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Parts of (great convocation) speech: Funny, personal, inspiring – and short

Graduating students arrive for Commencement Exercises at Boston College in Boston, May 20, 2013.

Brian Snyder/Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama took on race. Media mogul Arianna Huffington called for a "third women's revolution." Twitter CEO Dick Costolo noted how much the world has changed in his lifetime, saying, "When I was your age, we didn't have the Internet in our pants. We didn't even have the Internet not in our pants."

Those are some of the myriad messages already conveyed to hundreds of thousands of cap-and-gown-clad students graduating this spring. Although the U.S. convocation season is drawing to a close, Canada's is only now swinging into high gear. As this year's graduates prepare to be inspired (some, unfortunately, to endure numb derrières and swallowed yawns), the question is: What makes for a compelling convocation address?

What takes a speech beyond what renowned cognitive linguist George Lakoff essentially summed up as: Congrats, you've accomplished a lot, don't forget to thank your parents, here's some advice, now go forth and prosper?

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"The best convocation addresses have a strong line of narrative and a moral – something that grips the audience and takes them to an unexpected place," said University of Toronto president David Naylor, who has heard roughly 100 such speeches and will count Nobel Prize-winning columnist Paul Krugman's among them on June 14. "The things that don't work well are self-referential in a look-at-me mode."

But don't talk to seasoned convocation speaker Deepa Mehta about being humble; she utterly loathes the adjective. "Humble is an absurd word," the Indo-Canadian filmmaker said. "It's used so much in India, it drives me nuts. Nobody really is. It's not about being humble but being real. As long as you're honest."

As long as you're entertaining, too. Some of the most talked-about convocation addresses – the ones that glean thousands of views on YouTube and laudatory mentions on Twitter – are the ones that tell gripping stories, throw the audiences into laughter or both: David Foster Wallace's address at Kenyon College, Steve Jobs' at Stanford University, Conan O'Brien's at Harvard University and, right here in Canada, Malcolm Gladwell's speech at the University of Toronto.

Although Deborah Buszard, the deputy vice-chancellor and principal of the University of British Columbia's Okanagan campus, has heard dozens upon dozens of convocation speeches, she pointed out that most students sit through one, perhaps two. "I think the recipe is to firstly remember that it's about the graduates, so time is important – not too long," she cautioned. "Be concise and have a positive message."

Not all compelling convocation speeches are short and sweet – take famously gifted orator Bill Clinton's half-hour-long speech to Howard University this month. But all are personal in some way, said a veteran convocation attendee, University of Winnipeg provost Neil Besner.

"When people try to address the youth of the next generation and so on and so forth, they fall flat," he said, adding that he hopes former politician and NHL goalie Ken Dryden will resonate with this year's graduating class on June 6. "Personal is better."

While the ingredients of a memorable address are generally agreed upon – humour, inspiration, narrative and brevity – the way those ingredients come together is highly personal. Senator Roméo Dallaire speaks off the top rather than from a script. Mr. Dryden jots down ideas as they come and then weaves them together into a speech. And Ms. Mehta researches relevant politics and policies before sitting down to write three or four days beforehand.

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Some even turn to people like U of T's Mr. Naylor for editorial insight. "I confess that I have had a hand in a fair number of speeches," he said. To be clear, though, he cannot lay claim to one of his favourites – Mr. Gladwell's, with its unexpected literary twists and turns.

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