top of page

5 Commencement Speeches To Remember

Updated: Dec 21, 2022

“Make your bed.”

Never has such a simple sentence conveying such a simple task captivated audiences worldwide. In the deluge of complex pieces of advice, we often forget that what is simple, often works best. These words are remembered as the catchphrase of one of the most popular commencement speeches ever to be made. It is these speeches that remind us how graduating students, now stepping into an uncertain world, desire simple and clear advice. By way of commencement speeches, this one by Admiral William H. McRaven goes a long way in imparting a lesson clearly.

Simplicity and groundedness are the reasons behind the popularity of some of the most impactful commencement speeches. Let’s jump into some of them:

Admiral William H. McRaven, University of Texas 2014

“If you can’t do the little things right, you’ll never be able to do the big things right.”

The man behind the famous words, “Make your bed.” Admiral McRaven’s address did more than just win the heart of students’ anxieties and aspirations. Going beyond the usual appeals for pursuit of passion, his advice focuses on cultivating habits which can aid one through accomplishment and adversity alike. The Admiral laid a good deal of stress on coming to terms with the less-flattering aspects of life, and working toward moving ahead anyway. He emphasized the need to tackle obstacles head-on instead of letting them fester – as the three worded advice encapsulates. The “making your bed” example is meant to denote the importance of doing small things well. The act is useful in itself and serves as a great metaphor for building small but strong habits in other areas of life. A must watch, truly.

JK Rowling, Harvard 2008

“We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.’

This architect of magical childhoods delivered an equally magical speech on the importance of failure. Her speech, lighthearted in its delivery, is laced with personal stories of her earlier experiences with poverty. Her descriptive abilities take us through the journey of a young girl clinging on to her world of imagination while hardships weigh her down. She speaks of the realizations that dawned upon her as she emerged from the depths of “failure”. If anything can jolt you into the travails of life in order to emerge wiser from them, it is this speech.

Muhammad Ali, Harvard 1975

"One learns friendship by being one. If a man extracts in return all he does for a friend then it is business, not true friendship,"

For a Boxing legend and a champion of civil rights, Muhammad Ali’s speech does not focus on personal accomplishment. The 30 minutes he spent talking instead ventured a reflection on the meaning of friendship. Ali speaks about the unconditional nature of true friendship, focusing on finding true wealth through a largeness of heart. This speech is an example of a simple message which endures. Students are, after all, more than their credentials, and this speech points in the right direction.

Stephen Colbert, Northwestern University 2011

“If we’d all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses.”

It's just not possible to have Stephen Colbert as a speaker and not have a laugh. The guy is an absolute master of his art, and his speech is proof of that. This speech can be recommended solely for its sheer wit and Colbert’s perfect delivery. Moving in a different direction from the usually inspiring speeches, there is something comforting about this one. Colbert manages to tame students’ expectations, yet keep them hopeful. He deflates their anxieties with a marvelous sense of humor while still being true to his message: serve others, for there is fulfillment in that. I 10/10 recommend this simply for its sheer comical brilliance.

Toni Morrison, Wellesley College 2004

“I know no generation has a complete grip on the imagination and work of the next one, not mine and not your parents’, not if you refuse to let it be so.”

These words convey a fiery optimism on the part of the speaker. However, Toni Morrison’s speech belies her tone as she refrains from making any comments on the future. She also speaks of an indebted past and a less-than-stellar present. She offers no warm words of comfort for the student, nor any advice to succeed in life. Toni Morrison lays it bare: calling students to face these circumstances with whatever agency they possess. Notwithstanding our lack of control over our lives, Toni gives us enough hope to do our bit genuinely. Highly recommended.

13 views0 comments


bottom of page