Commencement speakers strive to inspire, entertain

During the 2011 graduation ceremony for the University of Maryland University College, character actor Richard T. Jones gave a brief speech that was widely posted on the Internet under the heading "worst commencement speech ever."

He appeared unprepared and claimed every analogy and quote he'd planned to use was taken by the speakers before him.

"So this is going to be good," he said. "I'm glad I looked up a word called improv, 'cause that's what's going to happen here. An improv, what I have for you today."

Helmer said students "are looking for some freshness, and they want to have some fun and a little substance to take away as well." But he cautioned speakers "to remember, under each of those robes is a smartphone, and to respect what it can do for you or against you."

At Queens University in Charlotte, N.C., this month, the commencement keynote speaker — Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation, which promotes media innovation — put those phones to good use in an experiment of "flash philanthropy." He showed the audience short video pitches from charities for Knight funds, then directed the graduates to choose via text a winner to receive a $50,000 donation.

"That strikes me as fabulous," said Kathleen J. Turner, director of oral communication at Davidson College in North Carolina.

Novelty goes a long way in these speeches, Turner said.

"You've got to face the fact that you have an audience of really tired students because they've been through a lot and they've also been partying," she said. "If you fall back on tired cliches, you're going to lose your audience."

Kathleen Koch, a former CNN correspondent who wrote a book about how her hometown recovered from Hurricane Katrina, is set to speak at Notre Dame of Maryland University on May 25. She finished her speech last month, she said, giving her "lots of time to ruminate."

"This is really a milestone moment in these graduates' lives," she said. And she wants to accomplish the same thing that many speakers want to accomplish: moving the graduates in some meaningful, lasting way.

"Some day in the future … when they hit a rough patch," Koch said, "I really hope they hear my words playing back in their head and think 'I can do this, I can get through this, I'm not going to quit.' "

Graduation speakers

•Gov. Martin O'Malley, St. Mary's College of Maryland, May 11

•Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, University of Maryland University College, May 11

•Archbishop William E. Lori, Mount St. Mary's University, May 12

•First lady Michelle Obama, Bowie State University, May 17

•Retired Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, University of Maryland, Baltimore, May 17

•U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Morgan State University, May 18

•Hall of Fame Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., University of Maryland, May 19

•Comedian Bill Cosby, University of Baltimore, May 21

•President Barack Obama, the U.S. Naval Academy, May 24

•Journalist and author Kathleen Koch, Notre Dame of Maryland University, May 25

•Journalists Al Hunt and Judy Woodruff, McDaniel College, May 25

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