7 Facts about Famous Speakers Who Gave a Graduation Speech

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Posted on June 1, 2016

If you have been chosen to give a graduation speech, congratulations are at order. Your academic excellence and confidence have definitely attracted the attention of your instructor. However, you now need to create a speech that proves that you were truly the best choice. While you are welcome to take a shortcut and simply pick one of our 20 topics for a graduation speech, you can be inspired by the following seven facts from the graduation speeches of prominent celebrities and well-known personalities.

  1. Steve Jobs gave a commencement address at Stanford University graduation ceremony in 2005. The innovator had dropped out of college because it was too expensive. However, he stuck around the college for 18 months and snuck into classes he thought were interesting, including calligraphy class. During his speech, he told the students to follow their hearts and trust them to lead them through. He went on to mention that the worst thing they may face could very well turn out the best thing that could happen, giving them the example of his public dismissal from Apple, which led to NeXT and Pixar as well as meeting his wife. Finally, he urged the students to listen to their inner voice and to stay hungry for knowledge and foolish enough to seek it at all times and places.
  2. Naval Adm. William H. McRaven, BJ ’77 gave the commencement address at the graduation ceremony of the University of Texas Austin in 2014. During his 20-minute speech, he told students to begin by doing the little things right before moving on to the larger ones. He also advised them to seek the help of others, be it friends, colleagues, or even strangers. To choose the right people though, they would need to assess individuals by their will to succeed rather than their color, education, social status, or ethnic backgrounds. McRaven also went on to explain that people who wanted to change the world should be capable of meeting life’s ups and downs with their heads held high; to slide down obstacles face on, and continue to shine during their darkest moments.
  3. David Foster Wallace, the author of “Infinite Jest”, one of Time Magazine’s100 best English-language novels published since 1923, gave the commencement address at the graduation ceremony of Kenyon College in 2005. His speech became so famous that in 2009 he published its concept in a book called “This is Water”. In the 2005 speech, the author told students to appreciate keeping things in mind. He went on to explain that they needed to learn and remember important life lessons from the very first time and never forget them regardless of how much trouble they face. Another important concept he focused on was the importance of using higher education to effectively assess others and act appropriately in everyday life.
  4. Ellen DeGeneres was the keynote speaker at the 2009 graduation ceremony of Tulane University. The comedian-turned-show-host shared the experiences that made her the confident, free-spirited person she is. She especially focused on the tumble her career took when she decided to tell the truth about her sexuality in order to be true to herself. However, she told the students that she managed to remain true to herself. Despite the hardships she had faced, she managed to succeed and achieve more fame than she imagined.
  5. Oprah Winfrey gave a speech at the 2007 Howard University graduation ceremony. She addressed the students, telling them not to be scared since nobody knows for sure where they will go in life. Instead, they may actually be able to succeed simply because they received ample nurturing at the institution. She then goes on to say that everyone has a calling, which is why they are part of this world. Oprah urged them to find out what they are supposed to do and begin doing it. She provided them with examples from her own life, including when she first decided to be on TV despite the entertainment industry’s racist views.
  6. Will Ferrell gave an extremely humorous speech at the graduation ceremony of Harvard University in 2003. While some may think the speech was entirely comedic and had no substance to it, it was actually the opposite. The comedian told the students about the real world through his eyes and experiences without sugarcoating it at the least. He explained that their life has been sheltered so far and that the worst is yet to come. One interesting bit of advice Ferrell shared is to question leaders the right number of questions at the right time.
  7. J.K. Rowling gave a powerful speech titled ‘’The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination’ at the 2008 graduation ceremony of Harvard University. The author of the ‘Harry Potter’ series went on about her fair share of disappointments, which began when she was not accepted in Oxford University in 1981. She even told students that the fact that they were graduating from Harvard probably meant that they have not been acquainted with failure. However, Rowling told them that they should not let the world decide what constitutes failure, but rather decide its criteria for themselves. Moreover, they should be ready to face inevitable failure head on. After all, to her, it meant stripping individuals from the unnecessary and gaining the determination to learn more about herself. With a new approach and knowledge, she would emerge wiser and stronger.

You can use these seven facts to be inspired while writing your own speech. If you do not know how to write a great piece, check out our guide on how to write a speech for graduation for help and tips. Best of luck with your speech!

Text of Steve Jobs’ Commencement address (2005). (2005). Retrieved April 19, 2016, from https://news.stanford.edu/2005/06/14/jobs-061505/
Adm. McRaven Urges Graduates to Find Courage to Change the World. (2014). Retrieved April 19, 2016, from http://news.utexas.edu/2014/05/16/mcraven-urges-graduates-to-find-courage-to-change-the-world
This is Water – Alumni Bulletin – Kenyon College. (n.d.). Retrieved April 19, 2016, from http://bulletin.kenyon.edu/x4280.html
IU Bloomington Newsroom. (n.d.). Retrieved April 19, 2016, from http://news.indiana.edu/releases/iu/2014/10/michael-uslan-iu-media-school.shtml
Commencement. (n.d.). Retrieved April 19, 2016, from https://tulane.edu/grads/ellen-degeneres.cfm
Class Day speech June 4, 2003: Will Ferrell. (n.d.). Retrieved April 19, 2016, from http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2003/06/class-day-speech-june-4-2003-will-ferrell/
Text of J.K. Rowling’s speech. (n.d.). Retrieved April 19, 2016, from http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2008/06/text-of-j-k-rowling-speech/

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