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The Most Memorable Commencement Speeches

If you were charged with instilling lasting, meaningful advice to college graduates as they head out to find their way in the world, what would it be? That is the monumental task put on commencement address speakers at graduation ceremonies across the country. If you have ever sat through a graduation ceremony you know a commencement address either becomes the long, often boring, part you are forced to sit through before diplomas are handed out, or it is the voice and message that keeps ringing in your head long after the ceremony has ended.

So what does it take to deliver a memorable address? A memorable, recognizable and respected speaker is usually the first step, which is why celebrities and dignitaries are often tapped for the job. A great, heartfelt, practical message that resonates with the audience is the second. After researching a number of celebrity commencement addresses, here are a few that seem to ring the loudest. You’ll probably notice their messages all have an underlying theme.

Ellen DeGeneres, Tulane University, 2009
TV talk show host and comedienne Ellen DeGeneres delivered the commencement address to the ‘Katrina Class’ at Tulane University in 2009.This graduating class entered the New Orleans school the year of the devastating hurricane.

DeGeneres sprinkled her trademark humor throughout the entire speech, but her underlying message was serious and simple. She told the graduates, “Be true to yourself. You’ll be okay.” She said your definition of success will change with age; the most important thing is to live with integrity and to contribute. She spoke about the pain and ramification of losing a loved one and coming out to a national audience. She said, as they learned from Katrina, the most devastating things teach you the most, but in the end, you’ll be okay.

Conan O’Brien, Dartmouth College, 2011
Much like Ellen, Conan’s address was coated in the humor that made him famous and earned him his own late night show. After captivating his audience with humor and Dartmouth references, he turned serious, speaking candidly about his own painful and very public departure from the Tonight Show, calling it one of the best things that ever happened to him.

He said, “Few things are more liberating than having your worst fear realized…. It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.” He told graduates that dreams are constantly evolving and you have to be open to reinventing yourself and changing course. He said no specific job or title will define you, just “work hard, be kind and good things will happen."

Amy Poehler, Harvard College, 2011
Again, sprinkled with the humor that made her a household name and earned her a spot on Saturday Night Live, Amy Poehler keep her Harvard audience captivated.

She told the audience we all grow up afraid of something. For the current graduates it was 9/11, for her generation it was the AIDS epidemic, but she added in those times you learn how good it feels to be part of a group, to not go it alone. She said that continues to hold true throughout your life. She encouraged grads to be open to collaboration, to take risks, to surround themselves with smart people, to listen, to say yes and to live in the moment. Most importantly, she said hold someone’s hand when you are scared and do the same in return. She encouraged everyone to put down their iPhones for a minute and look into the face of others. She says you will find a lot of answers there.

Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005
Apple founder Steve Jobs delivered one of the most memorable commencement addresses to date at Stanford in 2005. It was also one of the few times he opened up publicly about his private life and the circumstances that eventually led to his success. While perhaps a little unconventional, it is riddled with messages of following your dreams and passions, and embracing and growing from your defeats.
He started by telling the graduates, faculty and family members how dropping out of college was the best decision he ever made. “The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn't interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting,” he told them. He said getting fired from Apple in 1985 “freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”
He told the students to believe in their instinct and follow it. “The dots you encounter in life will eventually connect… believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leaves you off the well-worn path."

He also pointed to his pancreatic cancer diagnosis in 2004 as another affirmation of his message. "Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart,” he said. He concluded by encouraging graduates to "stay hungry. Stay foolish."

Other memorable addresses
These speakers are not the only ones to talk about embracing and facing your fears head on. Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling told Harvard grads in 2008 that fear of failure is worse than failure itself. She told them “failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all — in which case, you fail by default.”

During a 2011 address at the University of Pennsylvania, Denzel Washington said, "Do you have the guts to fail? If you don't fail, you're not even trying." He added, “You will never see a U-Haul behind a hearse… You can’t take it with you… what are you going to do with what you have? With your gift?”

Tom Hanks asked Yale grads in 2011, “Fear or failure, which will you let consume you?”

Here is wishing 2012 grads the strength and courage to face their fears and the knowledge to let them guide you to your true dreams!

Michelle Knoll

Michelle Knoll is a freelance writer based out of the Twin Cities with more than 15 years experience writing for local media outlets and other various organizations. She can be reached at

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