Analysis of a Speech by Conan O'Brien

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 O’Brien
Conan O’Brien

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 O’Brien 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.

What I liked

  • 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 O’Brien 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.
  • 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.


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 O’Brien 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 O’Brien 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.

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Like this article?

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Linkdin
Share on Pinterest
Picture of mannerofspeaking


  1. Great post, John! A graduation speech is a difficult thing to do. It’s been done so many times already, and often in such boring fashion. Which is why I was so excited to watch Conan nail it a few weeks ago at Dartmouth. I liked your breakdown a lot. I agree, the ending was so simple, but so powerful.

    1. Thanks very much for the comment, Colin. Much appreciated. I read your post and left you a comment. (I also Tweeted it.) People should check out Colin’s post at the link that he provided above.

  2. Hi … found this site on Twitter somehow and like what I’ve read so far. I’m beginning a career as a speaker and writer, so I look forward to learning from this site.
    Loved Conan’s speech … I rarely watch anything twice, but I watched it about 4 times, trying to learn what I could. I like the things you made note of … good stuff to learn.
    I also thought the end seemed slightly rushed and he should have repeated “Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.”

    1. Hi Janet. Thanks very much for the comment. Glad that you enjoyed the post on Conan O’Brien. I find that the more I watch a speech, the more things I pick up; the only problem is trying to find the time! I wish you the best of luck with your speaking career and look forward to having you visit the blog in the future.

  3. Thank you for posting this. We watched it in my Public Speaking class, and the students really enjoyed it.

  4. Hi, I’m a student and this was helpful cause I wanted to learn and analyze this speech but didn’t know how so this was great!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

2 × 4 =


John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

Karsta Goetze

TA Leader, Gore and Associates

I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

Andy Yen

CEO, Proton Technologies

John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

David Lindelöf

Senior Data Scientist, Expedia Group

After a morning of team building activities using improvisation as the conduit, John came on stage to close the staff event which was organised in Chamonix, France. His energy and presence were immediately felt by all the members of staff. The work put into the preparation of his speech was evident and by sharing some his own stories, he was able to conduct a closing inspirational speech which was relevant, powerful and impactful for all at IRU. The whole team left feeling engaged and motivated to tackle the 2019 objectives ahead. Thank you, John.

Umberto de Pretto

Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

Thuy Khoc-Bilon

World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

Sara Canna

HR Specialist, World Health Organization

John is a genuine communication innovator. His seminars on gamification of public speaking learning and his interactive Rhetoric game at our conference set the tone for change and improvement in our organisation. The quality of his input, the impact he made with his audience and his effortlessly engaging style made it easy to get on board with his core messages and won over some delegates who were extremely skeptical as to the efficacy of games for learning. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.

Thomas Scott

National Education Director, Association of Speakers Clubs UK

John joined our Global Sales Meeting in Segovia, Spain and we all participated in his "Improv(e) your Work!" session. I say “all” because it really was all interactive, participatory, learning and enjoyable. The session surprised everybody and was a fresh-air activity that brought a lot of self-reflection and insights to improve trust and confidence in each other inside our team. It´s all about communication and a good manner of speaking!"

Jon Lopez

General Manager Europe, Hayward Industries

Thank you very much for the excellent presentation skills session. The feedback I received was very positive. Everyone enjoyed the good mix of listening to your speech, co-developing a concrete take-away and the personal learning experience. We all feel more devoted to the task ahead, more able to succeed and an elevated team spirit. Delivering this in a short time, both in session and in preparation, is outstanding!

Henning Dehler

CFO European Dairy Supply Chain & Operations, Danone

Thanks to John’s excellent workshop, I have learned many important tips and techniques to become an effective public speaker. John is a fantastic speaker and teacher, with extensive knowledge of the field. His workshop was a great experience and has proven extremely useful for me in my professional and personal life.

Eric Thuillard

Senior Sales Manager, Sunrise Communications

John’s presentation skills training was a terrific investment of my time. I increased my skills in this important area and feel more comfortable when speaking to an audience. John provided the right mix between theory and practice.

Diego Brait

Director of the Jura Region, BKW Energie AG

Be BOLD. Those two words got stuck in my head and in the heads of all those ADP leaders and associates that had the privilege to see John on stage. He was our keynote speaker at our annual convention in Barcelona, and his message still remains! John puts his heart in every word. Few speakers are so credible, humble and yet super strong with large audiences!

Guadalupe Garcia

Senior Director and Talent Partner, ADP International