It’s that time of year again – the birds are chirping, spring colors brighten the scenery, and it’s graduation time.

And, that means that many of us will be treated to that long-standing public speaking tradition – the commencement address.

Over the years, we’ve seen and heard A LOT of commencement speeches, and we’ve found that the best, most memorable speeches have one thing in common.

What Makes a Great Commencement Speech?

A High Story-to-Advice Ratio.

If a commencement address has lots of stories and a few pearls of wisdom, chances are that it’s pretty good. If it has lots of “life advice” and few, if any, stories, chances are that it’s a snoozer.

If you’re lucky, you’ll get to hear something as good as the one that Apple CEO Steve Jobs delivered in 2005 to the graduates at Stanford. It’s one of the best we’ve ever seen (and we’ve featured it in our newsletter before). The entire speech consisted of three stories wrapped around a few key tidbits of “life advice.”

Lots of Stories. A Little Advice. We Love It.

More likely, however, you’re going to hear a speech like the many that you can see if you’d search for something like “how to write a graduation speech” on YouTube. Many of these consist of homemade videos by valedictorians or their proud parents. Some of them are cute. But, most are horrendously boring (and terribly videotaped).

Lots of life lessons but few, if any, stories. No, thank you. Many are too preachy. And, without the stories to give the lessons relatable context, it’s less likely that the “words of wisdom” will resonate, sink in or have a lasting impact.

We did find a very good commencement address by a high school student that we really liked. The speaker is Matt Lum at Brazosport High School in 1995. The speech is only four minutes long.

More importantly, however, it consists almost entirely of a single, self-effacing story about a lesson he learned in gym class. Matt stood up, told his story, made his simple point and then sat down.

Great Story to Advice Ratio.

His speech reminds us of one of our favorite quotes from Franklin D. Roosevelt about the secret to giving a great speech. He said, “Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated.”

Congratulations to all graduates, and best speaking wishes to commencement speakers!

At Speechworks, we help our clients learn how to communicate in a way that connects and persuades. If you’re interested in becoming a great communicator give us a call at 404-266-0888 or check out our website at