Use these sample speeches and slides when doing a practice exercise (if you do not already have a prepared speech).
J.K. Rowling Harvard Commencement Speech
President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation, and the board of overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and above all graduates, the first thing I would like to say is thank you. Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honor, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation. Now, all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners, and convince myself that I am at the world’s largest Gryffindor reunion.
Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one because it turns out that I can’t remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, the law, or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard. You see, if all you remember in years to come is the gay wizard joke, I’ve come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock.
Achievable goals, the first step to self-improvement. Actually, I have wrapped my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that have expired between that day and this.
I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called real life, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination. These may seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but bear with me.
Looking back at the 21 year old that I was at graduation is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42 year old that she has become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself and what those closest of to me expected of me. I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do ever was write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that would never pay a mortgage or secure a pension. I know the irony strikes with a force of a cartoon anvil now, but so they hoped that I would take a vocational degree. I wanted to study English literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody. And I went up to study modern languages. Hardly had my parents car around the corner at the end of the road, then I ditched German and scuttled off down the classics corridor.
I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying classics. They might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all the subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.
Now I would like to make it clear in parenthesis that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction. The moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I cannot criticize my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves and I have since been poor. And I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear and stress, and sometimes depression. It means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticized only by fools.
Jeff Bezos Princeton Commencement Speech
As a kid, I spent my summers with my grandparents on their ranch in Texas. I helped fix windmills, vaccinate cattle, and do other chores. We also watched soap operas every afternoon, especially Days of Our Lives. My grandparents belonged to a Caravan Club, a group of Airstream trailer owners who traveled together around the US and Canada and every few summers we’d join the caravan. We’d hitch up the Airstream to my grandfather’s car and off we’d go and align with 300 other Airstream adventurers. I loved and worshiped my grandparents and I really looked forward to these trips.
On one particular trip I was about 10 years old, I was rolling around in the big bench seat in the back of the car. My grandfather was driving and my grandmother had the passenger seat. She smoked throughout these trips and I hated the smell. At that age, I’d take any excuse to make estimates and do minor arithmetic. I’d calculate our gas mileage, figure out useless statistics on things like grocery spending. I’d been hearing an ad campaign about smoking. I can’t remember the details, but basically the ad said, “Every puff of a cigarette, take some number of minutes off of your life.” I think it might’ve been two minutes per puff.
At any rate, I decided to do the math for my grandmother. I estimated the number of cigarettes per day, estimated the number of puffs per cigarette and so on. When I was satisfied that I’d come up with a reasonable number, I poked my head into the front of the car, tapped my grandmother on the shoulder and proudly proclaimed, “At two minutes per puff, you’ve taken nine years off of your life.” I have a very vivid memory of what happened next, and it was not what I had expected. I expected to be applauded for my cleverness and my arithmetic skill. “Jeff, you’re so smart. You had to have made some tricky estimates, figure out the number of minutes in a year and do some division.” That’s not what happened. Instead, my grandmother burst into tears.
I sat in the backseat. I Didn’t know what to do while my grandmother was crying. My grandfather, who’d been driving in silence, pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway. He got out of the car and came around and opened my door and waited for me to follow. Was I in trouble? My grandfather was a highly intelligent, quiet man. He had never said a harsh word to me and maybe this was to be the first time. Or maybe he would ask that I get back in the car and apologize to my grandmother. I had no experience in this realm with my grandparents and no way to gauge what the consequences might be. We stopped beside the trailer. My grandfather looked at me and after a bit of silence he gently and calmly said, “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”
What I want to talk to you about today is the difference between gifts and choices. Cleverness is a gift. Kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy. They’re given, after all. Choices can be hard. You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you’re not careful. And if you do, it’ll probably be to the detriment of your choices. This is a group with many gifts. I’m sure one of your gifts is the gift of a smart and capable brain. I’m confident that’s the case because admission is competitive. And if there weren’t some signs that you’re clever, the Dean of Admissions wouldn’t have let you in.
Your smarts will come in handy because you will travel in a land of marvels. We humans, plotting as we are, will astonish ourselves. We’ll invent ways to generate clean energy and a lot of it. Atom by atom we’ll assemble small machines that can enter cell walls and make repairs. This month comes the extraordinary but inevitable news that we’ve synthesized life. In the coming years we’ll not only synthesize it, but engineer it to specifications. I believe you’ll even see us understand the human brain. Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Galileo, Newton, all the curious from the ages would have wanted to be alive most of all right now. As a civilization, we will have so many gifts just as you as individuals have so many individual gifts as you sit before me. How will you use these gifts, and will you take pride in your gifts or pride in your choices?
I got the idea to start Amazon 16 years ago. I came across the fact that web usage was growing at 2300% per year and I’d never seen or heard of anything the grew that fast. The idea of building an online bookstore with millions of titles, something that simply couldn’t exist in the physical world was very exciting to me. I had just turned 30 years old and I’d been married for a year. I told my wife MacKenzie that I wanted to quit my job and go do this crazy thing that probably wouldn’t work since most startups don’t and I wasn’t sure what would happen after that. Mackenzie, also a Princeton grad and sitting here in the second row, told me I should go for it.
As a young boy, I had been a garage inventor. I’d invented an automatic gate closer out of cement filled tires, a solar cooker that didn’t work very well out of an umbrella and aluminum foil, baking pan alarms to entrap my siblings. I’d always wanted to be an inventor and she wanted me to follow my passion. I was working at a financial firm in New York City with a bunch of very smart people and I had a brilliant boss I much admired. I went to my boss and told him I was going to start a company selling books on the internet. He took me on a long walk in Central Park, listened carefully to me and finally said, “That sounds like a really good idea, but it would be an even better idea for someone who didn’t already have a good job.” That logic made some sense to me and he convinced me to think about it for 48 hours before making a final decision. Seen in that light it really was a difficult choice, but ultimately I decided I had to give it a shot. I didn’t think I’d regret trying and failing. And I suspected I would always be haunted by a decision to not try at all. After much consideration, I took the less safe path to follow my passion and I’m proud of that choice.
Steve Jobs Stanford Commencement Speech
Thank you. I’m honored to be with you today for your commencement from one of the finest universities in the world. Truth be told, I never graduated from college, and this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation today. I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories. The first story is about connecting the dots. I dropped out of Reed College after the first six months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why’d I drop out? It started before I was born.
My biological mother was a young, unwed graduate student and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates. So everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife, except that when I popped out, they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking “We’ve got an unexpected baby boy, do you want him?” They said, “Of course.” My biological mother found out later that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would go to college. This was the start in my life.
17 years later, I did go to college, but I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working class parents savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out, and here I was spending all the money. My parents had saved their entire life, so I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out. Okay. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back, it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out, I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me and begin dropping in on the ones that looked far more interesting.
It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends rooms. I returned Coke bottles for the 5 cent deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the seven miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hari Krishna temple. I loved it, and much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example, Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country throughout the campus. Every poster, every label on every drawer was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sanserif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great.
It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me and we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. Since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on that calligraphy class and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do.
Of course, it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college, but it was very, very clear looking backwards 10 years later. Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something, your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever, because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.
My second story is about love and loss. I was lucky. I found what I love to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents’ garage when I was 20, we worked hard and in 10 years, Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage, into a 2 billion company with over 4,000 employees. We just released our finest creation, the Macintosh, a year earlier, and I just turned 30, and then I got fired. How can you get fired from a company you started? Well, as Apple grew, we hired someone who I thought was very talented to run the company with me, and for the first year or so, things went well. But then our visions of the future began to diverge, and eventually we had a falling out. When we did, our board of directors sided with him.
So at 30, I was out and very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone and it was devastating. I really didn’t know what to do for a few months. I felt that I had let the previous generation of entrepreneurs down, that I had dropped the baton as it was being passed to me. I met with David Packard and Bob Noyce, and tried to apologize for screwing up so badly. I was a very public failure and I even thought about running away from the Valley, but something slowly began to dawn on me. I still loved what I did.
The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I’d been rejected, but I was still in love. So I decided to start over. I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could’ve ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life. During the next five years, I started a company named Next, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife. Pixar went on to create the world’s first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world.
Shirley Chisholm Equal Rights Amendment Speech
Mr. Speaker, when a young woman graduates from college and starts looking for a job, she is likely to have a frustrating and even demeaning experience ahead of her. If she walks into an office for an interview, the first question she will be asked is, “Do you type?” There is a calculated system of prejudice that lies unspoken behind that question.
Why is it acceptable for women to be secretaries, librarians and teachers, but totally unacceptable for them to be managers, administrators, doctors, lawyers, and members of congress. The unspoken assumption is that women are different. They do not have executive ability, orderly minds, stability, leadership skills, and they are too emotional. It has been observed before that society for a long time discriminated against another minority, the blacks, on the same basis that there were different and inferior. The happy little homemaker and contented “Old Darkey” on the plantation were both produced by prejudice.
As a black person, I am no stranger to race prejudice. But the truth is that in the political world, I have been far often discriminated against because I am a woman than because I am black. Prejudice against blacks is becoming unacceptable, although it will take years to eliminate it. But it is doomed because slowly, white America is beginning to admit that it exists. Prejudice against women is still acceptable. There is very little understanding yet of the immorality involved in double pay scales and the classifications of most of the better jobs as for men only.
More than half of the United States is female, but women occupy only 2% of the managerial position. We have not even reached the level of tokenism yet. No women sit on the AFL-CLO Council or Supreme Court. There have been only two women who held cabinet rank and at the present, there are none. Only two women now hold an ambassadorial rank in diplomatic corps. In Congress, we are down to one Senate and 10 representatives.
Considering that there are about three and a half million more women in the United States than men, this situation is outrageous. It is true that part of the problem has been that women have not been aggressive in demanding for their rights. This was also true for the black population. For many years, they submitted to oppression and even cooperated with it. Women have done the same thing. But now there is an awareness of the situation, particularly among younger segments of the population. As in the field of equal rights for blacks, Spanish-Americans, the Indians and other groups, laws will not change such deep seated problems overnight, but they tend to be used to provide protection for those who are most abused. And to begin the process of evolutionary change by compelling the insenstitive majority to reexamine its unconscious attitudes.
It is for this reason that I wish to introduce today a proposal that has been before every Congress for the last 40 years and that sooner or later must become part of the basic law of the land, The Equal Rights Amendment. Let me not and try to refute two of the commonest arguments that are offered against this amendment. One is that women are already protected under the law and do not need legislation. Existing laws are not adequate to secure equal rights for women. Sufficient proof of this is the concentration of women in low paying jobs and they’re incredible scarcity in the upper level jobs. If women are already equal, why is it such an event whenever one happens to be elected to Congress. It is obvious that discrimination exists. Women do not have the opportunities that men do. And women that do not conform to the system, who tried to break with the accepted patterns are stigmatized as “odd” and “unfeminine.”
The fact is that a woman who aspires to be chairman of the board or a member of the house does so for exactly the same reasons as any man, basically, these are that she thinks she can do the job and she wants to try. A second argument often heard against the Equal Rights Amendment is that would eliminate legislation that many states and the federal government have enacted giving special protection to women and that it would throw the marriage and the divorce law into chaos. As for the marriage laws, they are due for a sweeping reform and an excellent beginning would be to wipe the existing ones off the books.
Regarding special protection for working women, I cannot understand why it should be needed. Women need no protection that men do not need. What we need are laws to protect working people, to guarantee them fair pay, safe working conditions, protection against sickness and layoffs, and provision for dignified, comfortable retirement. Men and women need these things equally. That one sex needs protection more than the other is a male supremacist myth, as ridiculous and unworthy of respect as the white supremacist myth that society is trying to cure itself of at this time.