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Graduation
13 Inspiring Graduation Speeches and How to Write One
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AnnaMarie Houlis
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Journalist & travel blogger
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Graduation speeches can be tough to write but, when done well, they can also be hugely motivational.

If you have to write your own graduation speech, here are 13 incredibly inspiring graduation speeches from famous faces like Steve Jobs to Michelle Obama. And some tips for coming up with your own.

13 Inspiring Graduation Speeches

1. Steve Jobs at Stanford University, 2005

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In 2005, Steve Jobs spoke before Stanford University's graduating class. In his speech, he shared three life stories, talking about the time he dropped out of university, when he started Apple and how he got fired from Apple. He also divulged the details of his diagnosis with cancer and the lessons on life and death he learned all along the way.

"When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: 'If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.' It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: 'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?' And whenever the answer has been 'No' for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something."

He goes on to explain how remembering the death is looming for everyone is "the most important tool" he's encountered in making big life decisions.

"Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important," he says. "Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

2. Stephen Colbert at Northwestern University, 2011

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In 2011, Stephen Colbert spoke at Northwestern University's graduation, when he told the graduating class that, if their dreams change or don't come to fruition, not to worry. Rather, he encourages them to focus on love and serving others.

"You have been told to follow your dreams, but what if it's a stupid dream?" he asks. "If we'd all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses. So, whatever your dream is right now, if you don't achieve it, you haven't failed, and you're not some loser. But just as importantly — and this is the part I may not get right and you may not listen to — if you do get your dream, you are not a winner... Life is an improvisation. You have no idea what's going to happen next and you are mostly just yanking ideas out of your ass as you go along. And, like improv, you cannot win your life, even when it might look like you're winning."

3. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at Wellesley College, 2015

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In 2015, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke at women's college, Wellesley, about her career path — what she wanted to do, versus what those around her thought she should do. While she went to medical school because it was expected of her, she really just wanted to write stories so, after a year, she dropped out and got herself a scholarship to study communications and political science instead.

"Later, people told me that it had been very courageous of me, but I did not feel courageous at all," she said. "What I felt then was not courage, but a desire to make an effort — to try... My writing might not have ended up being successful. But the point is that I tried... Please do not twist yourself into shapes to please. Don’t do it. If someone likes that version of you, that version of you that is false and holds back, then they actually just like that twisted shape, and not you. And the world is such a gloriously multifaceted, diverse place that there are people in the world who will like you, the real you, as you are."

4. Michelle Obama at Eastern Kentucky University, 2013

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In 2013, Michelle Obama spoke at Eastern Kentucky University, where she left the departing students with seemingly simple but actionable advice.

“If you’re a Democrat, spend some time talking to a Republican," she said. "And if you’re a Republican, have a chat with a Democrat. Maybe you’ll find some common ground, maybe you won’t. But if you honestly engage with an open mind and an open heart, I guarantee you’ll learn something. And goodness knows we need more of that, because we know what happens when we only talk to people who think like we do — we just get more stuck in our ways, more divided, and it gets harder to come together for a common purpose. ”

5. J.K. Rowling at Harvard University, 2008

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In 2008, J.K. Rowling spoke at Harvard University's graduation, when she told the class: "I'm not going to stand here and tell you failure is fun," but that "it is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all — in which case, you fail by default."

She goes on to explain, however, that failure was critical to her success. After her marriage had "imploded" and she was left "jobless, a lone parent and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless," she said "failure meant a stripping away of the inessential."

"I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me," she explained. "Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life."

6. Ellen DeGeneres at Tulane University, 2009

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In 2009, Ellen DeGeneres spoke at Tulane University's graduation with, of course, a lot of humor.

“Never follow anyone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path and, by all means, you should follow that," she says. "Don’t give advice, it will come back and bite you in the ass. Don’t take anyone’s advice. So my advice to you is to be true to yourself and everything will be fine.”

7. Sheryl Sandberg at UC Berkeley, 2016

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In 2016, Sheryl Sandberg spoke at UC Berkeley's graduation — it was the first time that she publicly spoke about her husband Dave Goldberg's death.

"Dave's death changed me in very profound ways — I learned about the depths of sadness and the brutality of loss, but I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, find the surface, and breathe again," she said of finding resilience in his passing. "I never knew I could cry so often — or so much. But I am also aware that I am walking without pain. For the first time, I am grateful for each breath in and out — grateful for the gift of life itself. I used to celebrate my birthday every five years and friends’ birthdays sometimes. Now I celebrate always. I used to go to sleep worrying about all the things I messed up that day — and trust me, that list was often quite long. Now I try really hard to focus on each day’s moments of joy."

8. Jim Carrey at Maharishi University of Management, 2014 

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In 2014, Jim Carrey spoke to the graduating class at Maharishi University of Management on the importance of being present.

"Fear is going to be a player in your life, but you get to decide how much," he said. "You can spend your whole life imagining ghosts, worrying about your pathway to the future, but all there will ever be is what’s happening here, and the decisions we make in this moment, which are based in either love or fear."

He goes on to explain how so many of us choose our path out of "fear disguised as practicality."

"What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect, so we never dare to ask the universe for it," he sid. "You are ready and able to do beautiful things in this world and after you walk through those doors today, you will only ever have two choices: love or fear. Choose love, and don’t ever let fear turn you against your playful heart."

9. David Foster Wallace at Kenyon, 2005

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In 2005, David Foster Wallace spoke at Kenyon graduation about how we often forget or take for granted our surroundings. He encourages the graduates to keep abreast of the happenings in the world and not to take anything in their lives for granted.

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, 'Morning, boys. How’s the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes 'What the hell is water?'" he said in his speech.

10. Charlie Munger at University of California Law School, 2007

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In 2007, Charlie Munger spoke at the University of California Law School. He said: “You’re not going to get very far in life based on what you already know. You’re going to advance in life by what you’re going to learn after you leave here.”

In short, Munger told the graduates that acquiring wisdom is a moral duty, rather, than just something you do to advance in life.

11. Shonda Rhimes at Dartmouth University, 2014 

Photo via YouTube

In 2014, Shonda Rhimes told Dartmouth University graduates to ditch dreaming and start doing.

"When people give these kinds of speeches, they usually tell you all kinds of wise and heartfelt things — they have wisdom to impart and they have lessons to share," she started the speech. "They tell you: Follow your dreams. Listen to your spirit. Change the world. Make your mark. Find your inner voice and make it sing. Embrace failure. Dream. Dream and dream big. As a matter of fact, dream and don't stop dreaming until all of your dreams come true... I think that's crap."

Rhimes goes onto explain how a lot of people dream. And while they're busy dreaming, "the really happy people, the really successful people, the really interesting, engaged, powerful people, are busy doing."

"The dreamers — they stare at the sky and they make plans and they hope and they talk about it endlessly," she said. "Ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer. Maybe you know exactly what it is you dream of being, or maybe you're paralyzed because you have no idea what your passion is. The truth is, it doesn't matter. You don't have to know. You just have to keep moving forward. You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new."

12. Octavia Spencer at Kent State University, 2017

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In 2017, Octavia Spencer told the graduating class at Kent State University to forge their own paths.

"The journey you take now will be led by you alone — don't let that scare you; oh no, let that liberate you," she said. "Remember, no one came here the same way, and you won’t all achieve success the same way, but because you all have shaped your path to graduation in a way that is uniquely and undeniably yours, I am pretty confident that you will continue to do that."

She also warned the graduates not to get themselves caught up in the trap of comparison.

"Ignore the silly 30-Under-30 list that the internet throws at you before you’ve even had your morning cup of coffee," she said. "Those will be the bane of your existence post-graduation, trust me. Trust me. Comparing yourself to other’s success only slows you down from finding your own."

13. Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard University, 2017

Photo via YouTube

In 2017, Mark Zuckerberg spoke at Harvard University's graduation on the importance of "creating a world where everyone has a sense of purpose." 

"You're graduating at a time when this is especially important," he said. "When our parents graduated, that sense of purpose reliably came from your job, your church, your community. But today, technology and automation are eliminating many jobs. Membership in a lot of communities has been declining. And a lot of people are feeling disconnected and depressed, and are trying to fill a void in their lives."

He told the class that now is their time to "do great things."

"I know, maybe you're thinking: I don't know how to build a dam, I don't know how to get a million people involved in anything," he went on. "Well, let me tell you a secret: no one does when they begin. Ideas don't come out fully formed. They only become clear as you work on them. You just have to get started. If I had to know everything about connecting people before I got started, I never would have built Facebook."

How to Write Your Own Graduation Speech

If you have to write your own graduation speech, here are so tips for writing a motivational speech like the aforementioned ones.

1. Keep It Relatively Short

You don't want to drag on for too long. Keep your speech to a comfortable amount of time. It shouldn't be any longer than 15 to 20 minutes maximum, though, as a student, you probably want to keep it down to five to 10 minutes.

2. Keep It Relevant

Make sure that your speech is relevant to the audience to whom you're speaking. Don't go off on any tangents.

3. Include Examples

Include examples in your speech that help your audience to understand what you're talking about. In other words, don't just explain what an impactful few years it has been for you, but describe the ways your time at the school had impacted you.

4. Add a Dose of Humor

You can always leave room for comedic relief. If you can get the audience laughing with you, you have them hooked.

5. Leave the Audience with Actionable Advice

Always end your speech with a piece of actionable advice. Whether that's to be true to yourself or to never give up hope, give the audience something with which to sit.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.

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