J. K. Rowling, Harvard, and the memorable commencement speech

A reader was kind enough to send me a link to J. K. Rowling’s commencement address to Harvard in 2008 and ask what I thought of her performance.  Watching the video brought to mind how much public speaking has changed and what the new requirements are now for success in public speaking. 

Let me begin by saying that if you’re a die-hard Harry Potter fan, stop reading.  You won’t brook any criticism of J. K., so it’s time to check out now.   I’m a Harry Potter fan too, but public speaking is public speaking, and I have to call the shots as I see them. 

J. K.’s  is a classic commencement speech.  It has touches of humor and irony, some humility from the famous person invited to hold forth for the benefit of the new grads, and the requisite dollop of good advice.  Failure and imagination are the themes.  You need them both. 

It’s a good speech – it’s well written – but there is something about it that feels terribly old-fashioned.  Rowling reads the speech from start to finish, looking up occasionally to see the audience, but for a good deal of the time her head is buried in her text.  The result is an elegantly worded, ultimately remote speech.  It reads as a text better than it sounds.  

Of course, an author as famous as J. K. Rowling thrills her audience simply by showing up.  It’s a coup for Harvard to have her on the dais.   Nonetheless, audiences today expect a conversation and a connection with the speaker.  The remote, text-oriented, read speech simply doesn’t seem interesting enough to audiences brought up on the intimacy of television and talk.  Worse than that, it doesn’t really connect with the audience. 

Commencement speeches, and political conventions, because of their formal quality are the last bastion of the read speech.  That’s why they seem so boring.  As J. K. herself notes, she remembered nothing of the commencement speech given at her graduation, despite the famous philosopher who gave it.  

Those few commencement speeches that stick in the minds of their witnesses do so because of the ways in which they break the conventions of the boring read text.  Here are three ways to make your commencement speech memorable:

1.    Talk to the audience; don’t read to them.
2.    Make the speech interactive.
3.    Don’t give advice.

If you must read your commencement speech (why?), then here are four ways to make the speech seem more lively:

1.    Use a teleprompter.  That will at least keep your head up out of your notes.
2.    Keep your sentences short and conversational in style. 
3.    Look down at the text to get the next sentence, then deliver it with your head up facing the audience.  Only look down when you’re finished, to get the next line.   That takes some practice, but it is possible with effort.
4.    Vary your pacing, your pitch, your tone – everything.  Just like in conversation. 

I hope J. K.’s next commencement speech is less formal and more engaging.  Given how little of a commencement speech is remembered by the audience, the speakers should just relax and talk to their audiences.  They’d have a better chance of being heard. 

Comments

  1. Sharan says

    Hi, I would agree with the points you make regarding the presentation aspect. However, I would like to know what you think about the content of the speech. For example, what if it were a broadcast over the radio, where you can only hear the words? How would the words strike you in that case?

  2. says

    Hi, Sharan —
    Thanks for your comment. As I said in the blog, I thought the speech was quite well written; after all, it’s J. K. Rowling we’re talking about! The difficulty with commencement speeches is finding anything new to say, because it’s such well-traveled ground. I thought that if you could fault J. K. at all on the (written) speech it was simply that she didn’t say anything new. Failure and imagination are commencement cliches.

  3. Kelley says

    While I agree that failure and imagination may be cliche topics, Rowling discussed them from a unique perspective. Rather than imagination being used for self-benefit, she used imagination for human empathy and altruistic purposes.

  4. says

    Hi, Kelley —
    Thanks for your comments. I didn’t actually say that she used cliches, rather that her approach and delivery were old-fashioned. There’s a difference. Her writing is never cliched. I thought the speech read very well.

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