Desmond Tutu and the Art of the Commencement Speech


Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu delivered the commencement address this year for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu delivered the commencement address this year for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Image credit: UNC News Services.

Graduation season is in full swing.

I love this time of year, because it’s a time of celebration for families. Graduates from high schools, colleges, graduate schools and professional schools seldom make it to their commence ceremonies on their own. They are there because of their own hard work, yes, but they are also there because someone special in their life supported them. Whether financially, emotionally, spiritually — most people are graduating because someone has been supporting them, indeed rooting for them, for many years.

As for the graduation ceremonies, I generally loathe them. These occasions are usually entirely too long and there are too many speeches from people who have nothing worthwhile to say.

Do you even remember who spoke at your graduation? President Reagan’s Navy Secretary spoke at my college graduation and Hillary Clinton, then First Lady, spoke at my graduate school commencement. I don’t remember a word either uttered. They could have been terrible or wonderful; I don’t know. To be honest, I was too caught up in the emotion of the day to really listen. Perhaps that’s true of all graduates on graduation day.

While the graduates may not listen, their family members and loved ones are more likely to and they have to sit through these dreadful orations. Typically, they are bored senseless.

Every once in a while though, there are some remarkable commencement speeches. Last Sunday, I heard just such a commencement speech delivered by Nobel Peace Prize Winner and former Anglican Archbishop of Capetown Desmond Tutu. Tutu spoke at the commencement exercises held the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

I was at UNC’s Kenan Stadium last Sunday  to cheer on my niece, who was just awarded a bachelor’s degree and will begin work as an Americorps volunteer in New York in August. So to tell you the truth, I would have had a wonderful time regardless of who spoke — I was just the proud uncle.

But it was a special treat to hear Desmond Tutu address the assembled crowd.  He didn’t disappoint. While not everyone gathered agreed with all that he said, he kept  the attention a stadium of about 30,000 people by making them laugh and making them think. Certainly, Tutu has a great deal of practice; he’s received over 130 honorary degrees over the years and as a clergyman, he’s made his living as a public speaker.

Tutu followed my favorite advice for successful speech-making given by James C. Humes in his book, “The Sir Winston Method: the Five Secrets of Speaking the Language of Leadership”.

In his introduction to that book about Winston Churchill’s approach to speech-making, Humes writes that:

Every time you have to speak — whether it’s in an auditorium, in a company conference room, or even at your own desk — you are auditioning for leadership. The difference between mere management and leadership is communication. And that art of communication is the language of leadership.

Humes should know. When I studied speech-writing under him in graduate school, he had served a White House speechwriter, had authored 10 books and had written speeches for eight U.S. presidents. The five lessons in “The Sir Winston Method” were simple, but extraordinarily helpful to me with every speech I’ve written and delivered since. They are:

1) Begin strongly: Impress your audience with an opening zinger.

2) Focus on one theme: A speech is like a symphony. It can have three movements, but it must have one dominant theme.

3) Use simple language: Toss out the beat-around-the-bush jargon of bureaucrats and pick up your pace with personal, colorful language.

4) Draw a picture in the listener’s mind: Transform dry abstractions like “private enterprise” into a powerful picture like “the sturdy horse pulling along the cart of democracy,” as Churchill did.

5) End with emotion: Express your feelings from the heart when you cap your speech.

In my view Tutu did this expertly. But see for yourself.

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