature of which don't matter all that much. And This Important Person said yes!
Choose Condoleezza Rice as your Important Person and get her to accept, and you've already said 90 percent of what will be said. Choose Ellen DeGeneres, and you've said something else. Lady Gaga, something different still.
… Commencement speeches are ceremonial events rather than substantive summits … the invitation is the communication.
In response to that, I received a list of fairly ancient exceptions, like JFK’s 1963 commencement speech at American University, that proved the rule. Do you disagree with Mike and me? Weigh in here! —DM