Mary Sue Coleman delivering commencement speech.

Making a Commencement Speech Matter

June 17, 2014 | by Brian Short

Everyone knows how a commencement speech is supposed to go. First there’s the part where the speaker congratulates the graduates. Then, there’s an extended metaphor about what success really means. Finally, the speaker ends with a dreamy signoff like “Follow your dreams” or “Stay foolish.”

So how do you write a speech that means something to people?

That’s the question that Luis Machado (‘85) was asking himself back in January, when the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures asked him to give their 2014 commencement address. Machado visited Ann Arbor in February, and he used part of his visit to meet with graduating seniors from the department to hear what they might want to know from him.

“I really didn’t want to bore people,” Machado says. “So I asked students what they wanted to hear, and they all wanted to know how my degree helped to advance my career. They wanted to know how it was useful.”

Machado is the Senior Vice President, Legal, for L Brands, Inc., which operates a group of global brands including Victoria’s Secret and Bath and Body Works. As a lawyer and businessman, Machado was very comfortable with detailed technical writing. But writing the kind of oratory that a commencement speech demands felt alien to him, so Machado asked for some help.

After writing a first draft, Machado gave the speech to his wife and asked for her thoughts. Then, he rewrote it, and gave the new version to a coworker who works in communications to look at. Then he revised it again, and asked his daughter for her insight on the speech. Finally, he reached out to an old college friend who also works in communications for some final notes. Gradually, the speech became more conversational and more personal, reflecting more and more of Machado’s own voice and thoughts.

And, through writing it, Machado discovered what he wanted to say about how important his language degree was to his career.

“Human communication is a complex thing that cannot be expressed through a spreadsheet or formula,” Machado says in his speech. “My colleagues have been surprised and impressed by my ‘cultural sensitivity.’ But I suspect not a single one of you would be impressed at all. Rather, you’d recognize this sensitivity as a skill that you, too, possess, one that you’re able to employ without even thinking about it.

“I believe I’ve succeeded in my career in business because I can connect with people,” Machado continues. “I learned these skills here, hidden in a well-rounded Romance Languages and Literatures program that gave me the ability to think about, understand, and interact with language.”

In the end, Machado says, the speech isn’t really about him.

“It’s not really about what I did or what the students should do,” Machado says. “It’s about this shared experience that we have studying in LSA, an experience that gives us a worldview that should be celebrated and cultivated.”

 

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