On 12 June 2011, Conan O’Brien delivered the commencement address to the 2011 graduating class of Dartmouth College. In cold, windy weather, he took the stage and wowed a crowd of thousands 24 minutes. Conan’s jokes, one-liners and funny anecdotes elicited a steady stream of laughter and applause. But then the direction of the speech changed, and he spoke openly and poignantly about his recent setback with The Tonight Show. In so doing, he fashioned an important message for the students. Clearly, he put a lot of effort into the speech, and was rewarded with a 30-second standing ovation when it was over.
In some respects, this seems completely natural. Conan is a professional comedian and seasoned talk show host. He should be able to deliver a dynamic and memorable speech. But even a pro can get nervous, particularly when he is performing on unfamiliar ground. Given the occasion, the illustrious backgrounds of the dignitaries with whom he shared the stage and the fact that he was receiving an honorary degree, I’d be willing to bet that Conan had his share of butterflies.
There is a lot that we can learn from this speech. At 24 minutes, it is too long to go through it line by line, but I have noted several things that made it excellent.
- Conan was confident enough to be spontaneous. His opening comments about the cold and how he needed gloves was not in the text of his speech.
- He used self-deprecating humour regularly and to great effect. For example, when acknowledging former President George Bush Sr., “[B]ehind me sits a highly admired President of the United States and decorated war hero while I, a cable television talk show host, have been chosen to stand here and impart wisdom. I pray I never witness a more damning example of what is wrong with America today.” (0:45)
- He poked good-natured fun at the Dean. “He served as the chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, spearheaded a task force for the World Health Organization on Global Health Initiatives, won a MacArthur Genius Grant and was one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2006. Good God, man, what the hell are you compensating for? Seriously. We get it; you’re smart.” (3:30)
- Conan incorporated references to places and things that would resonate with the students at Dartmouth. For example, “In fact, just this morning I left Baker Berry with my Tripee Barry to eat a Billy Bob at the Bema when my flitz to Francesca was Blitz-jacked by some D-bag on his FSP.” (6:00)
- He also had fun with an experience that many university students around the world know only too well. “When I got the call two months ago to be your speaker, I decided to prepare with the same intensity many of you have devoted to an important term paper. So late last night, I began.” (5:10)
- He poked good-natured fun at the school.
- “Your school motto is Vox Clamantis in Deserto, which means ‘Voice Crying Out in the Wilderness.’ This is easily the most pathetic school motto I have ever heard. Apparently, it narrowly beat out ‘Silently Weeping in Thick Shrub’ and ‘Wimpering in Moist Leaves without Pants.’ (6:35)
- “Your insecurity is so great, Dartmouth, that you don’t even think you deserve a real podium. What the hell is this thing? It looks like you stole it from the set of Survivor: Nova Scotia. Seriously, it looks like something a bear would use at an AA meeting.” (8:20) [NB – In fact, a podium is the platform on which you stand; a lectern is the furniture on which you place your notes.]
- He had the confidence to pause for extended periods of time, particularly to let the laughter run after his many well-received bits of humour.
- He used rhetorical devices.
- Metaphor: “I went from being in the center of the grid, to not only off the grid, but underneath the coffee table that the grid sits on, lost in the shag carpeting that is underneath the coffee table supporting the grid. It was the making of a career disaster, and a terrible analogy.” (18:05)
- Parenthesis: “To this day I still don’t understand exactly what happened, but I have never had more fun, been more challenged, and—this is important—had more conviction about what I was doing.” (19:20)
- Even though he read from his notes and the two teleprompters, he still made great eye contact with the audience.
- To convey his main message, he told a story.
- He shared some memorable words of wisdom for the students at an important time in their lives.
- “Ultimately, I abandoned all preconceived perceptions of my career path and stature … I did a lot of silly, unconventional, spontaneous and seemingly irrational things and guess what … it was the most satisfying and fascinating year of my professional life.” (18:45)
- “[T]here are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized.” (19:35)
- “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can be a catalyst for profound re-invention.” (21:15)
- “I am here to tell you that whatever you think your dream is now, it will probably change. And that’s okay.” (22:40)
- He looked like he was genuinely enjoying himself.
So, what could Conan have done to make the speech even better? Two suggestions.
First, I would have liked to see him take a little more time with the conclusion. To me, it felt slightly rushed and that’s a shame because a speech that good deserves a fitting conclusion. Here’s what Conan said:
I have told you many things today, most of it foolish but some of it true. I’d like to end my address by breaking a taboo and quoting myself from 17 months ago.
At the end of my final program with NBC, just before signing off, I said ‘Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.’ Today, receiving this honor and speaking to the Dartmouth Class of 2011 from behind a tree-trunk, I have never believed that more. Thank you very much and congratulations.
“Work hard, be kind and amazing things will happen.” is a fabulous line. It would have been worth repeating the words. And it wouldn’t have taken much. For example, the final paragraph above could gone something like this:
At the end of my final program with NBC, just before signing off, I said ‘Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.’ Today, receiving this honor and speaking to the Dartmouth Class of 2011 from behind a tree-trunk, I have never believed that more. I encourage each of you to work hard and be kind, and you’ll see … amazing things will happen to you. Thank you very much and congratulations.
Second, somewhere around the last third of his speech, and undoubtedly because of the wind and the cold, Conan started to sniffle. With the amplification from the microphone, I found it distracting. Speakers should always have Kleenix or a handkerchief handy, especially when speaking outside. There is nothing wrong with stepping back and blowing one’s nose. It’s better than protracted sniffling.
But for me, this was a fantastic speech, full of humour and emotion and wisdom. I don’t know what prompted Dartmouth to choose Conan O’Brien to give the commencement address, but he was a superb choice.
I remember feeling bad for Conan when he left The Tonight Show. (OK, “bad” is a relative term. He got a multimillion dollar payout, so I didn’t feel that bad for him.) Still, I didn’t think that he had been treated fairly. Today, however, I’m glad that it happened because it turned out to be a great opportunity for Conan and, in turn, for us as well.