Be Like Bamboo: Lessons for work & Life
Presentation lessons from Citizen Kane

Three must-see college graduation speeches

It's graduation time in many parts of the world, and that means long ceremonies and a lot of speeches. The graduation speech is a tough gig; most speeches are soon forgotten, assuming they made any impact at all. The 2005 graduation speech by Steve Jobs garnered a lot of attention at the time, and is still talked about today, having been downloaded millions of times. If you have never seen Jobs's Stanford speech, check it out below. Last week the famous comedian and TV talkshow host Conan O'brien, who was sharing the stage with luminaries such as former US President George H. W. Bush,  gave a commencement speech for the ages. Although the speeches are different in style, they are both great examples of entertaining speeches which connect and engage and ultimately leave the audience with something memorable and valuable.

Conan O'Brien's 2011 Dartmouth College Commencement Address
Humor is a matter of taste, of course, but I found this speech to be hilarious. And judging from the laughter from the audience, and the luminaries on stage (and even the snickering secret service guys in the back), his tone was right the mark. Conan is a comedian so we expect laughs, but he also had a personal and heartfelt message in his talk. His advice was based on his experience with a very public "failure." Conan's key takeaway message was this: "It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can be a catalyst for profound re-invention." Watch on YouTube.

Steve Jobs's 2005 Stanford University Commencement Address
Although Jobs is a self-made billionaire and cultural icon, right from the start Jobs displayed his humility and made a connection with the audience by saying "I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I've ever gotten to a college graduation."  After that he wastes no time with formalities and gets right on with laying out the structure of his talk: "Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That's it. No big deal. Just three stories." His first story was about "connecting the dots." His second story was about "love and loss." And his third story concerned the issue of death. His stories were deeply personal. All three engaging, personal stories supported his overall key message of "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish." Watch on YouTube.

Advice for graduates from a comic book (redux)
A book called The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You'll Ever Need by my buddy Dan Pink was published in 2008. That spring I put together this Slideshare-style deck below that people could click through in about five minutes. The advice is simple and echoes some of the points touched on in Conan and Steve's college graduation speeches above. The advice is just as good in 2011. If you are graduating this year, all the best to you!

Stephen Colbert's 2011 Commencement Speech at Northwestern University
And here's one more that was just given a few days ago from another well known TV talkshow host. Here are a few of his takeaway lines:

"Thankfully, dreams can change. 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...."

"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.....In my experience, you will truly serve only what you love. Because service is love made visible. If you love friends, you will serve your friends. If you love community, you will serve your community. If you love money, you will serve your money. And if you love only yourself, you will serve only yourself, and you will have only yourself....Instead, try to love others, and serve others and hopefully find those who will love and serve you in return." Watch below.


Transcripts of Steve Jobs's speech
Transcripts of Conan Obrian's speech



Dan Pink also has graduation speech.


And not to forget Stephen Colberts recent commencement speech at Northwestern University:


Hi Garr!

Thank you for summarising and sharing the key points of Dan's book. (I'm most likely going to pick up a copy after work today.) I've been reading your blog for a few years now and you've been a great inspiration and motivation to make my presentations better! Now it's time to convince my boss to do the same... :)

Thanks for sharing!


Hey Garr,

Simply a great post with great material. We should reflect more often and go back to the meaning behind those great graduations speeches and live life with more urgency and dedication. Time never stops, we need to make the best of it now.

Along the same lines (altough I'm sure you know about her) go take a look at Carol Dweck's work ( Very inspiring and quite useful for new parents. :-)

Thanks for sharing!

John Zimmer

Garr, this post struck a chord with me. I draw on Jobs' commencement speech at Stanford in several of my lectures; I am a big fan of Pink (with well annotated copies of "A Whole New Mind" and "Drive"); and I just put up a post analyzing O'Brien's speech and why I thought it worked so well. You and your readers can find it here:




Hi Garr, I am a long time follower of your blog.

Thanks for drawing attention to college graduation speeches. I collect them as a hobby, I am looking for those with inspirational advice. This year, two more speeches got a lot of attention in the social media: Amy Poehler at Harvard (class day)
and Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook at Barnard College

One that got less attention but I think it was really well delivered was the one by Joe Plumeri.

His presentation style is very entertaining in my opinion. I liked the following quote the most. Telling graduates that they need to find what their passionate about he says

"You can Google for an answer. You can Google for a mate. You can Google for a career. But you can’t Google to find what’s in your heart – the passion that lifts you skyward."

Philippines Blog

Here in my country, the Philippines, most graduation speech I have heard, they all seem to bore people. Speakers don't study or to the least prepare for the event. I always end up thinking that it's a waste of time listening. If only my daughter didn't graduate with honors, I wouldn't be there listening to graduation speeches that are sometimes senseless to the graduates. I'd be home working and writing on my blog.

Al Pittampalli

Thanks Garr, for these great speeches! Conan's humor is the perfect fit for these types of celebrations.

I would add Bill Cosby to the list of stellar graduation speech presenters. He knows how to inspire like no one else I've ever seen.

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