Having attended over 30 high school, college, and graduate school commencement ceremonies (my children’s, and also institutions where I have been involved), and having been a graduation speaker myself, I have noticed that effective graduation speakers usually give the one and only important speech: the “rules of life.” And often having had the privilege to sit with the speaker’s spouse, I have also heard that the speaker spent arduous hours toiling over this speech – honoring the profound responsibility of addressing the graduates.
The rules of life speech always centers on honesty, integrity, and service. What makes the speech unique and powerful is the speaker and the life he or she has led. People who have contributed meaningfully – in their professional or volunteer lives – to advance human rights and social justice, the education, health, and welfare of children and families, the environment, global peace, and the arts, for example – carry serious weight with the audience.
The speaker’s message is really only meaningful because we are processing his or her comments along with our understanding of how the person actually lives a life of social responsibility. Each of us makes similar choices about the lives we live and can contribute to our communities personally and through our companies, and can serve as role models.
At my son’s college graduation, he bounded out of a private chapel service with The Reverend Peter J. Gomes and repeated something he heard that has stayed with me ever after. The words of Reverend Gomes, author of The Good Life, were: “God, grant me work until my life is over, and life until my work is done.”