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Commencement Speeches: Not Just For Graduates

Post by Linda Thrasher, Himle Rapp's Corporate Practice Leader. You can follow her on Twitter at @lindakthrasher

Admittedly, I’m a commencement speech junkie. Come May and I’m scouring the star speaker lineup at the top universities and colleges. President Obama tackled three speeches this spring (Ohio State University, Morehouse College and U.S. Naval Academy), comedian Stephen Colbert entertained graduates at the University of Virginia and Oprah Winfrey is heading to Harvard University’s commencement later this month.

My fascination with commencement speeches was peaked when my mom recapped my uncle’s own speech that he gave this spring at a Minnesota college graduation. “Great commencement speech,” my mom reported. “He told a powerful story to the graduates that will hopefully help them in the years ahead.” The story? My uncle’s high school grades were so dismal that the college he wanted to attend gave him an ultimatum: get good grades in the first semester or go elsewhere. He got the good grades and successfully graduated. Even better, he went on to law school and embarked on a noble career in public service, including serving as a mayor, governor, Presidential cabinet secretary and U.S. senator. His advice to the graduates? Work hard, do what you love and follow the ways of your heart by helping others.

What makes me so interested in commencement speeches is the opportunity for the speaker to tell a powerful story that can influence others. Stories have been told since the early days of civilization when cavemen scribbled rudimentary symbols on stone walls. Stories are timeless. Stories define us. Stories give us context. Despite a data-filled world, most people remember stories more readily than statistics.

Just as importantly, stories can be transformative. Events like the TED Conference have motivated millions to listen to compelling speakers who share stories to stimulate action. CEO’s, most notably Steve Jobs, have used stories to transform organizations and create demand for their products. All of us – whether a leader, a parent, a community activist or whatever our profession or calling – have an opportunity to influence others with our own stories. Stories aren’t just for commencement speakers, but there’s nothing like commencement season to motivate all of us to start thinking of what we’d like to tell.

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