Choosing the best keynote speaker to deliver a commencement address for your college or university can be a tall task! How can you ensure that their presence and message will resonate with the student audience? What advice could a celebrity possibly give that will cut through life’s noise leaving a lasting impression on your graduates?
Instead of focusing on booking the most popular or trending speakers, understand how the right speaker can impact your students. Your first choice speakers won’t always be available, but there are always great alternatives. For example, a renowned political leader could talk about her struggle to represent people, or an expert on the world’s economy might speak on his climb to the top.
Here are a few examples of powerful speakers and the messages they delivered to graduates in the past:
1) Don’t Let Other People Tell You Who You Are - Steve Jobs
The late Steve Jobs encouraged students to listen to their family, friends, co-workers, and peers, but emphasized the importance of skepticism. Listen to other people, but don’t let their words define who you truly are. Only we truly know what is best for ourselves, and we must have the tenacity to get out there. As Mr. Jobs said in his commencement address to Stanford’s Class of 2006:
“Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart & intuition. They already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
2) Fail Often - J.K. Rowling
This message might seem somewhat counterintuitive, but bear with us. It’s important to provide a little context here; it is not advised, of course, that students fail in getting their oil changed or in filing their taxes. Rather, this theme was all about humility. Sometimes life isn’t fair and hard work won’t be enough to be successful. JK Rowling spoke to Harvard University in 2008, and had this to say:
“Life is not a checklist of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life though you will meet many people of my age and older who will confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.”
3) Travel, Travel, Travel! - Sir Richard Branson
The experiences had in colleges and universities are some of the most valuable lessons students will learn in life. For this reason, they should be encouraged to see the world. Sir Richard Branson is one speaker who has always encouraged younger people to go overseas. In one of his many LinkedIn posts, he encouraged students to travel because they “will learn a lot and come back with some great ideas.”
4) Give Back to Get More - Russell Simmons
These speakers are influential people and, often times, they are quite wealthy. It’s important to understand that they didn’t get there without giving a little bit back. Russell Simmons, for example, is one such speaker who has, on multiple occasions, donated large sums of money to communities in need. In fact one of his articles is titled, Celebrity Has No Value Unless It Can Support Uplifting Others. He can and does make an impact to any college’s audience.
It’s important to note that there are other powerful life messages that may come up in a college or university event, such as:
- Hard work pays off - Gary Locke to Washington University in 2004
- The then-Governor of Washington speaks on his family’s accomplishments thanks to the American Dream.
- Figure it out for yourself - Shubaum Banerjee
- After his parents told Banerjee to “Google it” his ideas are being used to help people all over the world. Oh yeah, and he’s 13 years old.
- Dream big, and work to achieve that dream - Ben Parr
- Parr’s book Captivology was completed after he interviewed and analyzed 50 different scientists, and hundreds of research papers.
The best college and university speakers will be able to touch more than one of these themes in a manner that can be humorous, thought-provoking, and entertaining. They’ve been preparing what they will say for weeks, and have clearly answered the question: what advice would you give the 22-year old version of yourself knowing what you know now?