Commencement Speech Competition
Each year at the Harvard Commencement, three graduating students speak to approximately 32,000 students, faculty, parents, alumni/ae, and guests. As soon as the first anthem concludes, a senior strides to the microphone and announces, Salvete omnes! What follows is one of the oldest of Harvard traditions - an oration in Latin. Then a graduating senior, followed by a representative from one of the graduate or professional schools, deliver speeches in English. The original purpose of these speeches was to defend one’s thesis but, over time, topics have broadened and may now address important issues, current events, or lessons learned from personal experiences at Harvard or in the wider world.
The deadline for students to submit speeches has passed. Students whose speeches have been selected by the judges will be notified of the time and place of the preliminary auditions, scheduled on Tuesday, April 22. Final auditions will take place on Tuesday, April 29.
Speeches should be no longer than five minutes in length. Submissions will be judged for intelligence, wit, originality, and general significance. Candidates for the undergraduate Latin oration should consult Professor Richard Tarrant of the Classics Department, at (617) 496-3611. Please include an English translation with your electronic submission.
Prize: $1,000 in each category
- Undergraduate Latin - David Taggart Clark Prize
- Undergraduate English – Le Baron Russell Briggs Commencement Prize
- Graduate English – Graduate English Commencement Oration
There is no formula that can sum up what makes a successful Commencement speech, but it is possible to describe some of the qualities of such a speech, and also to specify some approaches that are generally to be avoided.
A successful Commencement speech needs to convey a message that is meaningful to the speaker and that also has significance for a wide audience. It is natural to look to your own experience for inspiration, but while your life story or that of your family may have great meaning for you, it will not automatically resonate with an audience consisting largely of strangers. Similarly, experiences you have shared with the other members of your class or your school will be familiar to you and them, but may need to be explained if they are not to mystify others. Finally, a Commencement speech does not have to consist of personal reminiscences. It can also articulate a thesis or argue in favor of a position, especially one that the speaker regards as unfairly neglected or unpopular.
Some spark of originality is essential, but since genuinely new ideas are rare, originality is often achieved by approaching a familiar thought from an unexpected direction or expressing it in a way that feels freshly created. The original element may be a vivid image or metaphor that stimulates the audience’s imagination and keeps their attention.
The title of your speech will appear in the Commencement program distributed to everyone in attendance, and it will also be announced by the University Marshal as she introduces you. A title that gets the audience’s attention will make them more eager to listen to your speech; on the other hand, titles such as "The Value of a Harvard Education" or "Serving a Wider World" will tend to make the audience lose interest before you say a word.
Clichés are expressions that are so often used as to sound trite (e.g., "Rome wasn’t built in a day"); examples with a university setting would include "ivy-covered walls" and "the groves of Academe." Such expressions represent the opposite of original writing.
An apt quotation can enliven a speech or help put across a point effectively. Too many quotations in a short speech, however, give the impression that the persons quoted, rather than the speaker, are doing most of the work. Furthermore, some quotations are so familiar as to constitute clichés (see above); for example, "we have nothing to fear but fear itself" (FDR) or "ask not what your country can do for you" etc. (JFK). Other often-quoted persons include Ralph Waldo Emerson and Winston Churchill; in general it is best to avoid quoting such figures unless you have uncovered one of their little-known gems.
Wit is a component of many successful Commencement speeches, but your role as a speaker is not merely to entertain, but also to prompt thought and reflection. Humor is most likely to be effective when it is inclusive; sarcasm and negative forms of humor will tend to alienate your audience rather than amuse them.