The College Commencement Speech: What Was It About? I Was Too Busy Texting…

With everyone packing smartphone heat, will anyone be listening to the address?



It’s college commencement season again and to all the commencement speakers, I wish you luck. In that half hour or whatever time you’ll be taking at the podium to hold your audience in spellbound rapture with exhortations, pearls of wisdom and life lessons, you’ll be competing with hand-held technology for the attention of both students and parents. I’d bet on the technology.

As recently as 10 years ago, when cell phones were just, well, cell phones, commencement speakers could count on at least half of the student audience to pay attention to the speech. The other half consisted of those afflicted with ennui, cynicism, sleep deprivation, ADD, hangovers and various degrees of chemical pacification. The parents and guests tended to be overwhelmingly polite and alert and most of their mind-wandering was focused on whether their graduate was going to find a job after this substantial investment in higher education. If a speaker was even mildly interesting or provocative, most in the audience would have heard enough of the message to have some sort of discussion about it afterwards.

Fast forward to 2011. Cell phones are now smart phones – portals to the universe – and it’s likely that a full 100% of the students and 80% of the parents/guests have brought their devices to the commencement speech. By about minute five of the speech most students will have pulled them out and are looking into their laps at their apps. Many will be posting to their Facebook pages, others will be tweeting. Some will be on Four Square to see how many of their friends are within a half-mile radius. Still others will be texting, in some cases to friends just a few rows ahead (“R U bord 2???”)

“And another responsibility you have to society … “ The speaker will be in high gear about minute 10 and will notice many heads nodding in the student section. “I’m really getting through to them,” she’ll say to herself. Well, no. Actually the heads are nodding because a number of them have just achieved a new personal high score with Angry Birds and are passing that information along to the rest of their friends. Meanwhile, other students are discretely taking pictures of their mortar boarded selves during the speech and uploading them to Flickr or Facebook. There are even a few students on Wikipedia trying to figure out just who this commencement speaker is while another 11 or so students in the audience are checking out job postings on

At about minute 20, the speaker will progress into the “There will be challenges in your journey … “ part of the speech. It’ll appear that all is going well. No one seems to be talking instead of listening – that’s good – and most of the students’ heads are angled downward. Perhaps they are in personal reflection? They’re doing something with their hands – maybe they are taking notes of key points in the speech? Um, that would be no and no.

Of course, the parents are more appreciative of the ceremony. Well, some are. E-mail is the distractor of choice for the older crowd. Darn, that proposal didn’t go out on time. Sally, are we still invited to dinner tonight? Jake, check out this goofy story about albino penguins. Some of the dads are on getting updates on the scores and the NFL strike. At the same time, the younger sibs in attendance are texting and playing Tetris, making the grandparents the only demographic in the audience mostly paying attention to the speaker.


Far-fetched? I think not. Of course, some top tier schools will have commencement speakers who are world leaders or celebrities and they will earn a larger mind-share delivering their speeches. But for the most part, the college commencement speech has become one more form of social interaction where technology is trumping face time. The distraction has become the attraction. Or as McLuhan presciently suggested in 1964, the medium has become the message.

This technology is moving fast. What will the next 10 years bring? Remember – Facebook, Twitter and even the Blackberry smartphone did not exist 10 short years ago. What will the commencement speeches of 2021 be like? Will there even be a need to physically show up somewhere to hear a speech as our rituals change with the technology? Might the speaker simply supply a series of 140 character motivational tweets from a remote location accompanied by Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” delivered as a .WAV file and the diplomas sent electronically? But perhaps by then Twitter itself will be but a faint memory of outdated, quaint technology, replaced by the next big thing that hasn’t even been conceptualized yet.

These are definitely interesting times …

Mike Hoban is a management consultant in his day job and can be contacted at