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Marketing Takeaways from Commencement Speeches
Not everyone who graduates from Princeton and Harvard speaks Latin.
But folks attending graduation ceremonies might think they do.
Each year, the schools’ salutatorians deliver their commencement speech in Latin. The graduates all nod along and laugh at the jokes at the right times. To family and friends in the audience, it seems like they’re all fluent in the ancient language.
In reality, graduates are given a cheat sheet with the speech in English along with prompts to “laugh” and “cheer” at specific times.
It’s one of countless graduation traditions, and further proof that the ceremonies tend to be a lot more fun for the graduates than the people sitting in the audience.
As graduation season winds down, communications pros have another year’s worth of stellar speeches to mine for inspiration and techniques.
The best graduation speeches offer a masterclass in rhetoric and delivery, and there are plenty of great examples. Steve Jobs’ 2005 address to Stanford University meditating on his life – and his death. David Foster Wallace‘s “This is Water” speech at Kenyon University that same year. Toni Morrison’s 2004 speech at Wellesley College rejecting commencement cliches and telling grads “you are your own stories.”
Who is Your Audience?
Commencement speeches are the ultimate exercise in knowing your audience.
A generation or two ago, that audience didn’t extend much beyond the room they were speaking in. A speaker’s job was to inspire or entertain graduates and attendees.
Today, however, there’s the potential for a much larger audience. Commencement speeches now have the potential to go viral and enter our cultural consciousness. NPR even sorts and catalogues them into a searchable database. They become platforms for the speakers to support or subvert their own brand on a much larger stage.
For most speakers at most schools across the country, that distracts from the primary communication goal. The best approach is to focus on resonating with their core audience – the graduates themselves.
Tailoring your message to a specific audience is the best way to make an impact and create a stronger call to action – even if it means speaking Latin.