Commencements, Further

June 12, 2012, 3:57 pm

So, in the “Random Cheap Shot Of The Day” post I did, there was a random cheap shot, a requirement of this blog:

Zakaria pointed out to the reporter that a fair number of people do repeat their speeches, but she brought in a “consultant who handles graduation speakers” from Academy Communications, who is definitely positively not trying to drum up business, to tut-tut further:

Randell Kennedy, the target of the shot, was kind and gracious enough to send a note about how he had actually come to be quoted in the article and I thought I would give him the last word:

My firm is a national agency based in Boston that helps colleges and universities across the country with some of their national media outreach, promoting new research, faculty penned books, quotable academic sources, op-eds-and occasionally commencement speakers. I was actually called by the Boston Globe’s higher-education reporter who writes many terrific stories on a very tight deadline.

She was developing a story about commencement-speaker trends, noted that a prominent columnist had apparently delivered a very similar commencement address at two different top-tier institutions, and asked for my help in arranging interviews (on a quick turnaround time) with several popular academic speakers with whom I had worked, who were known for providing thoughtful and original commencement addresses. I was also asked if, in my experience, many commencement honorees typically recycled and delivered the same speech at different schools. I offered that, while some points may be repeated, they usually deliver very different speeches, and explained why: the power of Google. I was quoted in the story, as a result.

When it appeared in print the following morning, I read the story with interest, and thought about some of the finest commencement speeches I have heard, and about many of the best ones that I have promoted to national media, over the years. Colleges and universities choose commencement speakers based on many different criteria: alumni connections; a specific theme or relevant curricular topic on campus that year; political or fund-raising considerations; or because of potential entertainment value or celebrity star power. Sometimes they receive a hefty speaking fee or significant travel expenses; often, they do not. In addition to campus leadership, faculty, alumni and students sometimes have a say in who gets picked to speak at commencement.

I have found that it is not necessarily the speaker’s title or credentials that make their address to the grads truly special and memorable to students, to national news outlets or to wider off-campus audiences. It is the originality of their message-and the ability for them to offer up some timely and counter-intuitive insights that resonate with students and other members of the audience gathered on that special day. It is clear to me that, with many in today’s commencement audience literally holding the ability to check a speaker’s words in the palm of their hand as they are being delivered, the concept of “originality” is now facing more scrutiny than ever before.

There we go.

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