How Commencement Speakers Use the Power of Persuasion

The honorable task of giving a commencement address is not an easy one. Speakers must tailor their words to the graduates, while considering that their audience extends to the parents, grandparents, younger siblings, teachers, and anyone else who might see the speech online. Ask around and you will learn that the majority of graduates do not remember who spoke during their graduation ceremony, let alone what their message was. Yet there are a few speeches that stand out and are remembered not just by the class they addressed. For example, excerpts from David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech to the 2005 class of Kenyon College were recently compiled into a short viral video, “This is Water”.

We decided to use our Quantified Communications communication analytics platform to determine what separates a great commencement speech from the pack. We analyzed transcripts from commencement speakers cited in the press as compelling and memorable, including Oprah Winfrey, David Foster Wallace, and Maya Angelou among others. What we learned is that all of the remarkable speeches we analyzed stood out on one measure in particular: persuasion.

Why persuasion? This finding demonstrates that successful commencement speakers paint a picture of what the graduates can expect in the “real world,” and the most successful commencement speakers are the ones who are able to persuade the audience that their view of the world is a true one.

So who was the most persuasive speaker? Based on our persuasion analytics, Oprah Winfrey’s 2008 speech at Stanford was number one with a score of 11.75%. Next were David Foster Wallace (2005, Kenyon) with a score of 11.04%, John F. Kennedy (1963, American University) with a score of 10.83%, Maya Angelou (1977, University of California, Riverside) with a score of 10.71%, and Winston Churchill (1941, Harrow School) with a score of 10.36%. As a benchmark, the average persuasion score in our communications database is 7.77%.

What can we learn about persuasive speaking from these results? First, the commencement speakers we analyzed are all perceived to be experts, but their messages are memorable because the speakers provide context, allowing the audience to relate in some way to the experiences described by the speakers and to their advice. Second, word choice may have a larger impact on what persuades us than we realize. For example, the use of the second person pronoun “you” causes listeners to pay closer attention, as they perceive that the message may relate to them. Causation words (such as “because”, “effect” and “therefore”) are also correlated with persuasion. When speakers provide reasoning behind their advice, we are much more likely to believe them.

These lessons on persuasion are echoed by science. Research reported in an article entitled, “Brain mechanisms of persuasion: how ‘expert power’ modulates memory and attitudes,” (from the Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Journal) set out to determine which characteristics are the most persuasive in advertising by using MRIs to locate which portions of the brain become activated by different ads. Their key findings were:

  • Persuasiveness generally increases with communicator expertise
  • To have a lasting persuasive effect, attitude change has to be accompanied by successful memory formation
  • Memory formation can be achieved by providing context

These findings easily extend into the business world. Many companies are looking into a new field of study called Neuromarketing, defined as “the fusion of knowledge of neuroscience, economics and marketing.” When designing an ad, marketers are starting to take into consideration how different words will affect potential customers. Whether in marketing or communications, the ability to persuade an audience helps to ensure that you will make a lasting impression and will not be soon forgotten.