Picture a stadium full of students clad in caps and gowns, staring expectantly at a stage where a best-selling author, a well-respected artist, or an enterprising CEO impart knowledge that will propel graduates into their professional lives with wisdom and grace.
Now imagine those graduating students have spent the last year immersed in political chaos, economic uncertainty, civil rights struggles, and climate-change fears as they tried to study for finals and send out resumes. What could that commencement speaker say to them? Talk about “these unprecedented times” to a room full of eye-rolls? Serve up platitudes about how hope perseveres?
With commencement season well underway, some keynote speakers have expressed hesitancy over their messages this year. The future — that vast expanse of decades ahead — can feel overwhelming to them, as well.
It’s best to focus on a compelling personal story and encourage graduates to make change where they can, said Mark Castel, president and founder of AEI Speakers Bureau in Allston.
“You want to leave these kids, these young men and women, with something to look forward to, to be uplifting. This is the beginning of your career, you have your whole life ahead of you,” Castel said. “On the smaller scale, how can people improve the little things?”
Some colleges discourage speakers from focusing too much on politics, Castel said. Highlighting small acts — volunteering at a soup kitchen, starting a recycling program, getting more involved in their communities — can be a way around that.
“Change is not going to come around by mandates, change is gonna come around on a grass-roots level,” Castel said. “And I think a lot of speakers tell people to get involved on a grass-roots level, because that’s how you’re gonna change the big picture.”
At Boston University’s commencement on Sunday, Representative Ayanna Pressley weaved her personal story of attending the college as a young adult with a road map of how graduates can build a better future. She talked about her internship in Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II’s office in Roxbury, and learning how policy affected the communities around her.
“Among the many lessons my mother taught me is this one: There is a difference between your job and your work,” Pressley said. “Your job is what you do to pay the bills. Your Work, with a capital W, is the work of justice-seeking, of community upliftment and building.”
Speakers looking for an optimistic message may feel tempted to address the pandemic as if it is behind them. That is ill-advised, said Joan Detz, author of the book “How to Write & Give a Speech.”
“That would be a terrible mistake because sitting in that audience, and watching online, are people who are suffering — financially, physically, emotionally,” Detz said.
Instead, she said, speakers should ask their hosts what learning was like during the pandemic. What made the last year difficult here? How did this place address those difficulties?
“No one can change the last 14 months. But they [graduates] are at a changing point,” Detz said. “That allows you to respect all the difficulties of the past year, but also reposition this as a changing point.
“Most of us can deal with a changing point, rather than a long, drawn-out period of change when we don’t know what is going to happen to us,” she added.
At Northeastern University earlier this month, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Rochelle Walensky — appearing remotely to graduates gathered at Fenway Park — addressed the inflection point in graduates’ lives.
“This is a pivotal moment for each of you: Strengthened by your failures, defined by your successes, and enriched by everything you have learned and every way you have grown these past years,” Walensky said. “You become who you are because of pivotal moments in your education and your training.”
Even in an unusual year, the standard advice for speakers applies: Know who else is speaking; err on the short side; use humor; and flesh out your personal story with enough detail to stay engaging.
“This year of all years, people who had very little else in common suddenly shared a lot of the same concerns,” Detz said. “This is the year to be inclusive.”
Mary Schmich, the Chicago Tribune columnist, famously advised graduates in 1997 to wear sunscreen and do one thing every day that scares them. But this year, she said, she would be hesitant to convey such sweeping wisdom.
“If pressed,” Schmich said in an e-mail, “I’d probably say something like: The past year was a hard year. But there will always be hard years, and there’s always room for optimism.”
Optimism, she said, is a discipline, one that takes intention and effort, “an approach you can cultivate by looking for what’s good in the world and working to create something good.”
“And no matter what’s going on,” she said, “wear sunscreen (the kind with non-toxic ingredients).”
Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at email@example.com or at 617-929-2043.