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Do you have a graduating son or daughter? A high school or college graduation is a major milestone in life that should not be ignored. The graduation ceremony celebrates hard work and encourages students to move into the world to achieve great things. This hopeful message is further cemented through an inspirational graduation speech.
Here are the best graduation speeches and inspirational message graduation quotes to inspire you and change your life.
1. Barack Obama – Howard University, 2016
You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. I’ll repeat that. I want you to have passion, but you have to have a strategy. Not just awareness but action. Not just hashtags, but votes.Barack Obama
During his graduation message, Barack Obama spoke with hope. He urged the graduating students to be hardworking yet pragmatic as they sought justice, equality, and freedom. Howard University is one of the nation’s most distinguished and historically Black universities.
In 2020, Barack Obama also shared a graduation message to the Class of 2020 as part of Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020. These students had to learn to overcome obstacles and challenges that classes before them had not had to deal with due to the pandemic.
The disappointments of missing a live graduation, those will pass pretty quick…What remains true is that your graduation marks your passage into adulthood—the time when you begin to take charge of your own life. It’s when you get to decide what’s important to you: the kind of career you want to pursue. Who you want to build a family with. The values you want to live by. And given the current state of the world, that may be kind of scary.Barack Obama
Obama goes on to offer hope and support as graduating students set out to navigate a very new landscape and shape a new world.
2. David Foster Wallace – Kenyon Graduation Speech, 2005
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually, one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?David Foster Wallace
In this commencement address, Wallace reminds us that we often forget, or take for granted, the most obvious things around us. He acknowledges it’s difficult to stay aware of what’s happening in the world, especially when you’re too busy dealing with the monologue inside your head.
That’s what a college education is about, according to him. It’s learning how to think and exercising some degree of control over your thoughts so you can choose what to pay attention to.
Our thoughts affect our realities, and the ability to choose how you “construct meaning from experience” will determine the lenses from which you see the world and how you react in return.
3. Natalie Portman – Harvard Graduation Speech 2015
Sometimes your insecurities and your inexperience may lead you, too, to embrace other people’s expectations, standards, or values. But you can harness that inexperience to carve out your own path, one that is free of the burden of knowing how things are supposed to be, a path that is defined by its own particular set of reasons.Natalie Portman
Natalie Portman majored in psychology at Harvard University because she believed it would help her acting. She graduated in 2003. In her commencement speech at the 2015 graduation ceremony, she spoke of her own self-doubt and gave an inspiring, funny, and wisdom-filled speech for the graduating class.
Portman said even though she was a successful student and went on to find success as an actress, she still struggled with her own worth but eventually learned to set her own goals.
4. Ellen DeGeneres – Tulane University, 2009
Never follow anyone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path and by all means you should follow that. Don’t give advice, it will come back and bite you in the ass. Don’t take anyone’s advice. So my advice to you is to be true to yourself and everything will be fine.Ellen Degeneres
This is one of the funniest graduation speeches ever! All humor aside, this speech shows why it’s better to be true to yourself instead of trying desperately to be a second-rate version of someone else.
For years, Ellen thought being bisexual might prevent her from being a successful stand-up comedian, but it’s just not the case. Ellen proved that you could be successful, whoever you are, if you worked hard and learned from your past experiences— even one as sad as the death of a loved one.
5. Charlie Munger – University of California Law School, 2007
*Skip to 4:08 for the actual speech
You’re not going to get very far in life based on what you already know. You’re going to advance in life by what you’re going to learn after you leave here.Charlie Munger
Education doesn’t stop after you graduate from college. It doesn’t stop after you finish your MBA or PhD either. Munger says, “Wisdom acquisition is a moral duty. It’s not just something you do to advance in life.”
It’s a moral duty because it’s only through continuous learning that we can add to the vast knowledge of man kind. If we stopped learning, progress in all industries—computers, finance, engineering, biology, stops as well.
6. Michelle Obama – Eastern Kentucky University, 2013
If you’re a Democrat, spend some time talking to a Republican. And if you’re a Republican, have a chat with a Democrat. Maybe you’ll find some common ground, maybe you won’t. But if you honestly engage with an open mind and an open heart, I guarantee you’ll learn something. And goodness knows we need more of that, because we know what happens when we only talk to people who think like we do — we just get more stuck in our ways, more divided, and it gets harder to come together for a common purpose.Michelle Obama
As far as inspirational speeches go, Michelle Obama’s speech is very actionable. Her advice is simple (not easy), talk to each other with an open mind.
Different religion, race, political stand, it doesn’t matter. We can all learn from one another.
7. Jim Carrey – Maharashi University of Management, 2014
This is one of my favorite motivational speeches because Jim Carrey is such a good example of his message.
So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. My father could have been a great comedian, but he didn’t believe that that was possible for him, and so he made a conservative choice. Instead, he got a safe job as an account.Jim Carrey
Carrey’s father lost his accounting job when he was 12, and it was then he realized that failure is inevitable, whether you’re doing what you want or not. If that’s the case, you might as well take a stab at doing something you love.
8. J.K Rowling – Harvard Commencement Address, 2008
I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea.J.K. Rowling
This is probably one of the most inspirational videos for writers and creatives everywhere.
Rowling was suffering from depression when he wrote the Harry Potter books. But through grit and patience with herself, she was able to complete the first Harry Potter Manuscript and, stay motivated to continue even when feeling down. Thanks to her drive and imagination, the world has Harry Potter!
9. Bono – University of Pennsylvania, 2004
In case you don’t know him, Bono is the lead singer of the famous band U2. Of course, being the rock star he is, he leads his speech by saying, “My name is Bono, and I am a rock star.”
In his speech, he urges graduates to carefully consider their big idea, in saying:
What are you willing to spend your moral capital, your intellectual capital, your cash, (and) your sweat equity in pursuing outside of the walls of the University of Pennsylvania? The world is more malleable than you think, and it’s waiting for you to hammer it into shape.Bono
Being a rock star, I thought Bono would talk about the perils of fame, the road to stardom or something to that effect. But instead, he talked about big ideas and changing the world.
10. Amy Poehler – Harvard University, 2011
Life is like a heist that requires good drivers, an explosives expert, a hot girl who doubles as a master of disguise, and this is a hard and fast rule. If the Rock shows up, they’re on to you.Amy Poehler
During her commencement speech at Harvard University in 2011, Amy Poehler expressed her surprise at the invitation to do so. She delivered a speech with jokes, advice, and insight as she looked out at the graduates.
She told them to head out into the world with love, light, joy, and laughter. Finishing off her speech in true Amy Poehler fashion, she also says, “please don’t forget to tip your waitresses.”
11. Meryl Streep – Barnard College, 2010
This is your time, and it feels normal to you, but really there is no normal. There’s only change, and resistance to it and then more change.Meryl Streep
Meryl Streep is an actress most famous for Sophie’s Choice, The Devil Wears Prada, and Mamma Mia. She was asked to deliver the commencement speech to Barnard College in 2010. Her speech was dripping with extreme personality, honesty, and bluntness.
Streep shared her own personal stories and emphasized the importance of empathy. The audience was all women, so the speech was directed at them, but she shared many graduation messages that applied to everyone.
12. Kerry Washington – George Washington University, 2013
You and you alone are the only person who can live the life that writes the story you were meant to tell.Kerry Washington
Kerry Washington is an actress, producer, and director. In 2018, she was named the eighth highest-paid television actress and has won several awards, including the President’s Award.
In her commencement speech at George Washington University in 2013, she urged graduates to go beyond their comfort zones and live their own stories.
How to Create Your Own Inspirational Graduation Speech
Do you need to write your own inspirational speech or curate the perfect graduation message? Here are a few tips on how to do just that, so you can inspire others like the commencement speeches above.
Start With a Quote
Start with a relevant quote. This sets the overall tone of your speech and grabs your audience’s attention. A good example of this is a quote by David Brinkley, “A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at him.”
Now that you have drawn in the audience, present a what-if scenario to encourage the audience to continue following your thought process.
You can also provide a scenario encouraging the audience to put themselves directly into it. Suggest that they imagine doing something and ask what they would do if it doesn’t go as planned.
If you are giving a graduation message, ask where they see themselves years down the road or what they picture success as. You can then offer advice and insight based on your own experience.
You should also ask questions, whether they are literal or rhetorical. When you present a question to someone, the person intuitively answers it, keeping them engaged with what you have to say.
Pause for Silence
When giving an inspirational speech, it also helps to pause for a few seconds after important points. This pause allows the audience to react to what you have to say and settle down before you continue with your next statement. The pause is also a good way to draw attention to what you want to say.
What Makes an Inspirational Graduation Speech?
The best graduation speech should have a very uplifting message that leads with education and wisdom. The graduation speech should focus on the graduates’ achievements and accomplishments. It should highlight the sacrifices that may have been made.
When writing a graduation or inspirational speech, ensure a strong theme or message is conveyed to keep your audience’s focus and attention.
Do you remember the speaker on your graduation day? What pearls of wisdom did he or she share?
Related Reading: Don’t forget what you worked so hard on in school! Check out our 150 Education Quotes for Teachers and Students, too. These gems are good for any graduation card when offering congratulations.