I have been obsessed with commencement speeches ever since I heard Sheryl Sandberg's at UC Berkeley in 2016. It was here that she spoke about dealing with grief, shortly after her husband's death. I was grateful to hear one of my idols speak so honestly and authentically that it opened my eyes to what a great speaker should sound like.
Whether you have your own commencement speech or another big speech of the like coming up, there are a few key elements that should not be omitted. Every speech is different, but take it from these incredible speakers -- give your speech with your audience in mind. If you don't have their attention, then the speech will be a lost cause.
1. Start with humor.
Former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton began her Yale University commencement speech immediately with humor. Yale students and faculty typically wear playful hats at graduation so Clinton pulled out a Russian hat, following with, "If you can't beat them, join them!," jabbing at her former opponent and current President's political movements.
Including humor is guaranteed to make you and your audience feel more at ease and connected. It's a simple reminder that you're human and although you're standing on stage, you are no different than the people are you speaking to. Be relatable.
2. Talk about your audience.
We know that you have so many important things to say, but don't forget to tell your own story without tying it back to your audience's story. Speeches are an intimate moment where you can share something that you don't normally share in your day-to-day, but make sure there's a clear-cut reason why you're telling it. Whether it's meant to inspire, motivate, or ignite change, make it clear why your experiences should matter to the bigger picture.
Human rights activist Amal Clooney drove home the theme of courage in her commencement address to Vanderbilt University, giving a long list of present-day and relatable examples to inspire graduates to be courageous.
3. Be colorful with your words
Be visual when it comes to speaking. Strive to paint a picture for your audience and help them see exactly what you see. Need help bringing more detail into a landmark moment of your speech?
Follow the 5 W's -- who, what, when, where, why - and mix them in with the five senses -- taste, sight, touch, smell, and sound. If you can tap one of the W's with a few of the senses, you are on your way to a beautiful picture.
Actor Chadwick Boseman of the movie Black Panther, spoke to Howard University in this style. His unwavering tone and vivid description of losing an acting job for speaking his mind makes you feel like you're right there with him.
4. Practice speaking with impact.
Oprah is the master at this. Granted, she's had a bit of practice with her own talk show of 25 years and all, but she is the Queen of capturing the audience's attention with her words, perfecting the right moments to pause, reflect, and emphasize. Take it from this year's commencement speech at USC Annenberg School of Journalism.
"The question is: What are you willing to stand for? That question is going to follow you throughout your life. And here's how you answer it. You put your honor where your mouth is. Put your honor where your mouth is. When you give your word, keep it. Show up. Do the work."
Before you give your speech, print it out and read through it, practicing different ways to deliver each sentence. Create a rubric of symbols including where to take a breath, pause, emphasize the end of a sentence, emphasize a word, or any other rhetoric cues.
5. Be current.
Speakers like Tim Cook, Michael Bloomberg, and Oprah all tied their speeches back to current events. Whether it was shade towards Facebook's data scandal or acknowledgment of the #MeToo movement, many speakers used today's top events to drive home a point. It shows that your theme is relatable in today's world to almost any situation, helping your audience really believe in the words you are saying.
6. Own your personality.
Speeches can feel serious, but they don't have to be. Throw out the monotony and be unapologetically you. Tell a joke, include a personal anecdote, speak naturally, and add your own flair. Make the audience feel like you are actually talking to them like a friend, albeit an all-knowing and confident one.
American singer-songwriter Josh Groban, graced High Point University for this year's commencement speech. There, he mentioned how nervous he was to give the speech due to his fear of public speaking and his imposter syndrome feelings of not completing college. But, he did it anyway. He embraced that fact, owned it, and shared his words of wisdom knowing that no one else in the world had the experience and journey he had.
7. Share a relatable story with a big shock factor
In Clinton's speech, she also shared a story about how she was choosing between Harvard and Yale Law School in 1969. She attended a cocktail party for incoming students at Harvard when she met a famous law professor who helped make her decision much easier:
"My friend said, 'Professor, this is Hillary Rodam. She's trying to decide whether to come here next year or sign up with our closest competitor.' The great man gave me a cool, dismissive look and said, 'Well first of all, we don't have any close competitors. And secondly, we don't need any more women at Harvard.'"
When developing your shock factor, make the story succinct and the final sentence strong. There should be no question as to when the audience should feel shocked.