Monday, June 2, 2014

A speech that stuck

Nora Ephron speaking at Wellesley College

Now that it's June we can all breathe a sigh of relief. We begin an 11-month respite from snarky commentary about Commencement speakers and their speeches, from newspaper columns and blog posts that say, "no one remembers their Commencement speaker, let alone the speech." To those of us who study best speech practices and train others to speak, those comments sound like sour grapes (from people who were not invited to speak) or laziness (from those who were but do not want to put in the time to fully prepare).

I remember the speech delivered at my own Commencement very well--and it was a long time ago! But that is probably because it was written by one of the smartest women ever to put two words together, delivered with an energy that held us spellbound. I was lucky enough to be addressed at my graduation from Wellesley College by our illustrious alumna Nora Ephron. She had a very clear message to us graduates: "Be fearless. Don't waste your time being nice. And don't be a lady!" I seem to recall a collective gasp from the parents seated behind us when she made this last point, but I recall (though perhaps imperfectly) that my classmates and I burst into applause.

I am not going to tell you here how this "advice to the graduates" shaped my life. I use it simply to illustrate that people do actually remember their Commencement speeches. Even decades later.

Nine days ago my family and I attended the graduation of our daughter from Bowdoin College. We heard many speeches over the course of graduation weekend. A few of them were memorable. But there was one that was universally lauded; it meant something to everyone who heard it, from grandparents to younger siblings. "Failure in Perspective" was given by a member of the Class of 2014, Kate Kearns. If you want to view this excellent speech you can find it here.

Kate's message of learning from failure is not that unusual. We hear it everywhere these days. In start-up circles the mantra "fail fast" seems to be on everyone's lips. But Kate is not invoking this as a "success strategy." She reaches deeper than that. By involving us in the story of her personal journey to embrace the lessons of failure, Kate touches on our fundamental reluctance to admit to anything less than success. But we must fail, if we are to grow and keep growing. So Kate turns the glib mantra into deeply held article of faith. Everyone I spoke to after the ceremony felt they could relate to the story Kate shared. She was vulnerable, honest and funny. As a listener you believed and trusted her. And took her words to heart.

When I advise my clients on content development, I tell them they need to include the element of story in their speeches if they want them to "stick." Of all the speeches that weekend, the one that stuck with us most did not just incorporate story, it grew organically from that story. A personal story that was also universal.

Nora would have approved.

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