Making a Commencement Address Work for Your Executive

From the archives of The Influential Executive, 7/2008

Speechwriters and communication executives ask me all the time, “Where are good speaking opportunities?” The answer is, any place your executive gets a chance to speak can be a great opportunity to talk about his particular industry, a cause or charity he might support, or any other topic that he thinks is important. College graduations are a great time to do this. A graduation speech does not have to be about success, integrity or ethics. Take this opportunity to enlighten your audience. If you write and present your words well, the speech will be memorable.

A perfect example is a commencement address I read last year by Ronald B. Richard, president of The Cleveland Foundation. He spoke at Baldwin-Wallace College, Berea, Ohio, on May 5, 2007. It starts off as your usual “fluffy” graduation speech.

President Durst, distinguished faculty, soon-to-be-distinguished graduates, proud family members and friends in the Baldwin-Wallace community … thank you for honoring me with the chance to be part of this ex-tremely meaningful event in your lives and for including me as a member of the class of 2007. I know this is a day that you will all remember, as will I.

When President Durst first asked me to speak at this commencement for the education and business administration master’s degree students I asked myself: “Am I really a suitable person to address these gra-duates?” But, within a few days it occurred to me that at least I had one qualification for the job: I am the proud son of a remarkable career high school teacher.

My mother enrolled in college after raising her five children and went on to teach Chinese history, Japa-nese history, Russian history, and history of the Italian Renaissance at the best high school in the Washington, D.C., area. And I am the proud son of a father who was, and still is at age 76, one of the nation’s outstanding business innovators and entrepreneurs. As a teenager, I remember seeing my father’s face, along with three other faces, on the cover of Business Week magazine, and the caption read: “The Young Tigers of Business.” So, if inheritance counts, maybe I can justify standing before you today.

I should add that I myself have spent half of my own career in international business with Panasonic, approximately the 15th largest company in the world. I have long been interested and involved in education at both the university and K to 12 levels, first as a member of the Spelman College Board of Trustees and Geor-getown University Board of Advisors, and over the past four years as a major funder of public and private educational institutions.”

It’s right after this point that he changes direction and starts speaking with substance.

And so, borrowing from these family genes and life experiences, I would like to share with you today my views on education and business, the relationship between them, and the importance these two key sectors play in the future health of our nation’s society, politics, economy, national security, and culture. And I would like to speak as well about your responsibilities as future educators and business executives in shaping our nation’s public policy agenda.

Teaching! Learning! Simply stated, there is no more important function in any nation than education. It is the bedrock upon which our society is built. And, education is the decisive factor in a person’s ability to succeed in life. Statistics prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that the more education you have, the more income you will earn during your lifetime. I think it is clear, as well, that the more education you have, the more likely you are to have a stimulating, exciting profession and life. And, if you are born poor, education, more often than not, is the only exit door out of poverty and into the economic mainstream.

From the nation’s standpoint, an educated populace is essential. We cannot defend the nation militarily, especially in this high-tech era, without the world’s best engineers and scientists. We can’t ensure public health and defend against microbial bugs that have become resistant to antibiotics without the best doctors and med-ical researchers. We can’t maintain our superior quality of life without technology and business innovators who create wealth and jobs through new products and businesses—and all of these folks only get to be the best in their fields through education.”

With education as the foundation of his thesis, Mr. Richard is able to launch into a variety of areas, in-cluding public schools, current teaching practices and the future of the U.S. job force. This is a forceful speech with strength and purpose that any audience member would find of interest. At the very end he brings it back and puts the focus on the graduates, never losing sight of the occasion.

So you teachers might only save one student or two or ten. And you business folks might only support and save five schools or three or just one, but your efforts in the aggregate can and will help to rescue this next generation of Americans.

So congratulations on your great accomplishment today. Go out into the world and enjoy your lives and careers. Have fun, keep your sense of humor, enjoy your rights, and uphold your responsibilities. And, one by one, go with my every good wish for your futures.

By keeping content the center of the speech, and never losing complete sight of the occasion, a valuable message will get across to all those who attend.


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