QC’s Favorite 2018 Commencement Speeches

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At Quantified Communications, one of our favorite things about spring is commencement season. Every year in May and June, we get to enjoy a series of talks from some of the world’s best-known leaders and influencers in politics, business, and entertainment. And every year, we look forward to identifying some of our favorites.

As we listened to this year’s addresses, we noticed a new theme:

Commencement speaker after commencement speaker urged students to keep pursuing knowledge, to challenge common viewpoints, and to develop their own opinions.

Dozens of speakers this year echoed the same advice to graduates at universities across the country, compelling them to think for themselves and challenge the status quo. Here are just a few of our favorite examples.

Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, at Southern Methodist University

Visionary speakers have three simple, but powerful communication patterns in common: they focus more on the present than the future, they draw clear connections from A to Z, and they use a high level of sensory. (Learn more about visionary communication.) Randall Stephenson did all of these things in his address to SMU graduates as he summed up this theme using a metaphor of well-worn trails.

Watch out for these trails. These are the trails of intellectual laziness. It’s one deer simply following another down a path where snow has randomly melted. Throughout your time at SMU, you’ve been pushed by your professors to expand your vision to new horizons. And their job has been to expose you to different disciplines, religions, thought leaders, cultures, and political views. They’ve challenged you to think differently about the world and the issues that we’re facing. They’ve been leading you into unmarked trails.

Stephenson cautioned graduates to continue to think critically, question common viewpoints, and use technology mindfully.

Today’s technology is amazing. It can be a tool for discovery, critical thinking, and knowledge. But it can also create well marked trails to narrow mindedness and even extremism. […] So I urge you to be diligent with these digital tools. Please make them work for you. Don’t allow them to become your surrogate for discovery, but use them to open your mind to new ideas. 


Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, at Duke University 

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook’s address to Duke graduates was a best-in-class example of memorable communication. The humble humor he injected into the speech, the historical anecdotes he shared, and the passion he allowed to seep into his voice made it likely that his address would stick in the minds of the graduates.

But perhaps most memorable was his call to action. Like Stephenson at SMU, Cook urged his audience not to blindly accept the world as it is today, but to find ways to enact change.

You entered the world at a time of great challenge. Our country is deeply divided, and too many Americans refuse to hear any opinion that differs from their own. Our planet is warming with devastating consequences, and there are some that even deny it’s even happening. Our schools and communities suffer from deep inequality. We fail to guarantee every student the right to a good education. And yet, we are not powerless in the face of these problems. You are not powerless to fix them.

No generation has ever had more power than yours. And no generation has a chance to change things faster than yours can. […] Don’t just accept the world you inherit today. Don’t just accept the status quo. No big challenge has ever been solved. and no lasting improvement has ever been achieved unless people dare to try something different. Dare to think different. […] Today’s ceremony isn’t just about presenting you with a degree; it’s about presenting you with a question. How will you challenge the status quo? How will you push the world forward? 


Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, at New York University

When Trudeau addressed NYU graduates at Yankee Stadium, he wove congratulatory words, personal and historical anecdotes, political ideals, calls to actions, and even a little French into a speech that was well organized and logical. Because his message was easy for the audience to follow, it was also easy to internalize and embrace.

And, like many other speakers this season, Trudeau used his podium to encourage graduates to step out of their comfort zone and fight humanity’s “tribal mindset.” He implored listeners to challenge their own perceptions and give diverse viewpoints their platforms as they strive to become leaders in today’s world.

By bringing together diverse perspectives, you get a much better shot at meeting those challenges, and that’s how we come back to you and the leaders the world needs you to be. Leadership has always been about getting people to act in common cause. We’re going to build a new country. We’re going to war. We’re going to the moon. It usually required convincing or coercing a specific group to follow you, and the easiest way to do that has always been through tribal contrasts. They believe in a different god. They speak a different language. They don’t want the same things as we do. But the leadership we need most today and in the years to come is leadership that brings people together, that brings diversity to a common clause.

This is the antithesis of the polarization, the aggressive nationalism, the identity politics that have grown so common of late. It’s harder, of course. It’s always been easier to divide than unite. But mostly it requires true courage, because if you want to bring people around to your way of thinking, you need to first show them that you are open to theirs. That you are willing to enter into a conversation that might change your mind. Show respect for their point of view, and you have a better chance of actually having them listen to yours. And regardless of what happens, you will have had a genuine exchange that focused on understanding, not on winning a debate or scoring points, and you will both be improved for it. 


Abby Wambach, Retired Soccer Player, at Barnard College

In her address to Barnard graduates, Wambach’s natural charisma served to draw the audience in and keep them hanging on her every word. That kind of charisma comes up a lot in discussions about leadership, and it’s often written off as some elusive “X factor” that some people are just born with. Fortunately, that’s not the case. Charisma is largely related to the techniques a speaker uses to engage an audience, and it is absolutely measurable and teachable.

Wambach, who has long been outspoken about the gender pay gap, encouraged the women of Barnard to shed the misconceptions that have held them back and challenge society’s archaic ways of thinking at every chance they get.

Women are learning that we can be grateful for what we have and also demand what we deserve. Like all little girls, I was taught to be grateful. I was taught to keep my head down, stay on the path and get my job done. I was freaking Little Red Riding Hood. You know the fairy tale. It’s just one iteration of the warning stories girls are told the world over. Little Red Riding Hood heads off to the woods and is given strict instructions. Stay on the path. Don’t talk to anybody, hidden underneath your Handmaid’s Tale cape. And she does at first, but then she dares to get a little curious, and she ventures off the path. That’s, of course, when she encounters the Big Bad Wolf and all hell breaks loose. The message is clear: “Don’t be curious. Don’t make trouble. Don’t say too much, or bad things will happen.” I stayed on the path of fear not of being eaten by a wolf, but of being cut, being benched, losing my paycheck. If I could go back and tell my younger self one thing, it would be this: Abby, you were never Little Red Riding Hood. You were always the wolf.

So when I was entrusted with the honor of speaking here today, I decided that the most important thing for me to say to you is this: Barnard women, class of 2018, we are the wolves. 

Here at QC, we eagerly anticipate commencement season every year, not only because we know we’ll be treated to a parade of incredible speeches by some of our world’s most iconic influencers, but because we know we’ll be reminded of important values that are all too easy to forget in the hustle of everyday life and we’ll be inspired to see things through a new lens. This year, we’re taking our favorite commencement speakers’ words to heart and looking for ways to forge new paths, challenge common perceptions, and upend the status quo.