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What's the deal with celebrity commencement speeches?

Tom Hanks gave the commencement speech at Harvard, and other celebrities have made memorable speeches in the past.
What's the deal with celebrity commencement speeches?
Posted at 7:08 PM, May 25, 2023

Tom Hanks delivered the commencement address at Harvard on Thursday, offering words of humor, wisdom and seriousness in his 20-minute speech.

There was the funny side ...

"Without having spent any time in class, without once walking into that library in order to have anything to do with the graduating class of Harvard, its faculty, or its distinguished alumni, I make a damn good living playing someone who did," he said.

And there was the serious side ...

"Indifference makes citizens into indentured servants held in labor by the despots and tyrants whose default setting is cynicism, who outlaw dissent, who ban art and dialogue and books," he said.

Hanks is part of this year's batch of high-profile commencement speakers alongside fellow actors, the architects of fictional worlds and the leaders of real, besieged countries — all welcoming college graduates to their new lives beyond campus.

"I think the best commencement speakers say something authentic and genuine about their experiences," said Aaron Hoover, a professional speechwriter for the University of Florida. 

Hoover says, first and foremost, good commencement speeches celebrate the students and their families.

Many offer pieces of advice or observations about society and, oftentimes, bits of humor to lighten the pomp and circumstance.

SEE MORE: VP Harris will be 1st woman to deliver graduation speech at West Point

"It's always a good idea to make fun of yourself," Hoover said. "It helps you connect and deflates your sense of importance and helps you connect with audiences."

For that sense of connection and name recognition, colleges and universities spend thousands on their end-of-the-year speeches.

The University of Massachusetts-Amherst paid celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson more than $25,000 for his speech in 2015.

The University of Oklahoma paid journalist Katie Couric $110,000 for her 2006 commencement address.

And actor Matthew McConaughey was paid $135,000 for his 2015 speech at the University of Houston.

Not all colleges pay for their commencement addresses, and for some speakers, the opportunity itself can bring professional prestige.

Writer George Saunders expanded his 2013 address to Syracuse University in a book titled "Congratulations, By The Way," which went on to become a New York Times bestseller.

And soccer player Abby Wambach's 2018 speech to Barnard became a "rallying cry" for women around the country advocating to close the gender pay gap.

"I think commencement is one of the increasingly rare occasions that brings together Americans of all races and educations and political opinions ... and I think we should appreciate them for that reason," Hoover said.

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