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A commencement speech by English teacher David McCullough Jr. of Wellesley High school in Massachusetts has proved an enormous hit in the USA. His commencement speech made the headlines not least because of the lines:

All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special.

You are not special. You are not exceptional.

Contrary to what your U9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.

commencement speech
Commencement Speech At Wellesley High School Hits The Headlines

That line of logic is so clearly out of kilter with conventional educational thinking that it made his audience jump. Jump right up. They couldn’t not listen to what else he had to say.

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And he had much more to say. His speech took in the underlying facts about all our positions in the world and even the universe.

He read his speech from a prepared script but managed still to involve his audience with some well-chosen interjections:

You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored.  You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie.  Yes, you have.

He knows his audience and they know him. And that must help, but the technique remains sound.

Original Commencement Speech

His speech contained the odd stumble as he read his words. That pointed at its originality and genuineness. Yes, the speech was prepared and practised but this was a genuine teacher giving an original  commencement speech. Of course, you could compare this with the Alberta commencement speech. Yes, that wasn’t so original.

He delivered the nub of his argument to perfection:

We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.  We have come to see them as the point—and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.  No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it… Now it’s “So what does this get me?”

His speech was a master class in stylish writing. Witty combined with seriousness. Self-deprecation combined with beautiful insight.

Commencement Speech Draws To A Close

His conclusion neatly wrapped up the main argument to his speech:

And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself.  The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

Because everyone is.

That was it. Everyone is special. A superb way to close this very special commencement speech. And, doesn’t it make a change to read about this than the graduation speech hell that’s, unfortunately, more typical.

Need help with your next speech? You can always dip into our series of top tips for speakers and presenters. Because, with more than 100 top public speaking tips, there’s plenty here. Or, why not try a skills coaching session? Because this one-to-one improvement session aims to give you the skills and confidence so you succeed with your next speech. Please don’t hesitate to contact us.

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About the Author

The Principal Trainer at training business Time to Market. Based in Oxford, I run presentation and public speaking training courses, coaching sessions and seminars throughout the UK.

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