3 Ways to Tank a Graduation Speech

Were you asked to make a graduation speech? Don't tank with these three tips.

Richie Frieman
6-minute read
Episode #387

It’s that time of year again: where students across the globe bid farewell to their high school or college years and welcome the next big chapter of their lives. Regardless of where each student is heading off to, the one constant throughout every school is the one lucky classmate having the disguised honor of addressing their entire class on stage. With that, the illustrious recognition is not something to be taken lightly.

Sure you should have fun with it, and make it your own, but a proper graduation speech is not meant to rip into your teachers, embarrass your friends, or take this time to let your school know that you’re the smartest person to ever walk the halls. So before you spend your last night of academic writing, rewriting, and rewriting your speech, check out my top three quick and dirty tips for graduation speech etiquette:

#1: It’s Not A Roast

As a satirist, I’m always one to stand behind a good zing when properly delivered. With that, to master a proper joke you must have a solid combination of timing and knowing the audience. So, if you think that a graduation speech, filled with your entire social circle, family, and superiors is your opportunity to tear into your classmates, I highly recommend going a different route. Like any other route imaginable. Seriously. For example, take Matt, a 17-year-old senior from Pasadena, California who thought it would make him a “rebel” to roast the school principal while at the mic. What made things even worse for him is that he gave his principal a first round “decoy speech,” which she greenlighted, only to go off script with a new one the day of the graduation. Now, if this was a movie, we would all be applauding Matt’s efforts. I mean, come on this is how legends are made, right? And that’s what Matt wanted; to be cool, to be remembered, to have his classmates talking about his speech at every reunion going forward. Sadly, the only thing Matt will be remembered for is making two off-color jokes about his school, right before the principal stood up and stopped him. It was legendary … legendarily rude.

If you’re a regular to the Modern Manners Guy show, you know that I’ve often stressed that when giving a speech, do not break out of your comfort zone and go for the bold move. Yes, you can be funny, and sure it’s okay to ad lib here and there but if humor is not your thing, do NOT try it out for the first time during a major event. In Matt’s case he did himself a disservice by rudely trashing his principal, and ruining his scholarly reputation. It was his big day to shine because of his achievements over the past four years, and then KAPOW – all done in a matter of four minutes. When giving a graduation speech, use the stage for good and only good. Even if you don’t like the administration – heck, even hate the school as a whole – don’t use the graduation stage as your soapbox. A graduation is a time to reflect, and discuss a promising future for everyone around you, even drop some knowledge on your peers. You’ve earned that. However, it’s improper to take the role as a the speaker to go rogue and make a scene. It’s an honor and a privilege and one that should not be used to mock all the people that pissed you off for four years.

#2: Don’t Wing It

As you all know, I was a professional wrestler for nearly a decade. With that, I learned one key lesson in making sure I pulled off the most entertaining match possible: know my role and play it right. With wrestling being staged, the last thing I want to do is have some guy call a random move, I wasn’t prepared for and get a flying elbow to the jaw (which has happened). Needless to say, mapping out a match always made things go smoothly versus “calling it in the ring” and hoping for the best. It makes your performance look bad and you don’t give the crowed a proper performance. The same thing goes for a graduation speech. You may not be a professional but it’s a performance with all eyes on you, and a crowd expecting something entertaining, be it funny or insightful.  The graduation speech is the first – and possibly only - time in your life where you get to represent your peers as the standout leader and enlighten the room based on your success. With that, when you go all willy-nilly and wing a graduation speech it shows everyone in attendance that they were wrong about you. It doesn’t show prestige, rather it tells the crowd you’re immature, and inconsiderate.