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From Where We Sit

Are commencement speeches and speakers still relevant?

Jessie Carpio


I confess that I do not remember who the commencement speakers were and what the commencement speeches were about when I graduated from elementary, high school and college. Looking back, I was probably busy talking to my seatmates, or daydreaming.

These thoughts crossed my mind when, recently, I was requested to be a commencement speaker at my high school. This being my fourth time to be a commencement speaker, I decided to deliver my main points within the first 15 minutes of my speech. I know that after 15 minutes, most kids from the graduating class are likely to start fidgeting on their seats, and then they get tempted to toy with their cellphones to text, use Facebook or Instagram, or begin talking to their seatmates or daydreaming.

Mulling over the main points I want to deliver, I realized that commencement speeches revolve around similar themes. One common theme is conquering the world and aiming for the best. Speakers invariably encourage the graduates to “Work on your passions,” “Do your best!,” “Work hard and work smart,” and “Shine!” Oftentimes, graduates are reminded to pursue their dreams with passion. They ought to really want it! More so, graduates are challenged to go out and change the world for the better.

Akin to this pursuit of one’s dreams is the development of one’s self. Graduates are urged to continue their learning. This message carries themes such as “Read and develop yourself,” “Look for opportunities to build your professional and personal growth,” “Acquire new skills,” and “Build your network.” Such pieces of advice are given in the premise that the world is dynamic and ever-changing, and that gaining new skills and competencies will make the graduates competitive in the marketplace.


While graduates are encouraged to aim high and continuously develop themselves, speakers also talk nowadays about failures and disappointments, about grit, persistence and perseverance: “Chart your own course” or “Everyone has a personal journey.” Speakers remind the graduates that not everyone will have the same success and that they have their own separate paths. The road to success is not well paved and there are humps, roadblocks and detours; one has to grind it out, persist and persevere.

Having refined these themes, I am thinking: Are commencement speeches still relevant? Are commencement speakers still necessary? The graduating class has likely listened to or read several great commencement speeches on the internet, particularly on YouTube; and they have probably reached the same conclusion as I have.

However, I realized I have a story to tell, my own personal story. I have the graduates’ attention for the first 15 minutes. I have to take advantage of that.

The best commencement speakers are those who speak from the heart, from their own experiences. Lessons are better learned from stories that are shared. My story reflects the themes of hard work, continuous self-development, and rising through failures and perseverance. I have a story that the graduating class can surely relate to. Though generations apart, we were brought up in the same town.

In most instances, those who have not finished school but were hugely successful such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, and even actors like Matt Damon, have tremendous impact as commencement speakers because of their powerful stories. While their stories invariably carry the same themes described earlier, their message oftentimes takes the back seat, as the focus shifts to the speakers who are so inspiring and even idolized by the graduates.

To me, the living inspiration as personified by the speaker is the main reason for the commencement address. The message sometimes becomes secondary. The graduates look up to the speaker for inspiration, digest the speaker’s message and, hopefully, carry one or two significant ideas or insights that they can use in their journey.

Having confessed to failing to listen to commencement speeches and speakers, I must also admit that I once told myself that I wanted to be a commencement speaker one day. Maybe, that’s what I was daydreaming about.

Jessie Carpio is a partner and head of BPS/Outsourcing. He is also the president of P&A Grant Thornton Outsourcing Inc., an entity wholly owned by P&A Grant Thornton. P&A Grant Thornton is one of the leading audit, tax, advisory, and outsourcing firms in the Philippines, with 21 partners and over 900 staff members. We’d like to hear from you! Tweet us: @PAGrantThornton, like us on Facebook: P&A Grant Thornton, and email your comments to or For more information, visit our Website:

As published in The Manila Times, dated 18 April 2018