How to Write a Great Commencement Speech

Wanda’s speech was featured in the March 2021 issue of Vital Speeches of the Day.

The TV Show West Wing Made Speechwriting Sexy

At least when Rob Lowe is the speechwriter and he is writing for the President played by Martin Sheen. However, the members of the Professional Speechwriters Association, some of who have written for US Presidents, felt a certain pride, at least when the show was running. Speechwriters are usually behind the scenes while our words make an impact and sometimes history.

As an executive speech coach, I have the honor of helping my clients create a variety of speeches. This was the first Commencement Speech I have helped a client wordsmith and polish. However, once you hear this seven-and-a-half-minute speech, you will have to admit Wanda had a great story to tell. As I am often asked for great speech examples, this is worth sharing.

Have you ever heard a really great commencement speech?

As with any great speech, when you deliver a commencement speech you must be inspiring, make a connection with your audience, paint scenes in their minds, and tell a really great story.

With short presentations, every word counts.

Wanda Hope, Chief Diversity Officer, Johnson & Johnson delivered her Penn State Commencement Speech on December 19, 2020.

Wanda is very active in the Penn State Alumni Association. You will be glad to know Tillie is alive and well and lives with Wanda and her family.

Nothing is more valuable than lifelong connections.

Nothing is more valuable than lifelong connections.

Let’s go back to August 1983. The sun was shining, and it was a gorgeous day in Happy Valley.

I was an excited, hopeful, and slightly nervous young woman, stepping onto our Penn State campus for the first time as a freshman.

That day I moved into Pennypacker dorm on our University Park campus…and began my lifelong love affair with Penn State.

My first week I met Marsha, Nancy, Noelle, Steve, Dave, Troy and so many others that would become my “crew.”

Those friendships began at Penn State and developed into lifelong connections.

We’ve fundraised to support Thon,

Coached each other for job interviews,

Traveled together on vacation.

And we continue to come back to where it all began …to Penn State for reunions, football games, and to give back.

We’ve developed an unbreakable bond and a strong community.

President Barron…thank you for your generous introduction…and the honor, and opportunity to share my fond memories and life lessons.

In May 1987, I was where you are, at my Penn State commencement.

We were all surrounded by loving, supportive family and friends. Once again, we were excited, hopeful, and a little nervous.

Like you, we were wondering, will we…

  • Find a great job?
  • Love what we do?
  • Live through our mistakes?
  • Be resilient to overcome life’s inevitable challenges?

You have the security of knowing that hundreds of thousands of alumni have come before you.

We all had the same questions. We figured it out. And, that you will too.

It doesn’t matter if you are graduating with an undergraduate or graduate degree. If you are graduating from Hazelton, Altoona, Harrisburg, Allentown or University Park campus. During your time at Penn State, you have learned not only the technical aspects of your major, you have also built the skills that will help you be successful in whatever you choose to do.

Class of 2020, you will go down in Penn State history for being resilient and courageous in an unprecedented way.

You made it through tough classes,

virtual learning, quarantines, COVID testing,

in an environment focused on systemic injustice.

And now you are graduating!

When you feel that life gets tough…and there are times it will…

Remember the strong foundation you built here at Dear Old State.

Remember the strength of your crew and our community.

History has its eye on you like it did the Class of 1962.

Brave students at Morris College, a small historically black college in South Carolina, could have been attending classes, studying, and enjoying college life.

However, these students had a higher calling.

These students were actively involved in changing the future.

One of those students was Tillie Bing Bryant. On Wednesday, February 21, 1962, she went to the Kress Five and Dime store in Sumter SC to participate in a lunch counter sit-in.

If you remember our history, you’ll know

Black people in the South were not allowed to

Sit at the same lunch counters

Drink from the same water fountains…or even

Use the same restrooms as white people.

This was a brave and courageous act, especially for a young woman at the age of 19.

Tillie had a light complexion.

She was able to enter that store and sit at the lunch counter without others realizing she was a black person.

Tillie ordered a burger and a soda.

When the food arrived, she signaled for the black male students to enter, pushed the food down to them and they began to eat.

As you can imagine, chaos ensued.

Letter Mentioned in Commencement Speech

The white customers became enraged.

The Sheriff’s officers were called and quickly arrived carrying visible blackjacks and police batons.

The students were dragged out by their shirt collars…

Tossed into the back of the sheriff’s vehicles and threatened with water hoses and police dogs.

During Tillie’s third jailhouse stay she decided to write her story on… a roll of jailhouse toilet paper.

On this scratchy roll of toilet paper, Tillie wrote about her feelings… why her fight for equality and freedom was so important to her.

The passage that means the most to me is what she wrote to her mother.

“Mommy, I know you told me not to get in jail. I don’t mind being in jail. As long as I know one day, when I have children of my own, they will have the privilege and can do what the things we are fighting so hard for today.”

Growing up…I never got tired of hearing my Mom’s… story of courage, resilience, and community. I had a front-row seat to learn about the civil rights movement.

I bet you’d love to see …Mom’s toilet paper sitting in her jailhouse tin cup. It has a place of honor in our home and hearts.

Tin Cup and Letter Mentioned in Commencement Speech

Each generation has an opportunity to make a difference.

I can’t wait to see how you rise up to meet today’s challenges and create a better world

You leave today as Alumni…I encourage you to join our Penn State Alumni Association.

And continue to enjoy special experiences like

  • Going to the Creamery to get your favorite ice cream…My personal recommendation…grilled stickies…
  • Taking pictures at the Lion with friends and family
  • And attending football games. There is no better atmosphere in all of college football.
  • You will tailgate again,
  • Sing “Sweet Caroline,” and
  • Watch Penn State beat Ohio State during a White Out!
  • When it happens, remember I told you so!

Congratulations, Class of 2020,

You are well prepared for your future

You have a strong foundation and the best education

As Penn Staters…

We are…courageous

We are…resilient

We are…community…

Let’s hear it one more time…

We are!

We are!

For the glory of Old State…

Be great and live your best life!

I hope you agree, this is a perfect example of a great commencement speech.

“For my most important speeches, I call Patricia Fripp.”
– Wanda Hope, Chief Diversity Officer, Johnson & Johnson Worldwide

“As a seasoned speaker being coached by Patricia Fripp has helped me deliver my game-changing message with more power and eloquence.  My client testimonials and feedback prove it.”
– Ron Karr, CSP, Past President, National Speakers Association

“To watch how our veteran group of salespeople became involved in your Storytelling to Increase Sales was impressive. We are excited to continue your training with FrippVT Sales.”
– Jeff Walters, Vice President, North American Sales, Peak-Ryzex

“The information in FrippVT is as valuable as any college course I’ve taken. This is a resource that everyone needs. The investment is worth ten times more than I paid and has been life-changing. My fees, recommendations, and referrals have increased dramatically. I am delighted. For the first time in my speaking career, I know exactly what I am doing when I walk on stage. One technique in course 11 helped me win an international speech.”
– Mitzi Perdue, author of How to Make Your Family Business Last


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