Thursday, June 7, 2007

Graduation Speeches: Are We Listening?

I tend to have my local NPR affiliate tuned to my car radio. Driving back from taking my son to the airport the day after Memorial Day the Talk of the Nation segment was "What Makes a Good Commencement Speaker?" The host, Neil Conan, was talking with Dr. Jay Parini, professor of English at Middlebury College about his article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on May 25, 2007 titled "The Model Graduation Speaker."

So, as a result of the program, I have been thinking about the myriad of commencements I have attended and what I remember about the speakers. I have to admit that the host and guest make a valid point that the average commencement speaker is "highly forgettable." As a case in point, I remember who the student speakers were for my high school graduation but not a word of their speeches. But the conversation not only addressed whether a speaker was memorable but also factors that contribute to being remembered or forgotten, some of which have little to do with the speaker but with the emotional charge surrounding the day.

I have come up with a list of some of the memorable and forgettable commencement-related speakers I have heard, and a few clippings of what I remember.

1. The most memorable non-published speech content I remember (and have notes for) was actually a high school baccalaureate service "charge to the graduates" address in 1996 given by Dr. Gregory A. Couser, professor of Bible at Cedarville University. He eloquently blended identity with the graduating seniors, passion for his topic and succinct delivery. His topic was "Four Things You Need to Get." The four things were:
- get a plan and share it with somebody because it makes you accountable to your goals;
- get a buddy (a prayer partner) for company and support;
- get a mentor because you need someone who has made it through the tough times; and
- get an apprentice (he said disciple but currently that word is not enjoying good press so I substitute apprentice) because being watched will force you to practice what you preach.

2. The next memorable speaker came two years later at California State University of Pennsylvania in the person of Dr. Stephen R. Covey, of the Seven Habits books fame. When he was introduced I was unaware that I should have heard of either the name or the books but all around me people were turning over their programs and starting to take notes. I may be dense occasionally but I took the hint that something important was coming; and after the obligatory build up about goals and dreams and the rest of your life, it came: "What one thing could you start doing regularly that would make a significant impact on your life?" (Covey, 1998). That speech and reading the book became part of the impetus to finish my BA and move back to my writing roots.

3. This last speaker, while not as organized or concise as the previous two, was the most passionate and also suffering from the most stage fright. Lois Raimondo is a worldwide photojournalist who also authored a children's book, The Little Lama of Tibet (Scholastic, 1994 - out of print), and does workshops on freelance photojournalism. In her commencement address at Wittenberg University in 2005 she challenged graduates to guard against acquiring too many of the material rewards their education could provide at the expense of not only their monetary resources but would also require them to "narrow their range of motion." She also told them to examine their fears and take charge of them rather than being controlled by them as fear has a narrowing effect of its own (Raimondo, 2005). I think about what this means in action items as I try to figure out who I am as a writer.

I am not going to list a few speakers that I which I could forget. Perhaps it would be best to allow those less-than-uplifting addresses to continue to slide into obscurity. But think about a commencement speaker who left a positive impression on you and leave a comment or email me if you have trouble with the comments.

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