I’ve attended my fair share of graduation ceremonies over the years. In fact, arguably more than my fair share, since DeVry did three ceremonies per year. I’ve seen some good ones, and some regrettable ones.
Having been to plenty, both on the dais and in the audience, I have a few tips for those poor souls saddled with the no-win task of being the graduation speaker.
If you have it in you, be funny. If you don’t, don’t.
Inspirational quotes, aren’t. Don’t.
Unless you are a Hugely Famous Person -- Barack Obama, say -- nobody is there to hear you. They’re there to cheer for their loved ones. Make room for that by not taking up too much.
As far as humor goes, keep it safe. Families are there, children are there, and people have baggage far beyond your comprehension. DO NOT make jokes about student loans or jobs. Seriously. Don’t do it. Safe subjects include cute kid stories, cute pet stories, and very mild self-deprecating anecdotes. You’re going for G-rated here. This is not the place to figure out if you were meant to be a standup comic. This is not the place for “edgy.” A previous college of mine stopped inviting graduation speakers when the last one ended his overly-long speech with a joke that ended with the punchline “you don’t sweat much for a fat lady.”
Don’t do that. Just, don’t. The same applies to ethnic jokes, sex jokes, drug jokes, political jokes, and topical jokes. Don’t do impressions. If they’re remembered at all, they’re remembered negatively. Respect the occasion.
If you are a political figure, and you feel the need to say “I would be remiss if I didn’t mention…”, go ahead and be remiss.
It’s not about you. It’s about the students and their families. Let them have their time. They’ve worked for it -- often, much longer and harder than you would guess -- and they’ve earned a moment. Let them have their moment, and enjoy watching the elated faces and the hugs when it’s over. Speeches may get old, but those never do.