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10 Steps For Writing An Unforgettable Graduation Speech

School is almost out, but for many students, there’s one more major task to complete before summer: graduation. Whether you’re graduating from high school or earning a college degree, a graduation ceremony is a huge milestone. And, if you’ve been asked to speak at graduation, you might be feeling the pressure right now.

Graduation speeches of all kinds date back to at least the 1600s, and though a lot has changed since then, these kinds of speeches still contain similar key elements that help make them effective, inspiring, and something every graduating student and their loved ones look forward to.

Public speaking can be nerve-racking in any setting, particularly when you know the audience is filled with people’s cousins and grandparents who are likely to remember this day forever, but fear not! We’re here to help with these 10 key steps to follow to write and deliver a truly unforgettable graduation speech.

1. Pick a theme.

If you want the audience to feel moved and inspired by your speech (Who doesn’t, right?), then it helps to build your speech around a central theme or message. Think about what’s important to you as the speaker and what you’d like others to take away from your words. Once you have a theme, it will be easier to select the quotes and anecdotes that tie back to that central idea and create a speech that leaves your audience in awe.

🎓 Here are some popular themes to consider:

2. Begin with gratitude.

When you step up to the mic on graduation day, you’ll need to begin with a few formalities. First, thank the previous speakers, as well as everyone in attendance. Then, express your feelings about the privilege of being asked to address the audience on this momentous occasion. Go ahead and write this part down so you don’t forget to do it on the big day. Here are some examples:

Thank you, [name of previous speaker], and thank you, friends, family, faculty, and fellow graduates for being here today. It’s an honor to celebrate this milestone with you as your valedictorian.

Thank you, [name of previous speaker]. Graduates, loved ones, and distinguished faculty members, it is an honor to be here with you today. I’m so grateful to [name of school or university] for the privilege of being your [type of speaker].

3. Use a motivational quote.

The greatest commencement speeches typically include a motivational quote, whether it’s from a famous person, a beloved teacher, or something your grandfather taught you. The right motivational quote will tie into your theme and serve as a thesis statement for the message you hope the audience will take from your words. Consider these celebrity quotes from other powerful commencement speeches:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” — Steve Jobs , Stanford University, 2005

“You must lead. You’re never too young to lead. You’re never too old to lead. We need your leadership now more than ever before.” — John Lewis , Harvard, 2018

“The day you graduate, you do not arrive. This is not the end. This is the beginning for you. To graduate is to change gradually.” — Rita Moreno , Northeastern Illinois University, 2015

“Ultimately, your life is made up of moments. So don’t miss them by being lost in the past or anticipating the future.” — Jessica Lange , Sarah Lawrence College, 2008

“You are full of complexities and wonders that haven’t even begun to surface. Life’s unpredictability will draw these out and what defines you now will be mere shades and hues of a more vibrant you over the next five, 10, 50 years. Honestly, I can’t think of anything more liberating than that, knowing that life will look differently than you think it will.” — Octavia Spencer , Kent State University, 2017

4. Get personal.

When Conan O’Brien delivered the commencement speech at Dartmouth University in 2011, he talked about being fired from his dream job and what that failure taught him. Some lauded it as one of the best graduation speeches of all time.

Sharing personal anecdotes, even ones that mention failures or humiliations, is a powerful way to connect with your audience and drive your message home in a personal way. When writing your speech, draw on your experiences as a student and be clear about how those experiences shaped and prepared you for what lies ahead.

Learn how to a sensational graduation card here.

5. Infuse your personality.

Graduation speeches may follow a formula, but that doesn’t mean they need to be boring! Use your personal sense of humor, unique story, and life experiences to give the speech character and charm. What does this look like in action?

In 2016, author John Green brought levity to his commencement speech when shared with the graduating class at Kenyon College that the best life advice he ever got was, “You’re a good kid, but you need to learn when to stop talking.”

At the University of Virginia in 2016, late night host Stephen Colbert joked that people should leave their cell phones on because “I wouldn’t want you to miss a text or a tweet while I’m giving my speech.”

You may not be a famous comedian or author, but being uniquely yourself can help your speech shine.

6. Reflect, then look ahead.

You and the rest of your graduating class are sharing a major life milestone, and you’ve all worked hard to get to this point. What has life been like during your years in school? What experiences have you shared, and how have those shaped you as people moving forward into the next phase of your life?

In your speech, include real-life examples of the things you’ve faced in your time as students. Put those events in context in your life, and remind your audience that you have all learned so much more than just what was on the course syllabi.

7. Avoid clichés

The tricky part of writing a graduation speech is being inspiring without resorting to clichés. If you use personal anecdotes and weave personality into your speech, it’s unlikely that you’ll fall back on tired, overused statements. But, sometimes they still sneak in. If that’s the case, try to swap them out with a fresher take.

Here are some ideas:

Make Your Writing Shine!

8. Create a call to action.

Graduation speeches serve two important purposes: celebrating everything that came before graduation day and building excitement for everything that will come after it. The easiest way to leave people inspired is to include a call to action. This doesn’t mean providing strict instructions for some task they must complete. Think of it more as broad instructions for how to meet the challenges ahead.

Your call to action should restate the theme of your speech and give the audience a clear takeaway message to carry with them. Need some examples? We have a few:

“Whatever you want to do, do it now. For life is time, and time is all there is.” — Gloria Steinem , Tufts University, 1987

“Let excellence be your brand.” — Oprah Winfrey , Spelman College, 2012

“Fight for the job you want, fight for the people who mean the most to you and fight for the kind of world you want to live in.” — Elizabeth Warren , Suffolk University, 2016

9. Keep it brief.

While you surely have a lot of great things to say, no one wants to sit through a 12-page speech. Graduation ceremonies are already long, and the audience is usually asked to listen to multiple speeches. Keep this in mind, and say what you’d like to say in the briefest way possible. Aim for a speech that falls between 500 and 750 words, and time yourself to make sure you don’t exceed 10 minutes during delivery.

10. Practice, practice, practice.

The only way to ensure your speech flows, makes sense, and holds people’s attention is to practice reading it out loud. Practice by yourself in front of a mirror, being careful to notice and edit any places where you trip over words or have awkward pauses. Once you’ve perfected the solo read-aloud, ask a parent or friend to serve as an audience. This will help you test out your jokes and polish your anecdotes based on their reactions. By graduation day, you’ll be ready to take to the stage like a pro.

Need more inspiration? These graduation quotes should do the trick.

steps to writing a graduation speech

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Writing a Winning Graduation Speech: Outline and Tips

Young man giving graduation speech

Writing a graduation speech is a huge honor and your chance to send off your classmates with wit and wisdom. Whether you’re excited or terrified to give the speech, this is not the kind of opportunity you should wing. Get started with our graduation speech outline and a few writing tips to ensure your speech is the most memorable part of your school years.

Sample Graduation Speech Outline

The graduation speech outline we’ve provided here can help you get started, but feel free to make this your own. Omit any categories that don’t fit your style, and add others as you see fit. You can also reorganize these categories for a flow that fits your personal style.

1. Thank the Previous Speaker

Begin with gratitude and grace: Be sure to thank the person who introduced you, both for the introduction and the work they do with the school.

2. Introduce Yourself

Don't assume that all the people in the room know who you are. Introduce yourself, including your name and why you were chosen to give the speech.

3. Share a Motivational Quote

Plan to share some sort of motivational quote or personal narrative with your classmates. Illustrate how it connects with your class's experiences in the school. This will serve as an opportunity to bring everyone together and get your classmates excited about the future.

4. Share Some Good Advice

This is, perhaps, the most important part of your speech. Share meaningful advice for the years to come. Highlight some of the expectations that are about to come your way. Keep the tone positive, and remind everyone they have what it takes to succeed in their future.

5. Recall the Good Times

Encourage your classmates to remember the good times at your school. Highlight a momentous occasion that everyone partook in. Encourage your peers to take those memories with them wherever they go.

6. Restate Your Motivational Quote

Finish by reiterating the motivational quote you began with, giving it more context. Although you just dipped into the past with one of those "good times," the focus of a graduation speech is on the excitement that's yet to come.

7. Create a Call to Action

Call your fellow students into action. Leave them with an inspiring sentence encouraging them to go out and make a difference in the world.

8. Thank Everyone

Finally, thank everyone for their time. Thank them for the memories over the last few years and their time during your speech.

graduation speech outline

Graduation speech outline

Tips to help you write a graduation speech.

Make sure that your graduation speech is something that you would want to listen to, if you were in the audience. Think of this experience as a time to share an important moment with your peers as a representative of your class.

Speak truthfully and courteously while piquing the interest of your peers . Common themes include dreaming big, learning to fail or never giving up.

Write a speech that showcases your unique voice.

Elicit shared memories of the past, as well as a hopeful vision for the future.

Keep your speech short. People may be too emotional to remember everything you said, but they’ll likely remember who talked for too long.

Inspire and Entertain

Graduation speeches can inspire, entertain, or both. Remember to be yourself and have fun in this final moment to connect with your class.

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steps to writing a graduation speech

How to Write a Graduation Speech

Celebrate high school memories. inspire your grad community..

It’s an incredible honor to be chosen to speak to your classmates at your graduation ceremony. Still, we know writing a graduation speech can be nerve-wracking. That’s why we’ve put together a step-by-step guide to help you create a speech that will not only touch, entertain and inspire your entire graduation community but also celebrate high school memories and traditions.

STEP 1: Choose your theme

Whether you decide to relive high school memories, offer advice to your classmates, reflect on the future, or give thanks to those who have helped you, it can be tough to decide on the right theme for your speech. That’s why we’ve reviewed hundreds of the best student speeches to help you get started.

You can stick to one theme or combine several. You can also add quotations from famous people and writers to support your message. Whichever option you choose when you are writing a graduation speech, be sure to coordinate with your fellow presenters to guarantee that each of you is offering a unique perspective.

Here are some of the most powerful themes from successful graduation speeches:

Step 2: Edit

After you have written a draft, ask a teacher, friend or family member to give you feedback about what to keep and what to cut. Remember to be sensitive that there are many different paths after graduation. Some graduates may attend college. Others may not. Also be aware of how different cultures and heritages within your student body view graduation.

This step is also your chance to take out any inappropriate content, including:

Step 3: Choose Your Visuals

Visuals can provide excellent support to your speech and help create even more of an emotional connection. If you use images to support your message remember to:


Finish Writing First.

And then look for images to support your message. Never write your speech around an image just because you really like it and want to use it.

Student in cap and gown

Add Photos.

Include as many of your classmates as possible, not just you and your close friends. Never use images that are embarrassing to audience members.

Group of graduates

Create A Slideshow.

Will you operate the slideshow from the podium or will someone else? If you are working with another person, practice several times together.

Step 4: Rehearse

Rehearse frequently and out loud so that you internalize your message. Understand why you are speaking the words you have chosen and repeat them in rehearsal until you feel the essence of your message in your gut.

If you go blank during your speech, don’t panic. Instead, focus your eyes on one person in the audience, which will make it look as though you are being forceful and dramatic. Pause for about four seconds before focusing on someone else. Repeat until you have collected your thoughts.

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How To Write A Graduation Speech: 12 Practical Tips

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Around 2 million bachelor’s degrees are given out every year, but only a handful of students are chosen to give a graduation speech. It’s a wonderful honor that allows you to make a lasting impression before your classmates start the next chapter of their lives. Everyone will be there to hear you speak, including friends, family, and faculty.

It’s a lot of responsibility, so it’s only natural that you might be feeling a bit nervous and unsure of where to begin. But fear not! There’s a lot you can do to be ready.

Read on for 12 tips to write, prepare and deliver a memorable graduation speech.

Tip #1: read inspirational quotes.

Reading inspirational quotes is a great way to start brainstorming graduation speech ideas. The best quotes can pack a whole speech into only a sentence or two.

Here are a few examples to get the fire of inspiration started:

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” – Mark Twain

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.” – Albert Einstein

“If you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” – Toni Morrison

“Youth is happy because it has the ability to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.” – Franz Kafka

If there are a couple of quotes that truly mean a lot to you, then it’s okay to use them in your speech, but in the long run you should rely mostly on your own words and feelings.

Autobiography of mark twain with notebook

Tip #2: Listen to and Watch Famous Speeches

There is a lot you can learn from listening to and watching famous speeches .

When listening to just the audio of a speech, you can focus on how the speaker uses dramatic pauses and passionate tones to keep their audience’s ears perked up. You’ll also notice that the speaker pronounces words slowly enough so that everything is clear, rather than mumbled.

As you watch a speech, pay attention to how a speaker moves their hands for emphasis instead of gripping the podium for dear life. Facial expressions are also important. A speaker shouldn’t look bored or sleepy, so try smiling and raising your eyebrows from time to time.

Lucky for you, there are plenty of amazing speeches out there to learn from. For example, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech about equal rights is one of the most famous speeches of all time. Watch it and find out why.

You can also watch actual graduation speech examples that went viral on the internet because of their truthful messages and sincere delivery.

Tip #3: Reflect on the Past

An important element of a graduation speech is the past, whether distant or recent. Which experiences did you learn from? What has shaped you as a person up until now? Reflect on them.

You can focus on an important moment from your childhood if necessary, but be sure to include notable stories or lessons you learned during your time in school.

This is also a great opportunity to talk about people who inspired and helped you along the way. For example, who was your best teacher and why? What did they teach you?

Almost anyone can give sage advice, but without your personal stories to springboard from, your advice will go into one ear and out the other.

Think of some examples and explore them through writing. Not everything will go into the final version of your speech, but for the time being you should simply search for those stories that reveal shareable pearls of wisdom.

Tip #4: Think About the Future

An equally important aspect of any graduation speech is the future, including its promises and potential pitfalls. Now that you and your classmates are graduating, the future is in the forefront of everyone’s mind.

Think about what exactly you want to do with your life, how you’re going to do it, and why. Of course, you don’t want to focus on your future exclusively. Make sure you zoom out and talk about broad ideas and insights that can be applied to your class or generation.

For example, what common problems, personal or global, will the future hold? What can one do about it? This is a good chance to talk about working together as a community, country, or as one race.

Whether you’re explaining the struggle of depression or the crisis of climate change, it’s crucial to end on a hopeful note. With your speech, you can help guide people forward into the next step of their lives and beyond.

Tip #5: Decide on a Theme or Message

By now, you’ve probably written hundreds of different academic papers. No matter what their topic, though, they all had one thing in common: a thesis. Like any other paper you’ve written for school, your speech should have something similar to a thesis as well.

In other words, your speech will need a theme or message that can keep your audience’s attention focused. The more you ramble, the less likely they’ll pay attention or remember what you say afterward.

A speech can have more than one message, but it’s best to keep it to less than four main messages.

One example is actress Natalie Portman’s graduation speech which focused on fighting against self-doubt and pursuing your passions.

Here are some other ideas for graduation speech themes:

Tip #6: Start with a Hook, End with a Quote

You only have one chance to grab your audience’s attention, and that’s at the very beginning of your speech. Once you lose them, chances are you won’t get their attention back, so it’s crucial to begin your speech with a hook.

A quote, whether it’s from a book, movie, or elsewhere, is a common way of capturing people’s attention at the beginning of a speech, but there are other ways to hook them too.

Another way is to tell a brief but interesting story that reflects the themes of your speech. Opening with a question or related statistic that you plan on illuminating for the next quarter of an hour or so is yet another way to keep people focused and interested.

Everyone loves a good joke, which is why preparing one is a great way to not only open up your speech, but break the ice too.

While you should start with a hook, you should end with a quote. It can be a quote from someone else, or better yet, it can be a quote from you. Think of a way to summarize your message into a pithy, final statement. If your audience walks away with only the one quote in their heads, they will still receive a valuable insight or piece of advice.

Tip #7: Write Multiple Drafts

The first draft is usually the most daunting because you’re starting with a blank page, but afterward you have something to work with, so it should be less stressful. As you write the first draft, don’t second guess yourself. Rather, let the ideas and words flow as freely as possible.

Once you have your first draft, step away from it for a day or so, then come back to it with a fresh pair of eyes. If you’re like most people, you read in your head, but when editing, it’s a good habit to read sentences out loud to make sure they flow well and sound natural.

While you edit, reword cliché phrases, such as “since the beginning of time” or “the calm before the storm.”

Beware of waffling too. What’s waffling? It’s when you use too many words or sentences to talk about something when it could be phrased more simply and concisely.

As you go through each draft, you’ll want to keep an eye out for any typos. Once you feel really confident in the draft of your speech, send it to a few trusted friends who can provide you with constructive criticism.

Notepad with coffee and flowers

Tip #8: Send Out Graduation Announcements Ahead of Time

You’ll want as many friends and family members there for your big day as possible, so you should send out graduation announcements fairly early. It’s typical to give a notice of at least two weeks, if not more.

Be sure to include the date, location, and time of the event. But why stop there? Most online cards are customizable, so feel free to include a professional picture that shows your confidence and sense of accomplishment.

Encourage your friends and family to make their excitement viral by adding a graduation hashtag to your announcement.

If you plan on having a graduation party , which you most definitely should, make sure you send the invitations out in a timely manner too.

For those who are not invited to the ceremony, you can send graduation announcements after the event when you get a chance. Usually within a month is acceptable.

Tip #9: Practice in Front of a Mirror and with a Few Loved Ones

Practicing in front of a mirror allows you to be aware of your facial expressions and body movements. As you speak, emphasize with your voice, face, and arms where it feels necessary and natural.

Having a few loved ones around to practice your speech with has multiple benefits. For one, you can get feedback from them on both your performance and the speech itself. A miniature audience also gives you the chance to get comfortable with making friendly eye contact as you speak. However, it should be relatively brief eye contact, so don’t focus on just one person during your actual speech.

Time yourself as you speak to determine how long it takes to give the whole speech. On average, a graduation speech is about 10-20 minutes long. It should be as concise as possible without sacrificing the content or quality. The right length is something of a balancing act, but with enough practice reading your speech, you’ll develop a feel for what parts may drag on and what parts may need to be expanded.

An additional bonus that comes from repeated practicing is that you’ll be able to memorize more of your speech. After all, it’s better to face the audience as much as possible rather than look down at your notes.

Tip #10: Dress to Feel Confident and Comfortable

It might seem like confidence and comfort are mutually exclusive, but there are certain items you can wear to both look and feel great.

You’ll be doing a lot of standing and walking, so when it comes to women’s clothing, limit heels to 2 inches or wear some fashionable flats. Long skirts are ideal because they don’t restrict your movement and you won’t have to worry about any wardrobe malfunctions. Avoid thin straps or strapless tops by wearing a conservative yet elegant blouse.

Once you have an outfit picked out, test it by wearing it for a day to see how it feels.

For men’s clothing, you can wear dress shoes with gel inserts. There are lots of dress pants with flexible material. It feels like you’re wearing comfy pajamas when in fact you look ready to trade some stocks. There are also button-ups with stretchy material too. It’s best to try these items on in the store to make sure they fit perfectly.

Another option is to choose clothes made from a breathable material, such as cotton.

A neck tie is often notorious for being uncomfortable, but it looks quite snazzy. As a compromise, don’t put the tie on too tightly. If your shirt fits well, the tie should too. On the other hand, clip-on ties are not only comfortable, but also convenient. As long as the clip-on is of high quality, it should look genuine.

If you have an outfit that looks great but doesn’t quite fit right, consider getting it tailored to perfection by a local seamstress.

steps to writing a graduation speech

Tip #11: Keep Your Nerves in Check

Say “eleven benevolent elephants” five times fast. Chances are it didn’t come out exactly as you intended.

You’re not a machine, you’re human. You might make a mistake or two during your speech, such as mixing up words or mispronouncing them altogether. That’s totally okay! Don’t dwell on it, just shake it off and start over from where the slip-up occurred.

Take advantage of psychology and feel more confident by striking a power pose beforehand. Go into a bathroom or another private area and stand with your feet wide apart as you lift your arms outward and upward for about a minute.

You should also remember that feeling nervous is perfectly natural. Worrying about being nervous can make you even more nervous. Accept that you’ll feel some degree of anxiety and take a few deep breaths to reduce it as much as possible. Remember that pauses feel a lot longer in your mind, so most people won’t notice you taking a moment to catch your breath during your speech.

Tip #12: Be Yourself

Even though researching speeches comes with a lot of benefits, you should remember that everyone is an individual with their own habits and style. It’s normal to feel pressured when you have to prepare such an important speech. When you look for inspiration, you may be tempted to try and mimic these idols.

While it’s important to learn from such great speakers, you should only take from them the skills that work for you and adapt them to your own habits and style.

You weren’t chosen to give a graduation speech because you’re Abraham Lincoln or Malala Yousafzai. You were chosen for the simple reason that you’re you. If you’re known for being funny, then go ahead and tell a couple of jokes. If you’re the sentimental type, feel free to let loose a few tears. 

You’re much more likely to give a memorable speech if you stay true to yourself and your beliefs.

Are You Ready to Send Out Your Graduation Announcements?

Now that you know how to go about giving a memorable graduation speech, you should be ready to send out your announcements and invitations.

For the price of nothing, Greetings Island has an amazing variety of artistic announcements and invitations to let everyone know about your upcoming big day. They are easily customizable so you include all your information in an awesome presentation that fits your tastes. The perfect design is a mere click away!

After the festivities, you can also send lovely graduation thank you cards to show your gratitude to your friends and family.

Once you’ve customized your announcements, you can easily print them at home or at a professional print shop. Keeping things virtual? We have additional options, such as sending them through email with RSVP services or downloading them as high-res images that you can share on social media networks.

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How to Write a Graduation Speech to Make Everyone Listen

Challenging as it sounds, creating a fancy graduation speech is a pretty time-consuming and rigorous process. When you set out to develop a one-of-a-kind speech to remember, be sure to tackle this work of art with exceptional dedication and enthusiasm. What is a graduation speech, then? In plain terms, a graduation speech is a speech delivered to graduating students and is intended to inspire them as well as encourage their future endeavors.

how to write a graduation speech

Normally, the one giving a speech is a famous alumnus of the school, eager to share their knowledge and wisdom with the young and ambitious audience. Therefore, in order to write a great graduation speech, you need to be consistent, open and sincere. These are the vital features of earning the attention and admiration on the part of the listeners.

So, How to Write a Speech for Graduation Ceremony?

Not so long ago, you pledged to write a cool commencement address. And now you confront Google, asking it “How to write a great graduation speech?” Or this one: “How to write a commencement speech for high school graduation?”

To be fully equipped to write an impactful graduation speech, you have to be familiar with some time-proven cornerstones that will aid you in developing your commencement address. So, here we are.

Graduation Speech Writing Tips

Having a strong grasp of your target audience is one of the crucial aspects of how to write a good graduation speech. Try to relate to your audience and connect with it, imagine being in their shoes!

As any psychology resource would suggest, most people are into listening to stories. Give your audience a good portion of a blithe, yet meaningful, account of an iconic figure’s path to success, as this can add to the intensity of your speech. Always thirsty to hear another success story, the audience will definitely love your creative input.

Lengthy speeches tend to bore the audience, as they feature rather superfluous content. For instance, if you ever googled something like “How to write a graduation speech for high school,” you must have noticed that none of the online resources you find recommend including some specific profession-oriented tips in your speech. Instead, you are advised to make your writing as brief as possible, as the teen-spirited audience likes it short and fast. Same with other types of commencement speeches – much like self-driven teens, other people are also likely to perceive information far easier and faster if it’s short and succinct.

Making your speech emotional will help it become more compelling and seem more natural. Don’t be scared to experiment with your writing, using idiosyncratic language like “my cuties,” “I’m a lucky dude,” “helluva,” etc.

Graduation Speech Writing Steps

Graduation Speech Example Analysis

Here you can find an analysis of a graduation speech. The analysis provides an evaluation of the speech, including comments on its content and structure. Check out the picture below.

Click the images to see their full size.

how to write a good graduation speech

In a Nutshell

Now that this guide has brought you closer to the art of writing a graduation speech, creating one will take you half as much time than it would without these crucial tips and suggestions. Each task, be it computer coding or writing a graduation speech, requires only two basic things: willingness and commitment. Once you have no problems with those, then developing an outstanding commencement address will be a sheer pleasure for you.


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6 Secrets to Writing a Memorable Graduation Speech, Even If You've Never Done It Before

If you're facing writer's block, get inspired by these essential graduation speech ideas..

Nora Horvath is an editor and writer with nearly a decade of experience covering lifestyle. Highlights: * Editorial intern at Prevention * Assistant editor at Real Simple * Associate features editor at Food Network Magazine and The Pioneer Woman Magazine * Senior editor at Weber Shandwick

steps to writing a graduation speech

Maggie Seaver is the digital health and wellness editor at Real Simple, with seven years of experience writing lifestyle and wellness content. She spends her days writing and editing stories about sleep, mental health, fitness, preventive health, nutrition, personal development, relationships, healthy habits, and beyond. She loves demystifying complicated health topics, debunking wellness fads, and sharing practical, science-backed solutions for healthy living.

steps to writing a graduation speech

It's not easy to give advice to your peers, and it's even harder to do it in front of a room full of their friends and relatives at college graduation (or high school, middle school, or elementary school, for that matter). Whether you were chosen to speak at the commencement podium because of your top-of-class grades or were elected class speaker because of your charisma, there are probably countless memories, tidbits of wisdom, and funny one-liners you want to include. And after what seems like 100 other speakers, you want to grab people's attention—not put them to sleep.

Since you're also graduating, you don't need to use this time to answer all of life's existential questions, although you might feel like trying. After all, you're still figuring it out yourself. Instead, talk about what you know, reflect on the big memories you share with your fellow classmates, and use our tips below to write the most memorable speech of the day.

Gather Inspiration

Before you start writing, find inspiration from some of the most memorable high school and college graduation speeches in history. NPR put together a database of over 350 speeches , categorized by message, school, and speaker's name, so it's the perfect resource for graduation speech ideas about where to start. (If you're looking for something unconventional, try watching David McCullough Jr.'s speech from Wellesley High School in 2012.) And don't forget about celebrities you love: read through the most encouraging quotes from famous graduation speeches to spark inspiration for your own address.

Give It Structure

All engaging stories have a beginning, middle, and end—think of your graduation speech the same way. Be thoughtful about how you open your speech to grab people's attention, how you plan to keep their attention throughout, and finally, how you'll tie it all together with a neat, closing message. Giving a speech structure won't make it boring or formulaic—it'll make it easier for your audience to follow (and for you to deliver it).

Stick With a Theme

If you're trying to string together a bunch of quotes that have nothing to do with one another, you're going to confuse your audience more than inspire them. Find one core message or a theme that really resonates, and build the rest of your graduation speech around it.

Keep It Short

There's nothing worse then sitting in a hot auditorium or tent outside while listening to someone ramble on endlessly. At most, people will remember one funny joke, a great anecdote, or the general message, so cut out extra fluff and only include the parts you think are the most important.

Practice Out Loud (and Often)

As Richard T. Jones showed us in his infamous speech at University of Maryland University College in 2011, improvisation is not the way to go when you're supposed to be giving people advice on one of the most important days of their lives. Make sure you actually write a speech—and practice it out loud—so you don't end up repeating the same idea over and over again.

Infuse Your Personality

In 2016, Harvard University graduate Donovan Livingston did his commencement speech in spoken-word poetry , an interest of his. Though his message touched on common grad themes—the power of education in the world, following your passions with your degree, and reaching for the stars—his delivery also changed the way people heard these ideas. Not all speeches need to be straight-forward and full of classic Robert Frost quotes. If you highlight your strengths and talk about things that make you excited—in other words, if you be yourself—people will listen.

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How to Write a Graduation Speech (Graduation Speech Examples)


Have you been asked to deliver a commencement speech? Or have you worked your butt off to become valedictorian or salutatorian, and now you have to deliver a graduation speech? In this post, we will cover one of the more challenging types of presentation creation: How to Write a Graduation Speech . (By the way, I have also included a few popular graduation speech examples as a guide for you.)

This post is a continuation of our How to Create a Presentation series. We are going to break this post down into three parts, though. We will show you how to create a commencement speech in this post. Next week, I’ll show you how to write a valedictorian speech and how to deliver a salutatorian speech. Each of these graduation speeches has a slightly different purpose, but all of them need to be inspirational and funny.

How to Write a Commencement Speech

The commencement speech is often the keynote speech of the graduation ceremony. This presentation should be uplifting and entertaining, but this graduation speech should also teach a life lesson to the graduating students. If you do a search on YouTube of the best graduation speeches, many of these speakers will be famous comedians. When a comedian delivers a commencement speech, and the speech is posted on YouTube, it will always get a ton of views. The humor alone will make people want to watch the video. Three of the most popular of these speeches are by Conan O’Brien, Will Ferrell, and Ellen DeGeneres. The interesting thing about the speeches from these famous comedians is that, yes, they are funny, but the inspiration comes from what they learned from their failures.

“There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life life trying to push you in another direction.” Oprah Winfrey, Harvard University Commencement Speech

Conan’s commencement speech to Dartmouth occurred a short time after he was fired from NBC. The first 10 minutes is basically just a monologue like he would deliver on his TV show. However, the final 15 minutes is an inspirational tale of how he turned things around after the biggest failure of his life. When Ellen spoke at Tulane, she talked about how she recovered after her popular sit-com was canceled. The trend in great commencement speeches is that the speakers want to prepare the graduates for setbacks. Whatever goals that they have will likely change.

A Good Structure When You Write a Commencement Address

Thank the crowd.


Start with Something Funny

How Humor helps your speech

Be Inspirational

The inspirational part of your commencement speech will come from the theme of the graduation speech . (For Sample Graduation Speech Themes , see the section below.) The easiest way to develop a theme is to look for an inspirational famous quote about success. You can do this by just going to Google and type in “success quotes”. Once you come up with a great quote, you can either paraphrase the quote and make it your own or quote the original speaker.

Inspire others with your speech

Tell Stories from Your Own Experience Related to Your Quote (Theme).

This the most important part of how to write a graduation speech. The stories and examples are what the audience will remember. These stories add emotion and inspiration to your graduation speech. They also help you build rapport with the audience. Finally, these stories make your delivery much easier. You don’t have to memorize a lot of material. Instead, just play the video in your head of what happened and describe the incident to the graduates.

For a great example of this, watch the YouTube video on Stanford University’s channel where Steve Jobs gives the commencement speech. I love this speech, because Jobs skips the introduction and the funny stuff and starts his speech with the following. “I’m going to tell you three stories.” It’s simple, and the crowd loves him.

End with an Inspirational Call to Action.

How to end a graduation speech

So as you go on to the next stage in your life and you experience failure… because you will experience failure, use that as a stepping stone to your next success. Persevere. Don’t rest on that success. Use it as a stepping stone to your next success. Persevere, and you will experience a series of successes and failures that will allow you to accomplish something great!”

Use this outline to create a simple 20 to 30 minute speech. (The shorter the better… No one gets a diploma until you finish.)

Sample Graduation Speech Themes

Inspiration comes from failure

If you are having trouble coming up with a theme for your graduation speech, here are a few Sample Commencement Speech Themes. As you read through them, think about which them or quote has been most applicable in your career? Once you choose a graduation speech them, use the outline above to create your speech.

“I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.” — Coleman Cox
“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” — Herman Melville
“Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.” — Henry David Thoreau
“Don’t be afraid to give up the good to go for the great.” –John D. Rockefeller
“Opportunities don’t happen. You create them.” — Chris Grosser/blockquote> The Road Ahead is Hard, But It Leads to Success. “Successful people do what unsuccessful people are not willing to do. Don’t wish it were easier; wish you were better.” — Jim Rohn
“The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus.” — Bruce Lee
“Success seems to be connected with action. Successful people keep moving. They make mistakes, but they don’t quit.” — Conrad Hilton
“If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way. If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse.” — Jim Rohn
“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” — Albert Schweitzer

Use the Speech Creator as a Guide to How to Create a Graduation Speech

Once you have chosen a them, and you have a few stories to inspire your audience, use our Online Speech Writer to help you organize your thoughts. (It’s free.)

by Doug Staneart | Free Public Speaking Tips , Podcasts

How to Write a Graduation Speech

Last Updated: July 24, 2021 References

This article was co-authored by Patrick Muñoz . Patrick is an internationally recognized Voice & Speech Coach, focusing on public speaking, vocal power, accent and dialects, accent reduction, voiceover, acting and speech therapy. He has worked with clients such as Penelope Cruz, Eva Longoria, and Roselyn Sanchez. He was voted LA's Favorite Voice and Dialect Coach by BACKSTAGE, is the voice and speech coach for Disney and Turner Classic Movies, and is a member of Voice and Speech Trainers Association. There are 11 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been viewed 40,588 times.

If you are giving a graduation speech you should take your time to write a speech with your specific audience in mind that conveys a message you care about and that shows your personality! Making a worthwhile speech takes time researching, writing, editing and rehearsing, but if you put in the right effort your work will pay off and make your graduation all the more memorable. Above all, care about what you say. For example, David Foster Wallace deeply believed that school should not teach you what to think. He thought that school should teach you the freedom to decide how to think, and he gave an inspirational speech to Kenyon College in 2007 that is still being written about and talk about today. [1] X Research source

Considering the Practical Things

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Deciding What to Talk About

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Going Through the Steps in the Speech Making Process

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To write a graduation speech, choose a structure that will help to communicate your message. For example, you could highlight a few main themes through personal anecdotes or nonfiction stories. Alternatively, you could make a list of 5 to 10 tips that you want to advise the graduating class about. If you have an interesting or powerful personal story, you can use it to illustrate important ideas, such as overcoming adversity or becoming successful. To learn how to show your personality in your speech, keep reading! Did this summary help you? Yes No

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How to Deliver a Graduation Speech

Last Updated: August 4, 2022 References Approved

This article was co-authored by Patrick Muñoz . Patrick is an internationally recognized Voice & Speech Coach, focusing on public speaking, vocal power, accent and dialects, accent reduction, voiceover, acting and speech therapy. He has worked with clients such as Penelope Cruz, Eva Longoria, and Roselyn Sanchez. He was voted LA's Favorite Voice and Dialect Coach by BACKSTAGE, is the voice and speech coach for Disney and Turner Classic Movies, and is a member of Voice and Speech Trainers Association. There are 9 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. wikiHow marks an article as reader-approved once it receives enough positive feedback. This article received 13 testimonials and 100% of readers who voted found it helpful, earning it our reader-approved status. This article has been viewed 997,937 times.

If you've earned the prestigious honor of delivering the class graduation speech, that means you'll be the voice of your graduating class. It's a huge responsibility, but also a great fortune. To deliver a graduation speech, work on writing something both memorable and meaningful, practice beforehand, memorize the bulk of your speech but give yourself clear notes, use engaging body language, and speak at a slow yet natural pace. The truth is that when you've written an awesome graduation speech, delivering it in front of your peers, parents, and teachers is an experience that you'll never forget -- and hopefully, neither will they.

Sample Speeches

steps to writing a graduation speech

Writing Your Graduation Speech

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Delivering Your Graduation Speech

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To deliver a graduation speech, start by coming up with a theme for your speech, like growing up or overcoming adversity. Then, begin your speech with a catchy introduction that will grab your audience's attention, like an interesting story or a joke about your school. Next, for the middle of your speech, try to tie things back to your theme and surprise your audience to keep them interested. Finally, for the end of your speech, come back to the theme of your speech and tell your audience what they can learn from it. To learn how to deliver your speech once you're up on stage, scroll down! Did this summary help you? Yes No

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31 Graduation Speeches: Speeches You Give in Pointy Hats

A picture of a graduate and his grandfather

Graduation is a big day for graduates, their families, and teachers. If you are called to give a graduation speech, you want to make it special.  I want to share with you what makes a good graduation speech and give you tips on how to write one that will make an impact.

As we begin, you need to wrap your mind around two main things:

There are two main types of graduation speakers, the student speaker, and the headline speaker. At one college at our university, there is a speech contest to be the graduation speaker and at another college, it is someone who has been nominated by a faculty member. How you get there varies from place to place At the local high school, the valedictorian is often the speaker. I recently went to high school graduation and they had seven valedictorians so they had seven speakers–yes, it was as long as you can imagine.

When thinking about giving a graduation speech, you have to ask, “What does the audience need from me?” They need you to reflect on the past, celebrate the present, and focus on the future. This chapter will walk you through the essentials of giving a graduation speech and then give you several example speeches as samples of key elements.

Gather the Details

This is the fun part. Sit down with friends and make a list of all the things that come to mind about the college experience. When brainstorming, write down everything you think of and don’t try to judge whether it should be included, just go with it.  There is an entire chapter on how to brainstorm here. 

Organizational Format

Most all student graduation speeches include the past, present, and future format.

Manuscript Format

Most student graduation speeches are in manuscript format. That helps you from getting overwhelmed at the moment and that also gives the school a chance to censor– I mean to approve of–your content. There is an entire chapter on writing a manuscript that you can refer to here. 

Pick a Theme

Many graduation speeches use a theme. Here are some of the most common graduation themes.

It can be helpful to pick a theme and connect a metaphor to your theme. There is an entire chapter on how to do that here. 

“There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to push you in another direction.” Oprah Winfrey, Harvard University Commencement Speech

Start Your Speech with an Introduction

Most introductions acknowledge the occasion, offer thanks, and lead into the main idea. Shutterfly suggests these as openings.

Use the Principles of Good Ceremonial Speaking

I have written a chapter on each component of ceremonial speaking and you can reference those you need:

Look for Stories that Celebrate Common Experiences

Notice how Jaclyn Marston reflects on specific classes and memories. (Watch starting at .54 seconds).

Watch how Lin Manuel Miranda references the familiar and the obscure in his address to the University of Pennsylvania (start watching at 1:12).

Use a Theme

Notice how she uses the theme–“What do you want to be” when you grow up and alters it to  “What do you want to do?” She opens with this and wraps back around to this same idea at the end.

Be Vulnerable

Notice how this speaker admits his shortcomings. We feel like he is honest and vulnerable so we hang on his everyword.

Headline Speaker Sample Speeches

Headline speakers are usually someone famous or notable. Speeches by those individuals almost always include stories and challenges. I have included several here. Pick two of them to analyze.

Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories. Steve Jobs

These highlights of Lou Holtz’s graduation speech is full of great challenges and life lessons.

Tim Minchin

“One: Be micro-ambitious. Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you. You never know where you might end up.

Two: Don’t seek happiness. Keep busy and aim to make someone else happy and you might find you get some as a side effect.

Three:  Understanding that you can’t truly take credit for your successes nor truly blame others for their failures will humble you and make you more compassionate.

Four: Exercise. Take care of your body: you’re going to need it.

Five: Be hard on your opinions. Be intellectually rigorous. Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privileges.

Six: Even if you’re not a teacher, be a teacher. Share your ideas. Don’t take for granted your education.

Seven: Define yourself by what you love. Be demonstrative and generous in your praise of those you admire. Send thank you cards and give standing ovations. Be pro stuff not just anti stuff.

Eight: Respect people with less power than you.

Nine: Finally, don’t rush. You don’t need to know what you’re going to do with the rest of your life.”

As you can see, graduation speeches can be serious or lighthearted; they can be personal, motivational, and informative. The key thing is that the speech should be authentic. It should be as unique as the speaker.

Key Takeaways

Remember This!

Bonus Features

Jaclyn Marson describes the process of how she wrote her Graduation Speech.

Dunham, A. (2019). Valedictorian comes out as autistic during speech. [Video] YouTube.  https://youtu.be/GtPGrLoU5Uk Standard YouTube License

Holtz, L. (2017). Lou Holtz’s inspirational speech. Commencement speech.[Video] YouTube.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3LOo_Ccyws Standard YouTube License

Jobs, S. (2008). Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address. [Video] YouTube.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF8uR6Z6KLc Standard YouTube License.

Jostens, (n.d.).  Celebrate high school memories. Inspire your grad community. https://www.jostens.com/resources/students-and-parents/graduation-guides/how-to-write-a-grad-speech

Marson, J. (2020). How to write an amazing graduation speech–Jaclyn Marson podcast Ep 1. [Video] YouTube.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5CUSzp9SrM Standard YouTube License.

Marston, J. (2016). Beautiful and moving graduation speech 2016. [Video] YouTube.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_F3K3Z_5CEE Standard YouTube License.

Minchin, T. (2013). 9 life lessons-Time Minchin UWA Address. [Video] YouTube.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoEezZD71sc Standard YouTube License.

Rosen, L. (2019). Leah Rosen: “The power of this place,” Duke University 2019 commencement student speaker. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4N Standard YouTube License.

Shutterfly. (n.d) How to start a graduation speech. https://www.shutterfly.com/ideas/graduation-speech/

Stewart, M.  (2020). Student speaker. Commencement 2020. University of Utah. [Video] YouTube.   h ttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZFJnZvuQIo Standard YouTube License.

University of Pennsylvania. (2016). Penn’s 2016 commencement ceremony- Commencement speaker Lin-Manuel Miranda. [Video] YouTube.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ewHcsFlolz4&t=0s Standard YouTube License.

Media Attributions

Advanced Public Speaking by Lynn Meade is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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