I was recently asked to edit a selection of speeches to be given by students at their graduation ceremonies.

Back when I graduated, student speeches weren’t included in the ceremonies, but UK universities are increasingly looking to emulate the popular commencement addresses given in the US.

For most of the students whose speeches I was editing, this was to be their first experience of public speaking. I offered them some tips, which I include below in the hope that they might be useful for other nervous first-timers.


  • Towards the start of your speech, signpost what you will talk about. For example: ‘I’d like to share an anecdote about…’ or ‘I’m reminded today about…’. This will allow the audience to anticipate a moral or message, and should ensure that the speech isn’t just a ramble.


  • Create a narrative thread or story arc, even if very simple. For example, the structure might be as follows: ‘How I felt on arriving at university’ to ‘What I experienced while a student’ to ‘How I am different now’. Stories are always more engaging than lists or scattershot thoughts.


  • Make sure that you practice your speech aloud. Obvious, but often overlooked. 3 minutes should be around 360 words.


  • Write the speech to be spoken. Use short sentences, no long words, steadily paced. Spoken English does not need to be grammatically correct all the time. You might use incomplete sentences here and there for effect. Like this.


  • Be very, very careful if you’re thinking of including anything risky. No mick-taking, even if it’s meant only in jest. If any joke needs a butt, it’s best if the butt is you (see my previous post on self-deprecating humour).


  • Print the speech in a large font on A5 card. This will be easier to handle behind the lectern than A4 paper. If you don’t fasten the cards together with a treasury tag or staple, make sure to number each one.


  • Enjoy it. This is perhaps the most important piece of advice. If you can suppress your nerves enough to smile at the lectern, speak clearly, and take your time, then the audience will be endeared and will warm to you.