It is graduation season – time for those speeches

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

It’s the season for graduation speeches from kindergarten to high school or college.

Some statements from speakers are new, striking and memorable, some are predictable, some show the retrospective you might expect from someone with a lifetime worth of experience, and some seem that they exist to fill the time with bland clichés.

This is a crucial time to make a public statement. For many of the students, this will be their ultimate publicly recognized accomplishment. For some, it will be the first of many.

But for all of them, from graduate students, to kindergarten, it is their biggest accomplishment so far in their lives.

I’ve been to many graduations – my own and many others. They can be life-changing – or they can be just another ritual. For better or worse, they are a public display and signifier of one of life’s transitions.

I’ve taught public speaking for several years. A key set of principles to keep in mind for any event is – what is the occasion and who is the audience?

Stepping into a new chapter of life is the basic theme of virtually every graduation speech. What more could – or should – be said?

Most people (especially students) think of a graduation as an act of finality. It is not. Commencement means beginning – and that it what it should be.

A reminder from the PLU campus. Photo: Morf Morford
A reminder from the PLU campus. Photo: Morf Morford

Here are a few touchstones of the vast majority of graduation speeches –

Figure out who you are – and you will find out best through your friction, collisions and encounters with others.

Trust yourself – you will certainly let yourself down at crucial moments – just like every one else will.

Do not let others define you – and don’t feel that you are bound to your own definition of yourself.

Amaze yourself – do things WAY out of character.

Don’t bother being predictable

You will never be perfect

Work hard. Don’t give up

Try selflessness and give back – be generous to those who don’t and perhaps never will deserve it.

Life is not fair or proportionate. Opportunity is there to be taken. And sometimes shared.

Yes, some will have far more privileges and opportunities than you do. They did not earn them. And they know it.

Many have far heavier burdens than you will ever know – and vastly more than you could ever bear.

Everyone is still learning. If you give up on learning, you will become ever more isolated from the fullness of life.

Make it your philosophy to learn from everyone – or even every encounter. I’ve learned some very important life skills from my cat.

The most important learning you will ever do will probably be far from any classroom.

Everything will be on the test.

The most important aspects of life cannot be measured or defined.

Be as worthy of your adversaries as you are of your friends.

You will never have enough time for all of your passions and dreams, but somehow, when it is all over, it will be enough.

Others in life are not here to meet your expectations. You will probably not even meet your own.

You will learn far more from your mistakes, mess-ups and catastrophes than you ever will from your successes.

Inside every insult is a veiled compliment, practice looking beyond the obvious to find it.

For better or worse, we find ourselves in the onrushing current of thousands of choices made by those who came before us. Some, like a riptide, threaten to pull us under while others carry us to heights we could never attain ourselves. Whether we acknowledge it or not, wherever we may end up in life, we did not get there alone.

Those myriad dreams and passions, fears and obsessions, opportunities lost and roads not taken cast their shadows long into our yet unknown journey.

There are precious few certainties in life, but here are a few; you will not be young forever, whether it be wonderful or terrible, this moment will pass, many came before us, and many will come after us, our struggles are not unique. Our response to them makes us who we are.

Like this intrepid Tacoma pioneer, we all make our way in an unknown world. Photo: Morf Morford
Like this intrepid Tacoma pioneer, we all make our way in an unknown world. Photo: Morf Morford

A graduation speech can be a momentous and memorable, life defining event – or not. I don’t remember any of the speeches at my own graduations.

If nothing else, a graduation, at any level, is a public recognition, not so much of the graduate, but of the peers, siblings, parents, mentors, friends, classmates, colleagues and competitors, professors, advisors and yes, naysayers who stirred, stymied, supported or inspired until this final, yet somehow first, day.

If you want to get into the swing of graduation speeches – or want to see how good your graduation speech could have been, here some links to some memorable commencement speeches:

No one has  ever asked me to give a graduation speech, but if anyone ever asks you, here are some tried and (mostly) true graduation speech guidelines- or


And don’t forget, if you are listening to a graduation speech, or giving it, whether it is inspired and genius or dreary and dull, this too shall pass.

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