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Keep It Brief, Commencement Speakers! No One Will Remember Anyway

Do any of these students remember what Vice President Joe Biden said in June 2012?
Wilfredo Lee
Do any of these students remember what Vice President Joe Biden said in June 2012?

It's that time of year when colleges and universities send out press releases touting which coveted commencement speakers they've snagged.

President Obama will deliver the address at University of California, Irvine. Vice President Joe Biden will speak at the University of South Carolina. Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg will urge graduates at City Colleges of Chicago to lean in and listen.

But will anyone actually remember what they say?

Hal Wilde thinks it's unlikely. Wilde was president of North Central College in Illinois for more than 20 years and has heard these addresses up close many times.

During the introductions for several commencement speakers, he began by quoting Abraham Lincoln: "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here." While that statement was not true of the Gettysburg Address, it can be relevant to graduation ceremonies.

In a recent op-ed, Wilde argues that the commencement speech is overrated.

"When you talk to college presidents, you'll find out most of them regard procuring a commencement speaker as one of their most challenging, if not annoying, responsibilities," Wilde says. "But they can't afford not to pay attention to it because there are few moments when the institution is more visible."

You've got parents, professors, students, donors — all with different agendas and goals in mind. Some schools spend thousands of dollars to pay celebrities to speak. Though many speakers received honorary degrees during Wilde's tenure, they weren't paid by his school. He used other strategies, like these:

  • Ask local speakers (poet Christian Wiman was based in Chicago at the time he spoke at Wilde's college).
  • Use every connection the institution has and milk alumni affiliation (Joseph Hartzler, lead prosecutor in the Oklahoma City bombing case, was married to an alum).
  • Be the first person to ask someone who's not that well-know yet (Mary Schmich delivered her famousfaux-commencement column "Wear Sunscreen" for the first time at North Central College).
  • As far as his advice to speakers:

  • Be brief.
  • Have just one or two important points to make.
  • Maybe try to be funny.
  • Don't assume that people are going to walk away remembering this 20, 30, 40 years later.
  • "It's like remembering what the preacher — the sermon he gives the day you're getting married," he says. "You're thinking about other things."

    On a few occasions, Wilde says he actually had to write those inspiring words in order to book a speaker.

    If he ever has the opportunity to deliver one himself, he says, "It would probably quote Scrooge McDuck and maybe a couple other influential figures in my evolving philosophy of life.

    "I'd get in and out fast enough so if the audience didn't know who I was, they would say, 'At least he was brief.' "

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