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Platitudes, bromides and fear—oh, my! Behold the worst commencement speech of the year

It's neither nor good form nor good business for the editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, who begs speakers and speechwriters to send him speeches for possible publication, to hold the bad ones up to public scorn. But every once in awhile, a speech is bad enough that someone must give candid voice to the audience who was polite enough to sit through it and applaud at the end. I came across one such collection of barren bromides during my flat-shovel sifting of speeches for our annual special issue on commencement addresses. (It's the August issue, and if you don't subscribe to Vital Speeches, now's the perfect time to start, so you can get this great issue.) Mercifully to the speaker, I identify him only as a Fortune 500 CEO and don't identify the major university at which he spoke. Mercifully to the reader, I've abridged the speech considerably. Its essential excerpts are in Roman, my retorts are in italics.

I extend my congratulations to all the graduates; I’m very impressed with your achievements. You’ve worked very hard to earn a degree from our world-class university. Your degree will open many doors for you in the coming years.

For the graduates, today represents both an ending and a beginning. It’s a day to celebrate your accomplishments and, at the same time, look to the future.

A more impersonal and rhetorically flaccid intro you’re not going to find. The only tone one can imagine this being delivered in is, "robotic mono."

As you begin the next chapter in your life, I hope you take with you a healthy dose of optimism and confidence because you will have tremendous opportunities to drive our global society forward.

Let’s not harp on the mustiness of the use of “the next chapter” (how about, “As you open your next YouTube channel in life ….”)?

No, let’s get worked up over the travesty of one human standing before a group of other human beings who are trembling on the edge of they know not what—and pretending that what’s on their mind are “tremendous opportunities to drive our global society forward.”

So, you’re probably wondering: How do I make the most of those endless opportunities that lie ahead? What do I need to know to navigate the future?

There's no quicker or more complete way to destroy your credibility than by mischaracterizing the thoughts of the audience. When this happens, audience members must reject you purely as a matter of self respect.

I had the same questions when I was sitting in your chair. Now, after 30- plus years in [business] and many challenges along the way, I can share some of what I’ve learned … hope it might be meaningful to you as you go forward.

At this point, they’re not counting on it.

I’ve distilled my personal experiences over the years into three categories.

The first is: Getting established in your career—a subject that is probably top-of-mind for you at this time. …

As you begin your career, create your own professional style. Your reputation and attitude are extremely important both day-to-day and for advancement. Study the management techniques of others and integrate the best into your own style. At the same time, avoid the worst behaviors. And, of course, integrity is paramount in everything you do. Don’t ever jeopardize your personal reputation.

Avoid the worst behaviors? Have integrity? What’s next? Will it be Mr. McGuire, from The Graduate? "I just want to say one word to you—just one word—‘plastics.’” Or maybe Judge Smails, from Caddyshack: “Danny, do you stand for goodness or badness?”

That brings me to the second area: Be open to new ideas. And, closely related to that is: take calculated risks. …

When you’re weighing options, gather the best information available, analyze the pros and cons, seek the advice of people you trust and make your decision. Decisiveness is an important leadership trait.

Too often, people pass up great opportunities because they don’t want to venture out of their comfort zone. Part of being successful is being able to learn from our mistakes. And, if it happens that something doesn’t work out, consider it a learning experience, dust yourself off and get right back in the game.

Is this a man who is speaking? Or is it a talking platitudipus?

Now, to the last category: It’s about more than the money.

I understand that earning money is important, especially after living on a student’s income. I remember looking forward to a bigger paycheck, too, after washing dishes in the TKE house and working as a graduate assistant when I was in the MBA program.

When your darkest hardships are kitchen duty at the frat house and helping a professor grade papers—you’re probably better off not going there.

Also, I know many of you have student loans that need to be paid. I did, too. However, I’m guessing that my $650 student loan after six years here may be a little less than your obligation today.

Yet, a career can’t be all about money. Of course, earning your way and providing for your family is important. But having a passion and enthusiasm for what you do is more important than money. Choose work that motivates you to deliver your best. Seek jobs that challenge you and your financial health will follow. …

The bottom line is: don’t allow money to eclipse the enjoyment and success that come from doing work you are passionate about.

At this point, the audience has to be asking—and you're lucky they're not asking out loud—Exactly what soulless but lucrative opportunities did you pass up to follow your deep, natural, poetic passion for being a telecommunications executive?

I’ll close with one final thought. As you go out into the world to do all the outstanding things you want to do, I don’t think you know how good you are and the impact you can have. Be confident. …

No, Big Guy, it’s you who doesn't know how good they are—or how scared and starving for genuine, emotionally honest experience and wisdom from elders who aren’t too insecure, themselves, to share it.

—DM