It’s graduation season in the United States. After attending four graduation ceremonies this month, I can safely say I listened to around forty speeches. Roughly thirty-nine of them mentioned the “difficult pandemic we weathered” and around half of the speakers implored that “we are the future.”
I think that commencement speakers have the opportunity to give extremely meaningful speeches–college graduation is a huge moment in one’s life. The problem, I think, is that there are truths so fundamental–that graduates really are the next generation, that we will face challenges, that we don’t know where we are going–that they become cliche.
The task for speakers, then, is circumventing these cliches without pandering, and delivering something truly original.
Below are my thoughts about two commencement speeches, “Make Good Art” by Neil Gaiman, and “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace, that stand out to me as meaningful and honest. After summarizing the speeches, I’ll talk about what magicians can learn from the commencement speech genre.
“Make Good Art” by Neil Gaiman (University of the Arts, 2012)
Gaiman’s speech is specifically geared toward artists, so it automatically resonated with me more than a typical speech that has to address every major.
Gaiman starts by acknowledging his own vulnerability–that he never went to college, and therefore feels awkward giving a speech. He also talks about how he lied to get certain writing jobs and that he feels imposter syndrome despite his global success. This vulnerability both connects us and makes us like him.
Additionally, Gaiman gives straightforward advice. His solution to imposter syndrome and life’s difficulties in general is simply: “Make good art” (a phrase he repeats several times). I appreciate that his advice is simple and true. He doesn’t pretend that life is a technicolor adventure. He instead roots his advice in what the individual can control: their capacity to put good (in this case, art) into the world.
A core reason this speech is effective, in my opinion, is that watching it makes you feel good. For context: It’s easy to think that everything you say on stage will be remembered. I used to be disappointed, for example, when people would forget large portions of certain tricks I did during a show. But that’s not how human memory works. No one remembers every word from a comedian’s set, every scene from a movie, or the exact conditions that led to a magic trick being impossible. It’s simply too much information. Maya Angelou said it best: “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” [emphasis mine].
The role of the artist, which Gaiman fills perfectly, is to make you feel something. In this case, Gaiman makes you laugh and feel happy by expressing his own vulnerability, and he makes you feel secure by talking about how he overcame his challenges.
“This is Water” by David Foster Wallace (Kenyon College, 2005)
“This is Water” stands on its own as a powerful speech that completely transcends the commencement genre. While it resembles the structure of a commencement speech–he talks about what a liberal arts education means and offers advice–its content is completely original. There are no mindless cliches about how the students are the future and how they’ll solve the world’s problems. There are no generalizations or fake humbleness about how he “never expected to be giving a commencement speech.”
Instead, Foster Wallace brings up problems like suicide, the crushing annoyance of going to the grocery store when you’re exhausted during rush hour, and even “your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.” Not the usual commencement content. But it’s honest, and it works.
Furthermore, Foster Wallace explains how a liberal arts education is not just about teaching you how to think, but about teaching you to choose what you think. What differentiates “This is Water” from the norm is that Foster Wallace is unafraid to make points that might make people in the audience uncomfortable or cause disagreement. For example, he issues a stark warning about those who are unable to distinguish what is important and what is not in life: “If you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”
Say what you will about his opinions–Foster Wallace takes a stand. Rather than mindlessly trying to appeal to the audience with boundless optimism like the large majority of commencement speakers, he tells the truth about the dangers of adult life, and exactly what must be done to overcome them.
It is worth noting that sadly, Foster Wallace killed himself in 2008, indicating that he was unable to overcome the very challenges whose solutions he prescribed in his speech. His suicide illustrates the reality of what he said–that life is often unbearably challenging and scary.
Can magicians learn anything from these speeches?
I think magicians and commencement speakers suffer from similar problems–namely, a lack of originality, honesty, and vulnerability. But the above speeches offer a solution to the monotony of most magic performances–the more you tell the truth, even if that truth sounds mean or harsher than you’d like–the more you’ll connect with people, and the more original you’ll be.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again–the best magicians tell the truth. Perhaps we can extrapolate this beyond magic shows and speeches: The most effective connections in life are fundamentally built on truth. So, no wonder that strategy works in public speaking. But, because telling the truth often requires vulnerability, you’re unlikely to find many truths during a magic show.
Finally, the most important lesson magicians can learn from effective commencement speeches is the ability to be present during a prepared performance. It’s really easy to read directly off your paper (or, if you’re a magician, blandly recite your script) and call it a day. But any comedian or magician can tell you that the second you start acknowledging what’s going on around you, even if it’s a baby crying or phone ringing, the audience will appreciate that you’re noticing their specific reality.
For example, at this year’s University of Maryland commencement ceremony (where my twin sister just graduated), we were graced with Jeff Kinney’s speech. Kinney is the author of the famous Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Despite the genuinely good speech he was giving, all anyone could think about was the 90+ degree heat in Maryland humidity.
Rather than losing the audience’s attention, Kinney improvised, saying something along the lines of “when you think back to this ceremony, all you’ll probably remember is that you were hot, wearing black nylon tents [graduation gowns], listening to someone who draws cartoons for a living.” This got a massive laugh, and the audience appreciated that they were being seen and heard. Kinney proceeded to give an excellent speech that ended in a standing ovation.
To summarize: The best commencement speakers express vulnerability and therefore tell the truth. The speakers take a stand about a subject that may be contested, but the truth in their convictions is enjoyable whether or not you agree with what they’re saying. They use this honesty to make you feel good, knowing full well you will not remember their exact words. And finally, good speakers are present. I’ve won over many audiences by simply acknowledging that the stage lights were way too bright or that I hope the audience didn’t have too much trouble driving in the rain on the way to the theater. It’s surprising how powerful a one sentence acknowledgement of current conditions can be in bringing the audience on your side.
Both of these speeches are worth watching no matter where you are in life. If anything, they will inspire you to be intentional about the way you spend your time, which is the most powerful thing you can do.
Looking to see a show this summer? You've got multiple opportunities in Denver and New York City. Check them out below:
June 18th @ 7 PM (NYC)
June 18th @ 8 PM (NYC)
July 8th @ 7:30 PM (Denver)
July 9th @ 7:00 PM (Denver)
....August 19th and 20th Denver dates coming soon!