If by chance you've been living under a rock these past few weeks, this might be news - it's commencement season and with it, time for those perennial speeches. Quick! Who was your graduation speaker in college? Anyone, anyone? If you're like most, you have no earthly idea. But let's thin the herd more dramatically, shall we? Whether or not you recall the speaker's name, what message did she or he deliver that day? Cue the laugh track, because absent an eidetic memory, you don't know. Don't feel badly. It's not you, and it's not just graduation speeches. The same amnesia follows those organization-wide pep talks CEO's give (maybe even one you've gifted the troops). The questions are why, and how do we change things? To answer those questions, here are: a few thoughts to consider, the key to actual change, and 3 reasons to get going.

A Few Thoughts About Why Grad Talks Fail To Do Their Job

Here's something simple worth noting: Though it celebrates an end, to commence means to begin something new. So, all celebration of past achievement aside, the job of the commencement speech is to get others to start again. And the best way to get someone to undertake the not-so-small task of starting something new is to get them to want to do it and to believe in the reason why. And yet, most commencement addresses do the exact opposite, usually by making one or both of two crucial mistakes.

The first common mistake is they tell. Even when they don't mean to be, most grad talks are lectures. It's a format even colleges have increasingly, albeit sheepishly, acknowledged as a faulty tool for learning (even if a favorite for teaching). But while oration might fill a brain, it doesn't really spur a brain or its owner to create new value. It's true that sometimes these sermons do more than just tell, they ask a question - a valuable and proven tool for getting others to think. But tradition finds most speakers answer their own questions. Occasionally it's arrogance that has them doing so, but more often they either assume an answer is expected (as though the answer is the most valuable thing) or like their audience, they dislike the discomfort of leaving the question open. That's too bad - because openness is one of the most powerful tools for catalyzing both creative thought and value creation, the very two things critical to initiating anything new. Creative thought and creating value also happen to be two things for which graduates, employees, and indeed people hunger.

The second reason the typical commencement address fails then fades is that such addresses tend to focus on supporting ideas instead of the very thing such ideas are there to support. To make the point, consider the following enduring themes of commencement addresses throughout the ages: setting goals; learning from mistakes; finding inspiration in the achievement of others; being kind; and persevering. Without a doubt these are valuable, even necessary tools. But their value is dependent on a clear purpose existing that gives each of these supporting ideas meaning and direction.

Here's why each of these traditional speech themes falls short ... A goal is not itself a purpose. And while we can all learn from our mistakes, the lesson comes less from the mistake itself, and more from where you point yourself after the error. The inspiration found in the achievements of others is all well and good, but the goal isn't to become them or to play out their story like a carbon copy - that's not only impossible, it doesn't lead to the creation of anything new or fresh. And being kind and being persistent while nice find their greatest value when they work in balance. Such a balance can only be found within some larger context. Pointing people to that larger context is the real holy grail of the commencement speech.

The Key To Actual Change

How then do you raise the odds that people will commence and more, progress - be it after a four-year degree, or at the start of a new project, quarter, or fiscal year? The answer is a question, and the question is this: To what purpose will you attend?

Why is this question the power path towards moving people to commence? Simple. First, you're asking a question, you're not telling. Second, by not answering the question for them, you're turning your focus and theirs to purpose, prompting your audience to step forward to create their own purpose. But perhaps most critical of all, you are tying the actions of defining and pursuing purpose to the need to attend - that is, the need to hone purpose, to pursue it, to refine it, and to keep it relevant ongoing. If progress and value is what you hope will result, this is the power source.

3 Reasons To Get Going

Should you need to say more, try these added words of wisdom on for size. Rather than perfect speeches, they're just plain good advice about the need to attend, why and how.

  1. The need to attend. In a 2005 address to graduates of Kenyon College, bestselling author and MacArthur Fellow David Foster Wallace offered this little parable. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?""The upshot: Context, like a clear purpose, is vital; but then you have to place yourself in it.
  2. Why to attend. Steve Jobs bluntly put the most obvious reason for attending purpose to the 2005 graduating class at Stanford University. "Remembering that you are going to die," Jobs said, "is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose." Thinking you have something to lose, or that you might look stupid trying to figure out how to fulfill your purpose are among the key reasons many never get going. Life, however, doesn't wait. "You are already naked," Jobs pointed out. "There is no reason not to follow your heart." It's your time. Figure out how you want to use it, but then get going.

  3. How to attend. Don't sit around waiting for an easy way. Pursuing purpose, not waiting for someone to dictate it to you is what it's all about. But remember, anything worthwhile takes effort. As Football coach Woody Hayes reminded the graduating 1986 graduating class of Ohio State University, "You'll find out that nothing that comes easy is worth a dime. I never saw a football player make a tackle with a smile on his face. Never." Attend, with passion and purpose ongoing. Enough talk - commence.
Published on: Jun 20, 2019
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