Take Five: Interpreting the Commencement Address my way

The best commencement speech I never heard was Steve Jobs’ Stanford University speech given on June 7, 2005. I urge you to Google it and commit it forever to your brain.  In about eight minutes Jobs presented a practical, realistic, and candid address to the graduates, parents and faculty.

One portion of his speech was based on thoughts he had after being diagnosed with cancer. “Your time is limited,” he said, “so don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other peoples’ thinking… have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”

Along with a vision of your dreams, there are some hard practicalities.  I am slightly removed from the college scene — my own Stanford days were long ago — but I do have a distillation to offer you what I have witnessed, experienced and sometimes failed at, in many years of living. I found that bringing problems down to their simple core, having the courage to charge ahead, and taking the first steps that are necessary toward what you want to do (instead of just thinking about all of it) helped. It means that you are becoming a meaningful specific instead of a wandering generality.

Here are three unusual ideas that can truly help you in any context. I call them pearls of wisdom:

Pearl 1- Master the skill and art of public speaking.  Conquer your fear of standing on your feet in front of any kind of audience—two or 200 people.  Take all of the speech and oratory classes you can. Get comfortable thinking and speaking in front of people. Sometimes a speech instructor may require long speeches of 30 minutes.  Go with the flow.  You have no choice if you are in a classroom environment. But when you show up in the real world, speak no longer than 15 minutes.  Ten minutes is better.

Look at your audience. Do not keep your eyes plunked down on your speech and do not read your speech. It’s deadly. As you speak, scan the room, glancing around without staring specifically at anyone. “How can I do all of this,” you will say. “I’m too scared. In fact, I’m terrified.”  Since everyone else feels the same way you do, think how much you have to gain by conquering this fear. 

The best way—BE PREPARED. The first time (or perhaps every time) you stand up and feel all of the eyes upon you, the old feeling may return.  However, this time will be different. You will know your stuff, you will have rehearsed it, you will have practiced it, you will have memorized the key points, you will have even memorized the whole speech, you will have referred (in your practice sessions) to your 3x5 file cards, you will call up the yellow tablet sheet you wrote the original piece on, you will have underlined the important words and you will know everything. You will BE PREPARED.

You will have forgotten you were scared.  Never tell your audience you are nervous. They will not know unless you say so and then you will have to prove it. NO, you are in charge.  Pause, smile and begin. A conversational style, a few pauses, even some missteps can be part of a good speech.

Someday, I hope not too soon, you will be asked to give a eulogy.  Life throws curve balls.  Keep your speech to ten minutes. Maximum.  Say what you have to say about the deceased and then sit down. After you finish, shake hands (or hug, if appropriate) all of the people on the altar and the same with the family, usually sitting in the front rows of the church or meeting room.  If you cry or choke, let the emotion seep out, you are not a machine, devoid of feeling.  You can bring solace to the family or friends with a thoughtful and kind talk.

Pearl 2- Learn how to write smart, cogent and organized sentences, paragraphs, presentations, reports and essays.  What, you say? You’ve taken plenty of English classes. No doubt.  Fair enough, I agree. But I bet you can’t write an organized typo-free letter.  Careers can be smashed because of poor writing skills. Spell check isn’t everything and “there” and “their” and “they’re” need your help.

Here are a few wise, tough rules to consider.  You are only allowed to use three adverbs—in your whole life. While we are on the subject, kill the word “very.”  No more sentences with very good,  very well, very good dinner. Adverbs are crutches because we use verbs that are weak. Use stronger verbs. Let the reader see the action: scoot, scram, scamper are a lot better than go.

If you want to write well, read great literature: Hemingway is always a good start.  Add Fitzgerald, Didion, Capote, Mailer, Updike, Chekov. 

You are not training to be a professional writer. But you are in training to be a star in your career.  Great writing will hoist (can you see yourself being hoisted?) your career.

Pearl 3- Employ serious, real etiquette.  No phony, artificial or stilted mannerisms. For example, whenever someone helps you with no strings attached, handwrite a personal letter of thanks.  Do not send an impersonal email or text the first time someone lends a helping hand. Invest in your own personal letterhead with a watermark on the paper. Or have printed up a small, engraved,  stationery card, with matching envelopes (with a liner) and buy artistic stamps.

After every face-to-face visitor interview, write a short personal note within 24 hours of the meeting to say thank you. Since no one does this anymore, you will stand out and kill the competition. If your handwriting is as awful as mine, type a personal note on your own letterhead or card, sign it and mail it. 

Moving on with etiquette, stop immediately (uh oh, a dreaded adverb) using the phrase “excuse me” with the smart aleck inflection. If it doesn’t make your teeth ache, it will for the person hearing it.

Be kind to people. “Please” and “thank you” are buried hidden treasures that can work every time.

Remember, you are building a brand of yourself.  Two important elements of your personality should be responsibility and accountability.  Be a stand-up person. Don’t lie. (For proof of terrible results, see Yahoo: attention Scott Thompson.) Admit mistakes. Be honest. You can create a unique person called you.

Graduation is a start, not an end in itself.  As Steve Jobs mentioned, he started over many times but persevered and kept at what he truly loved to do. 

Good luck and God bless you.   

GENE PEPPER is a published author and writer. Contact him by email at gpep@aol.com or phone (818) 790-1990.

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