Commencement speakers strive to inspire, entertain

The Obamas, Cosby, Winer among the high-profile figures to address local graduates

May 10, 2013|By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

Expectations are high for this year's commencement speakers at Maryland universities — an august crew that includes the Obamas and their team of writers as well as funnyman Bill Cosby and Hollywood director Jason Winer.

But to stand out — or simply be remembered — isn't a guarantee, no matter how high the profile of the speaker.

"The commencement speaker has to perform. He or she has the responsibility to inspire both students and graduates to make something of their lives" without falling back on cliches, said Steven D. Cohen, managing director of the oral communication program at the University of Maryland. "No one wants a speaker who's boring, who drones on and on."

Among those hoping to inspire: President Barack Obama, who is set to speak at the U.S. Naval Academy on May 24, and the first lady, who will talk at Bowie State University on the 17th. Cosby is expected to regale University of Baltimore graduates on the 21st. Also set to speak this graduation season are Hall of Fame Orioles infielder Cal Ripken Jr. at the University of Maryland, College Park on May 19 and Gov. Martin O'Malley at St. Mary's College on Saturday.

Winer, who has directed episodes of TV's "Modern Family" and the 2011 remake of the movie "Arthur," delivered his speech, "Want More, Learn to be Satisfied," on Friday at Stevenson University. He said he spent days pacing around his office and dictating "bits and pieces" of his talk in preparation for the event.

He doesn't remember the commencement speech given at his own graduation from Northwestern University — and hopes his performance doesn't meet a similar fate.

"I just remember being very hot," he said. "I'm hoping to make more of an impression on this graduating class than that speaker made on mine."

Some of the best commencement speeches have several things in common, Cohen and others said: They're short, they're personal, and they're thought-provoking.

Steve Jobs' famous 15-minute address at Stanford University in 2005 was widely lauded because the Apple founder opened up about his life, talked about setbacks and frankly told students to remember they will be dead one day, so "follow your heart."

Author Barbara Kingsolver won kudos in 2008 with a moving talk at Duke University about "how to be hopeful."

And a speech that Charles Wheelan gave at Dartmouth College in 2011 warning students that some of "their worst days lie ahead" not only went viral, but earned the public policy expert and writer a new book deal. "101/2 Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said" came out last spring, just in time for graduation season.

"It wasn't the conventional, light, upbeat, airy kind of speech," Wheelan said of his 2011 address, which detailed six things "no commencement speaker has ever said" at his alma mater. "I wanted to give the speech I wished somebody had given to me 20 years ago."

He told students their time in frat house basements was well spent, to not make the world worse, to marry up when it comes to intelligence, to balance work and play because we live on "borrowed time," and that the future is uncertain. The tenor of that speech was the opposite of the traditional commencement speeches he wrote right out of college as a speechwriter for Maine Gov. John R. McKernan.

"I knew what they were supposed to look like," Wheelan said of those talks years ago.

But for his own speech, the traditional didn't feel right for the occasion. His best advice for Maryland's crop of speakers is to highlight the negative.

"Students love to hear about failure, and I'm dead serious in that. Anybody speaking has turned out just fine, so it's really failure with a silver lining," he said. "A 50-year-old's talk about all the great things that happened is just not going to resonate with a 22-year-old who has no idea what to do with their lives. Oddly enough, talking about the failures is more reassuring than talking about the success."

Winer described his speech as being about failure in a very positive way — sort of like when a job interviewee cites being a perfectionist or workaholic as a so-called flaw to a potential boss.

His ambition sometimes overshadows his pride in achievement, Winer said in an interview, and he hoped his speech might keep others from a similar fate.

"It's very personal for me, honestly," said Winer, a 1990 graduate of the Friends School of Baltimore. "I feel that I've been very ambitious in my career, and I'm trying to share that and present that as a good quality. I think the mistake that I've made repeatedly is not enjoying success, not enjoying [individual] successes."

One way to be memorable is to be original, but not so original that you get into trouble, said James Helmer, coordinator of the Oral Communication Center at Hamilton College in New York.

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