Celebrity Hits and Misses in 2017 Commencements

Written by Ellie Thien

May 30, 2017

Oprah Winfrey – Grade: A

Stories for Success

Certainly not new to public speaking, Oprah is aware she has only moments to either capture or lose her audience’s attention. While she knows she has to open with thanking the people who brought her, Oprah doesn’t engage in the typical, boring appreciation of the trustees and faculty. Instead, she offers a personal and charming anecdote about each group she acknowledges – such as her childhood wish to be a professor – to keep the audience’s attention before launching into her main points.

Will Ferrell – Grade: A

Making an Audience Laugh is Never Old School

Playing to his strengths as an actor and comedian, Will Ferrell uses humor throughout his speech to connect with this audience and make his message more personal. He employs self-deprecating comedy to make himself relatable and jokes that he knows parents are thinking, “I hate Will Ferrell.” Self-deprecating humor is a better route than attempting to make fun of others and risking coming off offensive or rude.

Sheryl Sandberg – Grade: A

Lean In and Repeat

Throughout her speech, Sandberg emphasizes the need for “collective resilience” among the graduates. She repeats the term many, many times throughout her address and connects all stories and points to this main message. The repetition of the phrase drives home the take-away from Sandberg’s speech and ensures that her audience will remember the message long after the presentation is over.

Arnold Schwarzenegger – Grade: C

Too Much Terminator: Know Your Audience

Forget TMI – Schwarzenegger is all about TMT: Too Much Terminator! He spends almost sixteen of the nineteen minutes of his speech talking about himself and his accomplishments. In the last three minutes, he finally connects his stories to the graduates. His message is for students to thank those who have helped them, but this sentiment was lost among the stories of his professional achievements. Schwarzenegger clearly does not care about tailoring his speech to his audience and misses the opportunity to leave graduates with a memorable message.

Pharrell Williams – Grade: D

Talented Songwriter, Struggling Speechwriter

Judges on The Voice clearly don’t read from a teleprompter. Pop-star Pharell Williams struggles through his address at New York University as he reads his speech directly from the teleprompter and rarely makes eye contact with the audience. While reading out loud, he trips over names, referring to his audience as, “The New York Sta—the NYU students.” Reading a speech and not having consistent flow can make the presenter appear unprepared and unrehearsed.