QC’s Favorite 2017 Commencement Speeches

Favorite Commencement Speeches QC Scores

Call us nerds, but at Quantified Communications, one of the things we love most about spring is the commencement addresses. Every year, we get to enjoy a series of talks from some of the country’s best-known corporate, cultural, and political leaders in an environment free from the pressure to sway investors, persuade voters, or move the bottom line.

We’re always excited to hear what these speakers have to say, and to use our analytics platform to find out how they perform on a different kind of stage.

Here are five of our favorite 2017 commencement speeches:

Favorite Commencement Speeches QC Scores.png

Before We Dive In: What is a QC Score?

The QC Scores represent the overall effectiveness of each speaker’s commencement addresses. To identify these scores, we use a combination of natural language processing, automated vocal analytics, and insights from a panel of 15 communication experts to measure the content of a speech, a speaker’s delivery skills, and how an audience is likely to perceive the speaker based on that particular event.

You can read more about how these scores work in our white paper. But, for now, onto the speeches.

We’ve dug into our favorite speakers’ QC scores to identify the key characteristics that made their talks so inspiring, comparing those characteristics to the average commencement address in our database.

Mark Zuckerberg Commencement Speech.png

We gave the Facebook CEO a shout-out in a recent issue of the QC newsletter, but we couldn’t leave his globally focused Harvard address off our favorites list. In his talk, Zuckerberg asked graduates to focus on three things: taking on big projects, ensuring everyone has the freedom to pursue purpose, and starting small to build a global community. And he did so in a way that made these large, intangible goals start to feel attainable.

First, let’s take on big meaningful projects. […]

Every generation has its defining works. […] These projects didn’t just provide purpose for the people doing those jobs, they gave our whole country a sense of pride that we could do great things.

Now it’s our turn to do great things. I know, you’re probably thinking: I don’t know how to build a dam, or get a million people involved in anything.

But let me tell you a secret: no one does when they begin. Ideas don’t come out fully formed. They only become clear as you work on them. You just have to get started. If I had to understand everything about connecting people before I began, I never would have started Facebook. […]

The reality is, anything we do will have issues in the future. But that can’t keep us from starting.

The Facebook CEO’s address scored in the top 5 percent for thought leadership because, in a refreshing move in a time when we’re hearing lofty ideals from every direction, he laid out a clear roadmap to achieving these big goals.

Will Ferrell Commencement Speech.png

In his address at USC, the beloved comedian and actor spoke in a natural, genuine manner that indicated he truly believed every bit of his message. There are several elements of a presentation that can help or hurt a speaker’s authenticity, from hand gestures and facial expressions that feel organic rather than rehearsed or forced, to language that he could just as easily have used in a one-on-one conversation as on the commencement stage at his alma mater.

I had a work-study job at the humanities audiovisual department that would allow me to take off from time to time. By allow me, I mean I would just leave and they didn’t notice. So I would literally leave my job if I knew friends were attending class close by and crash a lecture while in character.

Ferrell’s authentic way of communicating likely made viewers feel as though he were speaking with them, rather than at them.

Theo Epstein Commencement Speech.png

Even for the Yankees fans in the room, it was difficult not to like Theo Epstein as he spoke to Yale graduates. And that likability came primarily from the fact that Epstein’s enthusiasm was apparent in every element of his speech. His open facial expressions, engaged posture, and the audible emotion in his voice helped the audience share his experinces as he told the suspenseful story about the Cubs long-awaited World Series victory and recollected the personal and professional lessons 20-somethings have taught him throughout his career.

So, to the Class of 2017, as someone who has already been uplifted by members of your generation, I am thankful and in awe of what you all can accomplish when given the space to be free, to let your personalities out, and to figure it out. I am truly inspired by the traits that distinguish your generation—your diversity, your boldness, your optimism, your tolerance, your treatment of each other based on substance rather than on the labels that used to divide us. I am so excited to see what lies ahead for you all.

By allowing the graduates to share his emotions—to feel the stress he felt in some of the tensest moments of his career, and the relief and excitement in victory—and by lifting up their generation through his own experience, Epstein opened himself up for a true connection with his audience.

Octavia Spencer Commencement Speech.png

We can’t stress enough just how critical storytelling is for any speaker who wants to connect with his or her audience (every speaker). And from the emotionally charged, sensory language that engages audiences, to the classic narrative arc that makes a message exponentially more memorable, the Hidden Figures star nailed it as she wove her own narrative into her advice to Kent State’s class of 2017:

For all of you graduating today, it’s a result of your own individual victories that now serve as one collective triumph. […] You’ve earned it.

In your time here, you filled in the details, the minutia. You defined how that path would look. No one came here the same way. Some of you started off prepared to study one discipline and are leaving with a degree in another. Some of you began writing a paper one night, and maybe you woke up self-conscious about what you wrote, perhaps a little ill at ease, so you changed, you challenged yourself to write a completely different piece, a piece that was more you, more of what you needed to say. You found your voice. Let me tell you this, keep chasing those moments where you discover something new about your voice. Don’t ever let that end. Keep your minds and hearts open to life’s endless and unforeseeable possibilities.

Helen Mirren Commencement Speech.png

What we admired most about Dame Helen Mirren’s address to the graduates at Tulane (and the data agreed) was her commanding presence at the microphone. Though her remarks were not quite as structured as some of her peers’, she maintained a mesmerizing sense of control as she delivered an amusing and thoughtful speech.

This presence is attributed largely to Mirren’s vocal and visual delivery skills, from masterful uses of pause and gesture to emphasize key points, to eye contact and facial expressions that kept the audience engaged by making each individual member feel as though she’s speaking directly to him or her.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that a Royal Shakespeare-trained actor would be utterly comfortable commanding the stage. Nonetheless, Dame Helen Mirren’s presence likely assured nervous graduates that, as long as they heeded her advice, they would be just fine.

Which 2017 commencement addresses have inspired you the most?