Commencement is not only a rich season for advice to those entering the “real world”; it also offers learnings for professional communicators, as well as opportunities for the boldface names who do the speaking. Here’s my list of lessons from those people and institutions who’ve set examples – both for good and ill – for PR professionals.
Embrace failure. Recently deposed New York Times editor Jill Abramson no doubt had a different speech in mind for her gig at Wake Forest. But instead of cancelling or trying to gloss over her abrupt exit, Abramson wove it into her address. She compared her situation to that of the new graduates – a shaky analogy, given her far greater wealth and accomplishment – but closed by urging the new graduates to “stick to their knitting… Sometimes the work will be good. Sometimes it will fail. But making sure you always have something to do, and something to work towards, is the best possible cure for melancholy and discouragement.” A graceful response to a very difficult and unexpected situation.
Acknowledge other points of view. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen put it well in her speech at NYU: “Listening to others, especially those with whom we disagree, tests our own ideas and beliefs. It forces us to recognize, with humility, that we don’t have a monopoly on the truth.” As professional communicators, our own ideas and messages have greater strength if they acknowledge the thoughts of other parties.
Stick to your principles. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made a strong point about tolerance and diversity in his speech at alma mater Harvard, which to me boils down to remembering why you’re there in the first place. Referring to the commencement situations where potential speakers or degree recipients were uninvited after being deemed controversial, Bloomberg argued that caving in to possible dissension defeats the very purpose of higher education, which includes tolerance and freedom.
Be externally focused. He didn’t actually deliver a commencement address, but Marc Andreessen did offer his own advice to new graduates on Twitter. Instead of swallowing the “follow your passion” bromides which he feels are dangerous and simplistic, Andreessen offered that “Better career advice may be ‘Do what contributes’ — focus on the beneficial value created for other people vs just one’s own ego.”
Inspire. This is the point of all graduation speakers, but many fall short. One who didn’t was Admiral William McRaven, who spoke at University of Texas at Austin. Falling back on his training as a Navy SEAL, the Admiral urged the new graduates to change the world, then gave them very specific advice on how to do it.
In a different way, Rutgers University stumbled into the inspired, and inspiring, choice for its speaker after being criticized for seeming to rescind an offer to have Eric LeGrand make the commencement address. LeGrand was left paralyzed from the neck down after an accident he suffered playing in a Rutgers football game in 2010. His physical presence alone, symbolizing the perseverance that enabled him to graduate after his devastating injuries, probably spoke as loudly as his words, “Don’t ever let someone tell you you can’t do something!”
Sometimes, the most important thing is being there.
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