The secrets to writing a great speech aren’t exactly on par with the Nazca Lines: Research your audience, recognize what they want to hear, and use a little humor. Aristotle might quibble with that but he didn’t have to contend with YouTube. More importantly, speakers need to navigate the inevitable Scylla and Charybdis involved when speaking about one’s own accomplishments: Don’t try to separate yourself from the audience by creating an unrealistic image of your experiences, yet do not debase your accomplishments in pursuit of a false image of yourself. (Mitt Romney, call your office.)
All of this makes the commencement speech that Conan O’Brien delivered at Dartmouth College last weekend so remarkable. His humor was biting and obviously written specifically for the occasion. The self-deprecation was genuine yet not so frequent as to be eye-rolling. Most importantly, he eschewed the most overused message in college graduations (“Reach for your dreams”) in order to explain something truly valuable and useful: how to come back from failure.
My former boss, the late Amb. Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, spent her career as a professor at Georgetown University and was no stranger to the college graduation circuit. She once told me that the most common response she heard from her former students about their graduation was, “I remember everything that happened except what the graduation speaker said.”
For those who just want humor, the speech’s first 15 minutes will suffice. But for everyone else, the most worthwhile comment occurs at 20:53:
It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique…. If you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived misfortune can become a catalyst for profound reinvention.
Most commencement speeches are a combined sea of blather. Conan’s speech last weekend was a refreshing reminder that the most unlikely of speakers often produce the greatest memories – even if they’re speaking from behind a tree trunk.