Manner of Speaking

Analysis of a Speech by Conan O’Brien

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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.

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.

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