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What Makes a Good Commencement Speech? Lessons From the Best Ones Ever

Emotion, humor and personal stories make good speeches, say experts. A local reference helps. See the best — and worst — commencement speeches ever.
Image: President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during a ceremony at Morehouse College in 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.MANDEL NGAN / AFP - Getty Images file

Commencement season is upon us again, as those long in the tooth and sometimes in wind, impart their wisdom to graduates. What separates the good speeches from the bad and the ugly?

Emotion, humor and personal stories make the best speeches, say experts. A local reference helps. And while commencement addresses by big-name celebrities grab the most headlines, having someone like President Obama or comedian Stephen Colbert isn't a necessary ingredient.

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For Grace Sparks, a recent graduate of The College of Wooster in Ohio, her commencement speaker inspired her, even though it wasn’t someone famous: It was the college's interim president, S. Georgia Nugent.

“She was fairly short-winded, engaging, funny, and serious, but not so we felt lectured,” said Sparks, a 22-year-old psychology major from Cumberland, Maine. “She really felt a connection with our graduating class and was so passionate about Wooster.”

Engaging grads isn't an easy task. Cristina Negrut, who has made a hobby of collecting more than 200 such commencement speeches on her website, Graduate Wisdom, said she has read thousands of speeches — and “about 99 percent are boring.”

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“To be inspirational, a speech has to have life advice and lessons learned,” Negrut told NBC News. “It’s tricky and there is a fine line, or a speech ends up as a laundry list of cliches.”

Negrut, 46, an archivist with a master’s degree in library science, says four commencement addresses, all of which went viral, stand out on nearly every list of the best. Here are quotes from them:

Apple founder Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005

“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

“Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling, Harvard University, 2008

“It is impossible not to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well have not lived at all — in which case, you fail by default.”

Novelist David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College, 2005

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”

Writer Neil Gaiman, University of the Arts, Philadelphia, 2012

"And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.”

Others haven't quite gotten the praise that those four did, and social media puts more pressure on speakers to be compelling. Former Vice President Al Gore’s 2010 speech on global warming at University of Tennessee was widely panned online as “the most depressing speech ever.”

Still others have been called “loathsome,” such as disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong's 2006 address on health at Tufts and stock trader Ivan Boesky’s tribute to greed at Berkeley in 1986.

Like Wooster, many colleges are turning to in-house talent, according to Bill Tyson, founder and president of Morrison & Tyson Communications, a New Hampshire firm that serves higher education.

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“Over the past couple of years, more schools are using the president of the school as speaker or someone from the faculty,” Tyson told NBC News. “I would guess that’s because of the cost, it’s organic and it can be controversial to have a speaker on campus.”

Political views of graduation speakers are quick to prompt controversy. This year, protests over speakers were staged at Georgetown University (Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson); University of Alabama (U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions); and Scripps College (former Secretary of State Madeline Albright).

So what was the best commencement speech of all-time? While there have been many mind-blowing addresses, speech archivist Negrut points to the 2014 University of New Hampshire address by Jennifer Lee, screenwriter and director of Disney’s “Frozen,” as possibly the best ever.

“If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that self-doubt is one of the most destructive forces," Lee said during the speech. "It makes you defensive, instead of open, reactive instead of active. Self-doubt is consuming and cruel and my hope today is that we can all collectively agree to ban it.”

Watch her full speech below: