By John F. Di Leo -
Pearls of wisdom for the speechmakers of graduation season, 2019…
Congratulations, Commencement Speakers! Today is your day!
After a lifetime of devotion to your respective careers – as journalists, entrepreneurs, inventors, CEOs, ward heelers, or rent seekers – you have finally reached that pinnacle of achievement reserved for only 4600 people each year: you have been selected to give a commencement speech at one of America’s institutions of higher learning.
You have finally made it.
As you feverishly scribble your notes over the days to come, preparing for that moment of success, that twenty or thirty, or Heaven forbid, forty-minute long opportunity to bask in the attention of a happy crowd on a sunny Saturday, there are a few things you should keep in mind. Perhaps you’ve heard of them:
They’re called the seven deadly sins.
Don’t spend the next few days and weeks obsessing over your rates that your speaker’s bureau negotiated for this gig; don’t be jealous of the guy who’s giving the commencement at the more prestigious college across town.
And by all means, when you realize this school isn’t paying you anywhere near as much as that other college is paying that other speaker (oh yeah, he’s getting WAY more than you are… you have no idea…), don’t let it eat you up and cause you to deliver a substandard speech.
There is only one law of economics that most colleges understand:
You charge what the market will bear.
This school offered you a price, and you could’ve turned it down, but you took it. That’s all there is to it.
Now you owe it to that audience to do the best job you can. You can’t hold it against the graduating class, and their friends and family, if you weren’t a good negotiator. Those kids deserve the best you have to offer.
For good or ill, this day is one of the proudest moments of these kids’ lives, and their parents’ lives too. Your personal jealousy over how your acquaintance at the club is getting twice as fat a fee for his speech has no place here.
Almost 30 years ago, the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of seventy years of corruption, tyranny, and collectivism, but you’d never know it from today’s corporate boardrooms, college campuses, and the nonprofit world where you and your friends hang out.
Inexplicably, socialism is all the rage.
You’ll look into the eyes of those students – those still impressionable youngsters, who have never been taught critical thinking and have swallowed every ounce of progressive poppycock that the pop culture has force-fed them – and you’ll be tempted to parrot the line they’re used to. Preach the politics of envy, and they’ll feel at home with you.
When you’re seeking applause from an audience, it’s easy to build some guaranteed winners into the speech. You can attack the establishment, declare that the tax code is too easy on the rich, blame big business for how hard life is for everybody else. Sure, it’s an option.
You can tap into the students’ jealousy – their fear of mounting student loan debt, their desire for the mansions of the fat cats and the sports cars of the movie stars – and you know that by condemning this “unfairness” as something that “government needs to fix”, you will both win the audience’s heart and win the next morning’s news coverage as well.
Don’t do it.
Be strong. Just because your crowd suffers from envy, that’s no reason to catch the affliction yourself.
Rise above it, and give them some honest talk. Tell them that wealth needs to be earned to have true value, that a redistributive tax code is both morally wrong and utterly destructive.
Warn them that the “progressivism” their heroes champion these days has impoverished hundreds of millions of people over the years, and has destroyed even once-growing economies. Venezuela, North Korea, Cuba, South Africa… the world is covered with countries that were once rising out of poverty and building a true middle class across the board, until the socialists took them over and wrecked them.
True, these students may not know it. Depending on which college you’re speaking at, it’s entirely possible your audience has never seen the progressive orthodoxy challenged at all.
Still, if you want to make an impact, tell them the truth: that the economics of envy are actually the politics of tyranny.
We shouldn’t really have to talk about this one, in this day and age, but yes, we probably should.
There are some cute co-eds in the front row… heck, in every row, unless this is an all-male college (there aren’t a lot of those left, come to think of it)… but don’t let them distract you.
This is the #MeToo era… and “Fifty Shades of Grey” was fiction (not even good fiction, come to think of it… pretty awful fiction).
You are not going to give a thrilling speech, share a moment as some blonde walks past you to accept her degree from the dean, and then sweep her off her feet at the dean’s cocktail reception afterward. That just doesn’t happen in real life.
If anything, you’ll get a slap, a laugh, a lawsuit, or all three. Just don’t do it. You’re not 23 anymore.
If you’re lucky – and of course you are, you’re here, right, among the few, the proud, the commencement speakers! – you aren’t just flying in for an hour and leaving. You’re one of the special guests of the college for graduation weekend, so you’ll be invited to every party, every celebratory breakfast, lunch, dinner and cocktail party.
Resist the temptation to overeat and overconsume. Oh, not because of your figure or your health; I couldn’t care less if you gain weight this weekend.
But when we overeat or drink too much, it affects us. It changes our mood, our demeanor, our judgment. And this is no time to have physical discomfort mess with your mentality.
Don’t let your guilt over an extra 5000 calories cause you to be even more judgmental, and make you rip on our society for “our collective consumption.” These kids have had four years of virtue-signaling already; they don’t need another hour of it at their graduation ceremony.
Let other colleges have speakers who whine that we Americans eat too much, drink too much, consume too much. They don’t really believe what they’re saying; our consumption, after all, has given us the energy to be the leaders of the world for centuries, and everyone knows it in their hearts. But they believe they’re supposed to attack our consumption, because it’s what they see in the pop culture.
Don’t join those other losers. And if you yourself don’t overindulge this weekend, perhaps you won’t be so tempted to overreact by badmouthing our way of life when you have that microphone in front of you.
This should be a moment of pride, not only for the graduates, but for their parents, siblings, and friends as well, but too many commencement speakers twist the day into one of anger.
Instead of rightly blaming the colleges for setting tuition so high, they blame society for allowing the colleges to charge those rates. Instead of blaming the kids for taking on debt that they can never repay, they blame the banks for agreeing to loan them the money (an almost laughable error, since the government nationalized the student loan process a decade ago).
We have seen commencement speakers attack the business world for moving production abroad, as they fail to understand that it was their political allies’ tax-and-spend policies that made these factory moves necessary.
Again and again, we see and hear speakers wrongly assign the blame for all our ills. They take advantage of that powerful microphone – with a huge and captive audience – and harangue against the status quo, the country, the community, the culture.
Sure, it gets the speaker on the front page the next day; it may even cause some snippets of the speech to go viral online.
But is that really serving your audience? Does it help these graduates to see their sendoff bathed not in joyful celebration but in anger and blame?
Scream on your own time, if you must. Spare these graduates your self-righteous fury.
Perhaps writing speeches isn’t your specialty. Perhaps you were selected because of fame, or accomplishments, or luck, that have nothing to do with the skills needed for speechmaking, such as writing, history, philosophy, and psychology.
You’re here as a motivational speaker, but perhaps that’s not your forte, so it’s tempting to take the easy way out: just read other people’s commencement speeches on the internet, and crib some ideas from there. Read whatever the kids are reading, and crib some more ideas from there. Listen to NPR or watch PBS, and regurgitate the anti-American claptrap these taxpayer-funded dinosaurs produce for their barely-detectable market-share.
After all, it’s not plagiarism if you change the words enough, right?
That’s sloth. It’s taking the lazy way out of your commitment.
There certainly are good commencement speeches out there, but they aren’t the ones that make the top ten lists on the internet. The speeches that are championed on the internet are the ones that reflect the views of the online editors. These parades of liberals say “that one was best” because that one was liberal as they are.
What good is that?
No matter why you were chosen – and in fact, it may be obvious by now that it was a mistake to choose you – you still have an obligation to at least try your best to deliver something special, a message that sends the kids out into the world with hope, with enthusiasm, with an appreciation of what is possible, and the confidence that with the right effort, and the right values, they too can get to where you are.
It requires effort on your part. You have to think about what approaches have worked for the millions of Americans who have succeeded in this country, and perhaps tie in something of what worked for you personally too. Don’t just copy other people’s trite messages. Deliver your own, and make the school proud to have selected you.
Yes, let’s close with Pride – the bad kind, the cardinal sin of an undeserved degree of self-importance.
Commencement speakers, it’s not about you.
Oh, I know it’s tempting to think it is. I’ve been there too.
You’re standing at that center podium, the cameras pointed at you, the spotlight illuminating your presence onstage like an angel in the clouds… every eye in the stadium is on you.
It feels like you’ve come down from the Heavens to share the wisdom that only you possess.
But it’s fake.
You’re really just a placeholder. This century-old college has had a hundred other commencement speakers before you, and they’ll have another hundred after you. They needed a keynote and hoped you might stand out. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t, depending on whether you’ve taken the above advice.
But remember, this isn’t your day. It’s the graduates’.
The students are there to celebrate their accomplishment – earning a degree after years of hard work. They aren’t there to worship you. If anything, you’re actually up there as the college’s last desperate hope to do something for the students, something that perhaps the school failed at doing, during the four or five years (or six, or seven, these days, come to think of it) that the students spent here on this campus.
The school hopes that instead of concentrating on yourself, you will find a way to give these kids the kind of advice that they, as professors and TAs and administrators, simply cannot give in the context of regular coursework.
The school hopes that you, dear speaker, will inspire them all to succeed in life, to reach the top of their professions.
The school hopes and prays (if that hasn’t been banned yet) that you’ll give these kids the gumption to get out in the world and make lots and lots – and lots – of money.
And they are counting on your speech – as these graduates’ final connection with their alma mater – to inspire the kids, out of a feeling of indebtedness, some years in the future, to come back and donate all that money to their beloved alma mater.
Yup. That’s really what you’re there for.
For this short, exciting moment, you are a paid fundraiser with a long-term target to reach.
There. Now you know your job. Let’s see if you’re up to it.
Copyright 2019 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based international trade and transportation manager. His columns are regularly found here in Illinois Review.
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Ryan Leaf spoke at my daughters’ commencement at William Woods University. It was the most powerful speech I’ve ever heard and received 2 standing ovations.
I was fortunate enough to attend my sister’s college graduation from the University of Notre Dame in 1981, and the commencement speaker was President Ronald Reagan. This was quite an achievement for Reagan, because six weeks earlier he was nearly killed in an assassination attempt and he did not want to miss this speaking engagement in his first public appearance.
Reagan’s message that was about the opportunities we all enjoy as Americans. Reagan spoke about our inherent freedoms and how America’s founding fathers recognized and sought to protect our individual liberties. He also warned of an over-reaching federal government which stood in contrast to the intentions of the framers of our constitution.
Oddly enough, no media outlet with the exception of The Christian Science Monitor understood the vital importance of the speech. Somehow, nearly every American news agency missed ten important words, ten words that changed the entire course of American foreign policy since Truman implement it in the middle 1940s. “The West will not contain communism; it will transcend communism.” With understandable irony, only the official Soviet news agencies, TASS and Pravda, understood what the speech meant. Words matter. Ideas matter. Reagan understood this, and so did his enemies. The Soviet Union took notice.
What a fantastic day!