NPR Ed
7:40 am
Tue May 20, 2014

The 25 Most Promising Graduation Speeches Of The Year

Every year, for the past eight years, I've read hundreds and hundreds of graduation speeches, all told more than 1,000.

My fascination with commencement speeches started back in 2005. I was spellbound by outstanding talks from David Foster Wallace and Steve Jobs. I soon discovered more examples by remarkable — yet not necessarily famous — graduation speakers, such as professor Mark Lewis and historian John Walsh. With my graduate coursework on the intricacies of collections and the art of archiving, there was really no turning back; these speeches became the foundation of Graduation Wisdom, my collection of inspirational commencement speeches and graduation quotes.

This season looks as promising as ever. Facing audiences ready to equally praise or blast their speeches on social media, today's speakers certainly have more pressure on them to put in the time to prepare a solid speech. Of the publicly announced speakers to date, I'm particularly looking forward to the following 25, which I've grouped under quirky but time-tested categories.

1. Tried And True

If past achievements in graduation speaking are any predictor of future performance, these speakers are set to do great. They each have given amazing speeches in the past. Can they do it again?

  • Wynton Marsalis, acclaimed jazz musician, Grammy winner and Pulitzer prize recipient — Tulane University, May 17. His speech last year at University of Vermont made quite a few best-of lists.

  • Katie Couric, journalist and television personality — Trinity College, May 18. Of her many graduation speeches, my favorite is her 2007 address at Williams College — "Simple Lessons for a Complicated Time."

  • Ed Helms, actor (The Office) — Cornell University, May 24. His speech last year at Knox College was one of the best speeches I have ever read. He spoke about fear and how it can be "one of the most valuable and life-informing things you can experience." Make sure you read it.

2. Wordsmiths

They can write. They can tell stories. They can sweep us off our feet with their crafted words. And yet, it still amazes me that so few writers and poets (as opposed to, say, politicians) get invited to give commencement addresses.

  • Richard Blanco, fifth inaugural poet — University of Rhode Island, May 18.

  • Natasha Trethewey, U.S. poet laureate — Knox College, June 7.

  • Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author — Bates College, May 25.

3. Entertainers

Funny speeches are best left to the people who entertain for a living. They're not easy to pull off — one must be able to skillfully combine wisdom and laughter. It's a great mix when done right. So far this year, I could only find two potential candidates in this category:

  • Jay Leno, former host of NBC's Late Night Show — Emerson College, May 11.

  • Chris Regan, Emmy Award-winning writer (Family Guy, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) — Ithaca College, May 18.

4. Wall Street Wizards

I would not have expected businesspeople to deliver great commencement speeches. Then I spent a good few years working at Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, listening to the many CEOs who were invited to give lectures. I reveled in their speeches, which were chock full of advice on how to be successful — one of the preferred topics for graduation speeches.

  • Greg Creed, chief executive officer for Taco Bell Corp — U.C.-Irvine's Paul Merage School of Business, June 16.

  • Ellen Kullman, CEO of DuPont — MIT, June 6.

  • Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube — Johns Hopkins University, May 22.

5. The One And Only: Mass Media

Journalists and media personalities always make a terrific showing in the commencement sweepstakes, and my list is no exception. In many ways, they bring together two categories: they're wordsmiths who can entertain. I can't wait. I am only afraid my expectations are already set too high.

  • Terry Gross, host of NPR's Fresh Air — Bryn Mawr College, May 17.

  • Christopher Dickey, author and journalist — Hamilton College, May 25.

  • Marty Baron, Washington Post executive editor, Pulitzer Prize winner — Lehigh University, May 19.

  • Gwen Ifill, PBS NewsHour anchor — St. Mary's College of Maryland, May 17.

  • Rachel Martin, host of NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday — University of Puget Sound, May 18.

  • A husband-and-wife combo: David Plotz, editor of Slate, and Hanna Rosin, journalist and author — Ripon College, May 18.

6. Zen-Like

Four speakers: two beloved Buddhist teachers, a record-setting long-distance swimmer, and an inspirational autistic activist and author. I am almost sure their speeches will be worth watching and reading. The graduates are in for a treat.

  • Pema Chödrön, notable Buddhist teacher and author, Pema Chödrön Foundation — Naropa University, May 10.

  • Temple Grandin, autism awareness advocate, innovator in the livestock industry and best-selling author — Providence College, May 18.

  • Diana Nyad, first person to swim between Cuba and Florida without a shark cage — Middlebury College, May 25.

  • Norman Fisher, Zen Buddhist priest and poet, Everyday Zen Foundation — Stanford University, June 15.

7. Of Hollywood Fame

This is a risky category. Just as one cannot tell for certain whether a movie will be a smash at the box office, one cannot predict how these speeches will fare. Is there potential? Yes. Results? We'll see!

  • Jennifer Lee, Frozen screenwriter and director — University of New Hampshire, May 17.

  • Forest Whitaker, Oscar-winning actor — Miami University, May 17.

  • Shonda Rhimes, TV producer, Golden Globe winner, creator of ABC's Grey's Anatomy and Scandal — Dartmouth, June 8.

In a second installment, in June, I'll take a look back and see which speeches did indeed fare well. I know there will be plenty of surprises, they always are, but that makes more interesting. Who knows, the best commencement speech might be given to a college or high school near you. I hope you'll let us know!

To explore hundreds of graduation speeches from over the past 240 years, visit our app: "The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever." To see more excerpts and transcripts of Cristina Negrut's favorites, visit GraduationWisdom.com.

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