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Jul 28

Graduation Keynote Speech

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to see my fiance graduate from her Master in Fine Arts (MFA) Theatre Directing course. The opening keynote address was conducted by Lord Phillips of Sudbury, Chancellor of the University of Essex.
After his introduction he received a round of applause as he approached the lectern. When the applause died down he said: “you don’t often get applause before you’ve done it.” Which got him a laugh.

I felt this worked well because not only did he open with a laugh, which can be a very good way to open any sort of speech, but he also dealt with what was happening in the moment. We knew that it was an off-hand comment, and unscripted, which made us appreciate it all the more.

However, from that great opening, I felt that he settled into scripted mode and gave us lots of fairly uninteresting facts and not many stories. That said, he still had flashes of his earlier charisma.

He did speak about the University’s new nightclub: “…it’s called Sub Zero. If you have a chance you should go. It’s real cool.” Again, he got a laugh with this because it was an unexpected comment from a person like Lord Phillips. 

Overall I enjoyed the speech and I know his purpose was not to entertain, but I felt there could’ve been a few more personal stories, anecdotes and one or two more laugh lines.

That said…

There was a moment that I felt was a little awkward was when he spoke about how the courses at the University often have a large proportion of overseas students. But after asking the students how many were from outside the U.K. there were very few. He commented that the crowd he was speaking to was “the least foreign”. He did acknowledge that this might not be the correct word to use.

I don’t what to come across all “PC Police”, but I’m not sure if using the word foreign to describe people from overseas is the best word. Even though they are, indeed, foreign. I only say this because sometimes the word can be used in a derogatory way.

There are other words which I don’t think are particularly useful in making people from another country feel welcome into your own. When I’ve been to the U.S. in the past, I have been referred to as “an alien”. Although I’m not from the United States, I’m not from another planet either and I’m not about to have a punch up with Sigourney Weaver and vomit acid on anybody.

Yes, it’s somewhat of a tangent, but as speakers and presenters I think we need to take care of the words that we use to describe people.  In situations like delivering a keynote address to a University, or to some other institution, we are not comedians and out to entertain or cause controversy. We are out to inform or inspire.

So next time you’re putting together a speech, take a moment in one of your re-drafts to consider any words which you think are dubious or may cause offence.