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Sun April 13, 2014

Keep It Brief, Commencement Speakers! No One Will Remember Anyway

Originally published on Sun April 13, 2014 7:03 pm

It's that time of year when colleges and universities send out press releases touting which coveted commencement speakers they've snagged.

President Obama will deliver the address at University of California, Irvine. Vice President Joe Biden will speak at the University of South Carolina. Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg will urge graduates at City Colleges of Chicago to lean in and listen.

But will anyone actually remember what they say?

Hal Wilde thinks it's unlikely. Wilde was president of North Central College in Illinois for more than 20 years and has heard these addresses up close many times.

During the introductions for several commencement speakers, he began by quoting Abraham Lincoln: "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here." While that statement was not true of the Gettysburg Address, it can be relevant to graduation ceremonies.

In a recent op-ed, Wilde argues that the commencement speech is overrated.

"When you talk to college presidents, you'll find out most of them regard procuring a commencement speaker as one of their most challenging, if not annoying, responsibilities," Wilde says. "But they can't afford not to pay attention to it because there are few moments when the institution is more visible."

You've got parents, professors, students, donors — all with different agendas and goals in mind. Some schools spend thousands of dollars to pay celebrities to speak. Though many speakers received honorary degrees during Wilde's tenure, they weren't paid by his school. He used other strategies, like these:

  • Ask local speakers (poet Christian Wiman was based in Chicago at the time he spoke at Wilde's college).
  • Use every connection the institution has and milk alumni affiliation (Joseph Hartzler, lead prosecutor in the Oklahoma City bombing case, was married to an alum).
  • Be the first person to ask someone who's not that well-know yet (Mary Schmich delivered her famous faux-commencement column "Wear Sunscreen" for the first time at North Central College).

As far as his advice to speakers:

  • Be brief.
  • Have just one or two important points to make.
  • Maybe try to be funny.
  • Don't assume that people are going to walk away remembering this 20, 30, 40 years later.

"It's like remembering what the preacher — the sermon he gives the day you're getting married," he says. "You're thinking about other things."

On a few occasions, Wilde says he actually had to write those inspiring words in order to book a speaker.

If he ever has the opportunity to deliver one himself, he says, "It would probably quote Scrooge McDuck and maybe a couple other influential figures in my evolving philosophy of life.

"I'd get in and out fast enough so if the audience didn't know who I was, they would say, 'At least he was brief.' "

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Transcript

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Tess Vigeland. It is that time of year when colleges and universities send out press releases touting which coveted commencement speakers they've snagged. President Obama will speak at the University of California at Irvine. Vice-President Biden will try his best to inspire at the University of South Carolina. And Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg will urge graduates at City Colleges of Chicago to lean in and listen.

But our next guest argues in a recent op-ed that the commencement speech is overrated. Hal Wilde was president of North Central College in Illinois for over 20 years, which means he heard more than 20 of these addresses up close.

HAL WILDE: When you talk to college presidents, you'll discover that most of them regard procuring a commencement speaker as one of their most challenging, if not annoying, responsibilities.

(LAUGHTER)

WILDE: But they can't afford not to pay attention to it because there are few moments when the institution is more visible.

VIGELAND: I mean, I can't imagine trying to please all of those parties. How do you even go about trying?

WILDE: It ain't easy, I could tell you. Some schools resolve it by paying a lot of money and getting a, quote, "famous person."

VIGELAND: Right.

WILDE: I don't believe in that. In my case, and I think for most college presidents, you have to come up with strategies for bringing in people. Frankly, I think almost no graduate remembers a commencement speech because it's like remembering what the preacher - the sermon he gives the day you're getting married. You're thinking about other things.

VIGELAND: A thought that I remembered my graduation speaker, but then I actually looked it up this week and it's not who I thought it was. So do you remember a really fantastic speech that you were witness to?

WILDE: One of my favorites, Mary Schmich who was a columnist of the Chicago Tribune, wrote kind of a faux commencement speech called "Wear Sunscreen." We called her up and just said, you know, hey, would you like to be our commencement speaker? You could give that speech which you're never given anywhere, and she did. And it was wonderful.

One of my last commencements we had Christian Wiman, the poet, who was the editor of Poetry magazine in Chicago. And he gave an electric speech which began with a poem that he shouted to the audience of 5,000.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMENCEMENT SPEECH)

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: These poems, she said, are poems with no love in them.

WILDE: It kind of bowled you over. He's one of these people we were able to get because we were the first to ask him. He was based then in Chicago and so it was easy to get him. Most of the kinds of strategies you use when you're not able to pay people. You give them the honor of an honorary degree and you make it convenient for them to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMENCEMENT SPEECH)

WIMAN: I'm going to tell you a couple of startling things today and I promise you that you will forget them.

VIGELAND: My guess is that part of what goes into whether students actually get something out of this is what they did the night before. But...

(LAUGHTER)

WILDE: Not at North Central College.

VIGELAND: No, no, of course not. What do you think the goal should be given that your audience is maybe half paying attention?

WILDE: I think one of the goals should be that they be brief. And they should maybe have one or two important points to make. Maybe they should be funny but they shouldn't assume that people are going to walk away remembering this 20, 30, 40 years later.

VIGELAND: Hal, I do have to ask if you have either given one of these yourself or if you would want to. And if so what would you say, aside from aim for the stars and work hard?

(LAUGHTER)

WILDE: I like that. I've written a number of them over the years. Along the way there are a couple times when I wrote the commencement speech for the person who was speaking. I...

VIGELAND: Wait a minute. You wrote the speech for the speaker?

WILDE: I will not divulge the names. I will just say that in order to get someone to come they said, well, you write the speech, so I did.

VIGELAND: Oh, my goodness.

(LAUGHTER)

WILDE: But, you know, if I were given the occasion I think it would probably quote Scrooge McDuck and maybe a couple other influential figures in my evolving philosophy of life. And I'd get in and out fast enough so that even the audience didn't know who I was. They would say, at least he was brief.

VIGELAND: Hal Wilde recently retired as president of North Central College in Illinois where he was the president for over 20 years. And he joined us from the studios at Chicago Public Media. Thanks so much for your time today.

WILDE: It was my treat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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