SALT LAKE CITY — When it comes to commencement speeches being delivered across the nation this month and next, graduating students want less pomp, more circumstance.
They want humor, humility and an easy-to-read road map to future success.
And they don’t care if the speaker has a college degree.
The late Apple founder Steve Jobs didn't have a college diploma. Nor did novelist Kurt Vonnegut, or actor Jim Carrey, each of whom delivered graduation addresses that are still being watched online years after they were delivered.
And a speaker's fame, or the venue, doesn't seem to make a difference in whether or not a commencement speech endures. Thousands have watched actor Will Ferrell’s speech at the University of Southern California, but few still hearken to the advice given by musician Billy Joel at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
And Chief Justice John Roberts' memorable graduation speech wasn't delivered at an Ivy League school, but before a class of ninth-graders in a small town in New Hampshire.
Even paying big bucks to the speaker doesn’t seem to affect whether a speech will have legs.
Jobs' address the same year has been viewed more than 29 million times.
With no surefire recipe for a commencement address that goes viral, colleges and universities are gambling when they choose a speaker, sometimes more than a year in advance. (Temple University might wish it could rescind Bill Cosby's 2007 commencement speech as easily as many colleges and universities have rescinded his honorary degrees following his sexual-assault conviction.)
But when you look at the most memorable speeches, three qualities stand out, both speakers and speechwriters say.
A compelling story, or three
When Jobs took the podium at Stanford University in 2005, he told the graduates and their families he was just going to tell them three stories. "That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories."
Then, as promised, he told stories that were simple, but to many people, unforgettable.
The first was about dropping out of college, but then going on to take a calligraphy course that would influence the design of Apple products. The second was about getting fired from Apple, and the third was about being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He closed with four surprising words borrowed from The Whole Earth Catalogue: "Stay hungry. Stay foolish."
That speech was among the ones that stand out for Ben Nemtin, star of the MTV reality show "The Buried Life," whose parents, sister and girlfriend came to see him deliver the commencement speech at the University of Utah on May 3.
Like Jobs, Nemtin crafted his speech, "Conquering the Impossible," around a story: how he, along with three friends, built a wildly successful endeavor out of failure.
Nemtin had a scholarship to a college in Canada, but dropped out because of crippling anxiety. But with his friends, he devised an unusual bucket list — one that was not just about things they wanted to do before they die, but how they could help others achieve things on their list.
And yes, along with playing basketball at the White House with President Barack Obama, and having a beer with Prince Harry, giving a commencement speech was on Nemtin's bucket list; No. 67, to be precise. But it was a task he took seriously, writing the speech over several months and rehearsing it for friends.
"This was a great challenge because I knew the potential for impact was high," Nemtin said. "This is a pivotal and memorable moment in students' lives and I really wanted to play a positive role in shaping their next steps. My goal was to make every word intentional and have resonance."
'All the barriers were down'
David Green, a speechwriter and owner of the communications firm UnCommon Knowledge, also lauds Jobs' speech, as well as another speech that wasn't delivered at a commencement, but is similar in tone and goal. That one was delivered by the late Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch and is known as "The Last Lecture." It's an example of the effect an exemplary speech, honestly delivered, can have on the listeners.
"It was so raw, so accessible, all the barriers were down," Green said. "To be able to be witness to that kind of speech, that kind of presentation, is incredibly powerful. The students in that room will remember that speech their entire lives. People probably made decisions about their life based on what he said."
Pausch's 76-minute-long lecture was eventually turned into a book, which is the happy fate of many other successful speeches. Vonnegut's "If This Isn't Nice, What Is?" is largely a compilation of graduation speeches, to include those given at Rice University in Texas, Agnes Scott College in Georgia and Syracuse University in New York.
So was J.K. Rowling's speech at Harvard University, which became a book called "Very Good Lives," and the late David Foster Wallace's speech at Kenyon University in Ohio, which became "This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life."
Wallace's remarks, dubbed “the Everlasting Speech” at Kenyon on the 10th anniversary of its delivery, in many ways set the bar for what a commencement speech can do, elevating its task from inspiring graduates and keeping their families awake during a lengthy ceremony, to providing long-term publicity for the school and advice for future generations.
“The proliferation of the speech in multiple forms has had a collateral effect for Kenyon, amplifying the college’s name in quarters where it might not otherwise be heard,” the preface to an articlein a Kenyon alumni bulletin said.
Elizabeth Lopatto, the author of that article, was a Kenyon junior at the time of the speech, but she was at the ceremony to see friends graduate. Now a science editor living in Oakland, California, Lopatto said the speech had an “ambivalent mix of uplifting and soul-crushing moments” that drew the audience in.
“Typically, commencement crowds are pretty bored and sleepy, hoping the thing will be short, but this one seemed to have people riveted.”
But the speech also endures because of its inherent poignancy that came with Wallace's suicide three years after the speech. This is a quality both Jobs' and Pausch's speeches contained because of their illness.
The importance of humility
Green, the speechwriter, said the best graduation speakers say things that are unexpected, like Jobs advising Stanford graduates to be foolish or David McCullough Jr., son of the famous historian, telling graduates of Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, "You are not special." (That speech also returned later as a book, "You Are Not Special and Other Encouragements.")
But not every word has to surprise, and even some famous commencement speeches let some platitudes sidle in. In fact, Wallace said in his Kenyon College speech, “in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance.”
A sense of humility is a hallmark of the most famous speeches. After describing two fish talking to each other, Wallace insisted “I am not the wise old fish.”
And Jobs began his remarks by confessing, “I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation.”
“He was very humble, very self-deprecating, and then he organized his speech brilliantly,” Green said.
The simple and compelling start provided a momentum that built throughout the speech, he added.
“You want to do something right out of the box in your first 60 seconds that whacks people upside the head and they think, ‘Oh, this isn’t what I thought it would be, I better pay attention,’” Green said.
How it all comes together
As important as Wallace's speech was, both to people who have heard it and to Kenyon, Wallace received no compensation. The college doesn’t pay its commencement speakers although it does cover travel expenses, Kenyon spokeswoman Mary Keister said.
A committee comprised of students, faculty and staff work together to select the speaker and the people who will receive honorary degrees a year in advance; that way, Kenyon juniors have input into who they will hear at their graduation ceremony.
The school president makes the final decision from the committee’s recommendation and extends the invitation, Keister said.
The importance of the commencement speaker is evident on Kenyon’s website, which lists speakers back to 1834, 10 years after the school’s founding. The first speaker was Salmon P. Chase, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury; this year’s (on May 19) will be Nate Silver, a writer, editor and statistician who founded the website FiveThirtyEight.
The school looks for someone who shares the intellectual curiosity of Kenyon's students, Keister said, but doesn't direct or shape the topic of the speech; that's entirely up to the speaker, as is the length of the speech.
Likewise, a committee of students, faculty and staff helped choose Nemtin, this year's speaker at the University of Utah.
“They focus on finding speakers who are inspiring, are thought leaders in their field, and when possible, have a connection to the university,” spokeswoman Annalisa Purser said.
Nemtin didn’t have a Utah connection — he's from Canada and now lives in California — but his core message of doing what you love and helping others achieve their dreams was a good fit for the school, Purser said.Comment on this story
Like Wallace, who will forever be associated with Kenyon even though he didn't matriculate there, Nemtin has a Utah connection now.
“By doing what you love, you inspire other people to do what they love," Nemtin said in his conclusion. "And that ripple effect goes far beyond what you’ll ever know."
Just like an extraordinary graduation speech.