The Art and Science of a Viral Speech

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Anyone who has ever sat down to write an executive speech understands how hard it is. It has to be: on-message, cover the relevant content (and no more), fit the exec’s personality, and be interesting. But these are just the basic requirements.

The most effective executive speeches are the ones that aspire to a higher goal: inspire the troops, motivate the line workers, compel the investors to invest.

I often read great speeches for inspiration. I keep a copy of Winston Churchill’s speeches nearby, and I rewatch Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” when I have a particularly bad case of writer’s block.

Here and there, I collect great speeches that have moved or inspired me, and I find that commencement speeches are some of my favorites because the best ones incorporate all of the essential components of a great speech.

The Art of a Viral Speech: Personal, Emotional, Funny, Unexpected

In my opinion, a great speech needs to inspire and motivate. To do this, it must evoke emotion, include a bit of humor and unexpectedness, be personal, and use story to illustrate the main points.

Here are some of my favorite commencement speeches from the Class of 2012.

Personal: Sheryl Sandberg, Harvard Business School

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg delivers an inspiring address about managing your career, using her own experiences as examples. She tells the newly minted MBAs that today’s career analogy is not a ladder, but a jungle gym. Her advice hits home because it’s illustrated with the choices she herself has made.

Emotional: Marina Keegan, Yale Daily News

Marina Keegan graduated Yale in mid-May, full of excitement and hope for the future. She decided that she could do more for the world by turning down the lucrative investment banking job and following her passion of becoming a writer. She was to start a job at the New Yorker today, but fate intervened. She died in a car accident on Memorial Day weekend.

Keegan’s commencement essay, The Opposite of Loneliness, reflects the conflicting emotions of youth. We can all relate to those feelings. Of having so much hope and fear as you stand on the precipice of your life, the one that is just – really – beginning. In it, she says: “We are so young. We are so young. We’re only 22. There’s so much time.” It’s emotional and heartfelt – and all the more poignant because of her fate.

Funny: Steve Carrell, Class Day, Princeton University

If we expect anything from funnyman Steve Carell, it’s that he will make us laugh. He does just that here, from skewering the class of 2012 for the way they communicate through technology to a series of silly pieces of advice, the best of which is the last: “Don’t take yourself too seriously.” This is good advice for speechwriters as well. The most memorable speeches are the ones that hold our attention with bit of humor.

Unexpected: David McCullough Jr., Wellesley High School, Mass.

Commencement is supposed to be a day that rewards all of the hard work that a graduate has completed. Commencement speeches, therefore, are supposed to recognize accomplishments. So, when a speaker uses the occasion to tell the graduates that they are, in fact, NOT special, that’s attention-grabbing.

David McCullough Jr.’s speech quickly spread through the Web because of its unexpected title and theme: “You are not special.” But the underlying message is that graduates should aspire to an extraordinary life and work hard to get it:

The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer.

The Science of a Viral Speech

Each of these speeches went viral on the Internet.

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