Our university isn't the type to attract the really big names, the JK Rowling and the Steve Jobs of the world, for its graduations and convocations but it has its share of ambassadors, politicians and entrepreneurs. The department has had local and state leaders, and some have been actually good speakers.
Like my colleagues, I've always enjoyed the department convocations that featured the students by giving each 30 seconds to thank whomever helped them through their years at the university. Once in a while, the student committee in charge of organizing convocation chooses a speaker instead. Some speakers have been good, some have been lackluster, and one or two have been rude.
This year's PoliSci graduates had a speaker, a good one, who spoke to them and their families, rather than the usual "I'm so great, that's why you invited me to speak, and if you're as lucky or well-connected as I am, you too will be so great." In the decades that I've been involved in academia, I've heard all sorts of keynote, convocation and commencement speeches -- even given one or two myself -- so I should know what makes for a good speech.
What makes for a good commencement speech is straightforward, and the list of Dos and Don'ts is simple.
Don't talk about yourself. That's already been done by the person who introduced you. Face it, the event isn't about you, and years from now most won't remember who spoke. The only reason I remember that the ambassador to India spoke at my undergraduate graduation is my friend Jaime stood up and heckled the guy. You'll note that I didn't state the name of the ambassador, and that's because I don't remember who he was. I did remember Jaime because graduation is about family and friends -- not the speaker.
Do make it relevant. So you're a famous police procedurals mystery writer giving a convocation speech to students who have just completed four or five years of Criminal Justice courses, that doesn't mean you should talk about the writing process, or how you once in their shoes -- see above advice. You should talk about how they will use the skills and knowledge in their future pursuits. Just avoid the "You will go out and change the world" platitudes; go instead for the "Small acts have an impact" type of theme.
Don't wing it. Yes, there are some really good speakers out there who seem to speak extemporaneously, but they are really, really good at what they do, and they never actually show up unprepared. Even the best of them usually have a small note card with the main points written down. This year's PoliSci convocation speaker told me that he had written down three words to remind himself of what he wanted to cover.
Do stick to three main points. This true for both spoken and written work. This bit of advice I got from a professor when I was in graduate school. Seems anything less than that provides too little information, and anything more than that would bore the audience silly. You want what you have to say to be memorable, but not for being boring.
Don't go over the time allotted. You've been given 10 or 20 minutes, and going over by a minute or two can be forgiven, but anything more than makes you a pompous ass. Yes, graduations involve pomp and circumstance, but it's the students' day, not yours. In all likelihood, the parents have made dinner reservations and will be looking at the program to figure out how much longer before the family can celebrate their kid's achievement with food and presents. Your speech should not interfere with their plans.
Do feel free to give a reality check, but do it in a way that doesn't belittle the audience, but with light humor or profound imagery. My favorites are David McCullough's "You Are Not Special" commencement speech and David Foster Wallance's 2005 commencement speech, called "This Is Water":
In the end, it's not the speech that matters. Nor is it the degree that the graduates may or may not have earned. It's about what they do with what they've heard both in and out of the classroom. I tell my students that elementary, junior and high schools made them good citizens, that it's my job to make them thinking voters, but in the end it's up to them to be thoughtful. We must all remember that we are not special, that it's not about us as individuals but about us as society, and that reality, even the banal kind, is about making conscious choices.
You may now commence with your summer vacation, and remember to enjoy the water and to wear sunscreen.