It’s every Principal’s nightmare. Not only do you have to coordinate and attend a flurry of activities at the end of the year, you have to give that dreaded speech at promotion/graduation. Your stomach tightens in anticipation just as Prince Albert (AKA George VI) who stammered his way to immortality by finally overcoming his fears and shortcomings. What is a leader to do? Having been a site leader for over 20 years, I have given my share of end of the year commencements and I offer some advice that has guided my thinking and planning to craft speeches that have been warmly, indeed at times, enthusiastically received. Of course, if you want to cut to the chase here are some speeches I’ve written in the past you are welcome to beg, borrow, and steal and skip all the advice. But if you decide to write your own, and I hope you do, here are 8 guidelines that have been guided my thinking over the years.
8 Elements of an Effective Promotion/Graduation Speech
Embrace the Opportunity – Mindset and attitude are everything. Relish the opportunity to put an appropriate exclamation mark on your ceremony and school year. You could invite some illustrious speaker, but your students don’t need to hear from politicians and strangers. You alone are uniquely qualified to give advice and commemorate this threshold achievement. Take the time to reflect on the shared journey you have enjoyed with these young people and you will realize that the opportunity to leave them with one last – and memorable lesson – is worth your time and effort to craft a worthy message.
Know your Audience – Put yourself in the graduates’ shoes. What will they be thinking that day? Will they be excited, relieved, fearful, or just hungry? Maybe a little of all of these things. Use that understanding of their wonderings to connect with those emotions that are swirling around their adolescent minds. Relieve some of their anxiety. Capture some of that excitement, and speak briefly so they can go out to lunch or dinner with the family!!!
Names, Names, Names – In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers he highlights an editor in chief of a local newspaper who repeated this theme as a mantra for his local newspaper. He understood that a local newspaper would be most popular if it included as many names of the community as possible. In your speech take this last opportunity to highlight amazing students for their academic, athletic, artistic, and character exploits. Think about those students who so often go unnoticed and may be shy, quiet, and timid. If you have noticed something worth commending, now is the time to call out those silent stars.
Tug at the heartstrings – Those emotions I mentioned above are your best friend. Making connections to the bonds of parental love and the anxiety of losing and gaining friends is a great way to get the attention of your distracted listeners. If you can coax a tear by getting them to reflect on their first day of kindergarten or a childhood memory, you’ve hooked ’em. While your audience is restless, they are also pensive and melancholy as they traverse this life transition.
Connect your story to theirs – Even though many years and maybe decades separate you from your young audience. With a little imagination, you will realize that you have much more in common than you have differences. J.K. Rowling did this masterfully at her Harvard Commencement speech. What advice would you give to your 12-year-old (18-year-old) self?
Give brief and clear advice – You have lived longer than your audience and they need your wisdom. What has helped you navigate the seasons of life? Meditate on your successful habits and your failures. Tell the stories that you know will illustrate those truths. As an educator, there must be some principles that you hold dear that you would like to emphasize one last time with the microphone that you have earned by your position of leadership. Take that chance and teach!
Be funny – Humor is memorable so don’t be afraid to inject levity into your speech. One of the tricks that I have employed is making fun of popular culture icons (I mean, it’s not that hard, really). Of course, you should never be mean or degrading, but there is a lot of humor – and some life lessons – in the public follies of some of our culture’s stars.
Repeat, repeat, repeat – Make a few simple points and repeat them over and over. I mean, the chances of anyone remembering anything you say are quite low, so repetition may give one of your ideas a fighting chance of lasting through the weekend and maybe even impacting a big decision that is looming on the horizon.
I hope these suggestions have sparked your creativity and willingness to give some thought to how you will write the final episode of the story of your school year – and for these graduates – the story of their elementary, middle, or high school career. So, sit down and write out a heartfelt message to deliver to your students and leave them with one final lesson to take with them on their next phase of life.