Oh, The Places Your Copy Will Go: Copywriting Lessons from May’s Most Memorable Commencement Speeches

Every commencement speaker does their best to send a message. Only a few stand out—but the ones that do offer lessons anyone can learn from in crafting compelling stories.

College graduate wearing graduation cap
Source: Juan Ramos, via Unsplash

The commencement speech: the highlight of the long-winded college graduation ceremony. Amidst the boring itinerary of events and awards, a school’s chosen speaker (usually a celebrity, politician, athlete, or high profile businessperson) takes center stage with the goal of imparting some wisdom upon the graduates.

The month of May is filled with commencement speeches, but we only ever hear about a few standouts. These speakers are praised for their effective engagement of the crowd and inspiring messages, but there are other ingredients in the mix that allow their words to resonate far beyond their target audience of graduating students. There’s a lot to be learned about writing good copy from a particularly memorable speech. Here are just a few lessons we can glean from this year’s most effective speakers.

Hit pain points and inspire an emotional response 

Humans love a good story. We’re just as excited to tell them as we are to hear them. Done right, a good story can establish an immediate human connection and generate an emotional reaction that makes it more likely to be remembered. And that’s something that both speeches and copy strive for.

Colleges graduates throwing their caps in the air
Source: Pixabay, via Pexels

You would be hard-pressed to find a commencement speech that doesn’t dive right into a personal story, be it the tale of the speaker’s own graduation many moons ago, or an inspirational message about how they overcame life’s obstacles to reach where they are today. During her speech at Kent University this year, Octavia Spencer shared a personal story about feeling typecast after portraying a maid in The Help, and defining her own values and self worth by pursuing new and challenging roles like a mathematician working for NASA in Hidden Figures. She explained why saying yes in her early career was important, and how she later learned to say no. For students taking their first shaky steps into the adult world and facing the pressures of societal expectations and biases, her message undoubtedly struck a cord.

Spencer’s speech used a story to outline a pain point and show a solution. Copy that follows a similar format is often far more effective than examples that beat around the bush with vague statements. When potential customers read your copy or content, you have the chance to demonstrate why your business or product is the cure to what ails them. Make them feel something. They’ll remember your words the next time the problem presents itself, increasing the potential for a conversion.

Know your audience

Doing some research into your audience can go a long way. Show your listeners that you know them and can relate to them—if you don’t, why should they relate to you?

This is especially important when writing for a narrow audience, when you really need that connection to beat out competitors. We’ve discussed before how a little local flavor can warm a regional audience to your copy and brand—or turn them off completely if it doesn’t feel genuine. Sheryl Sandberg demonstrated how to do it right while speaking at Virginia Tech. Her general message on resilience made multiple references to the school’s culture and traditions, including the Run in Remembrance, the winter walk across the Drillfield, and sporting victories. By including this sprinkling of small details, she earned the respect of the Hokie community.

It doesn’t have to be much. But by maintaining an awareness of your target audience needs and desires, you’ll find you’re better equipped to address them and win their business.

Highlight your company’s mission

In the turbulent political climate of 2017, it’s no surprise that many commencement speeches used the platform to address important social issues. Iranian American comedian Maz Jobrani focused on immigration, encouraging the UC Berkeley graduates to support a diverse America. Sheryl Sandberg shared stories on gender equality. At Arizona State University, Howard Schultz (Starbucks’ executive chairman) discussed his company’s balance between profit and positive social impact.

Not all companies want to tackle huge political discussions in their marketing. As the woefully misguided Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner made clear, some shouldn’t be allowed to try. But whether you want to address social issues or not, your copy is a platform for you to highlight your company’s mission. Will your product or service make the customer’s life better? Great—now tell them how.

Make them laugh

Laughing graduate
Source: Juan Ramos, via Unsplash

Humor can be a powerful tool for your brand. Used strategically, it leaves your audience with a favorable impression of you, and helps cement your place in their memory.

During his speech at USC, Will Ferrell  excelled in keeping his audience engaged by cracking jokes, telling amusing stories, and making fun of himself. He ended with his own personal rendition of Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You. On pitch? Actually, kind of. Memorable? Absolutely.

Humor doesn’t work for every company (it would be a hard sell to market your funeral home by making your patrons laugh). Others avoid it for fears it might tarnish their professional brand (legal copywriting, for example, tends to be light on chuckles). But for certain industries, particularly consumer goods, a lighthearted approach can be remarkably endearing, earning greater brand loyalty and encouraging shares. These days, people follow certain brands on social media almost entirely because their jokes are so good. Charmin toilet paper, anyone?

End with a strong call to action

Beginnings are great and middles are important, but it’s how you end that can have the biggest impact on how your message is received. Whether writing a sales pitch or speaking to a stadium full of hungover graduates, ending with a clear and powerful call to action is a must. What do you want your listeners or readers to leave thinking about? What’s the most important takeaway they should remember?

Pharrell Williams focused his whole speech at NYU on the importance of education, and ended by encouraging the graduates to use their education to serve humanity. Similarly, at Agnes Scott College, Oprah Winfrey asked the graduates to “make it your intention to serve through your life with purpose.”

Short of outright telling people to buy your product or engage your services, your copy needs to give them an inspiring reason to want to. Maybe you tell them to change their life today—and of course, you’ve shown throughout your copy that what you’re offering has the potential to do that. Failing to finish with a persuasive call to action is a little like forcing your readers to leave the movie theater ten minutes before the end. Sure, they’ve seen most of what you had to say, but will they ever know what it was all building up to?

Oprah thinks we need to live with purpose. We think your copy needs purpose. Want to better engage and inspire through a speech or creative copy but don’t know where to commence? Get in touch and let our copywriting team help you graduate.


Written by Ciara Rafferty

Samantha McLaren

Samantha McLaren

Having worked as a ghost tour guide for five years, Samantha knows how to get a reaction using only words. Hailing from bonny Scotland, she spent years gathering weird, eclectic experience (from laboratory assistant to radio DJ to Sunday school teacher) before finding her true calling–writing. She came to New York to see what MarketSmiths could teach her, and never left. Copywriter by day, amateur horror writer by night, she has a passion for words and is drawn to the strange and unusual.

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