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My first commencement speech

It’s graduation time around the country and many of us are not able to witness that enormous rite of passage—walking across the stage in front of a celebratory crowd to shake hands and receive a diploma in front of family and friends. Whether it’s graduation from middle school, high school or college, it is heartbreaking to some people and families to miss out on the traditional life cycle event.

In contrast, we’ve all seen the “drive by” birthday or special celebrations, where friends and families cruise by the home of the birthday celebrant with posters, honking horns and lots of waves and blowing kisses.

But a college graduation is a really big deal, especially when someone goes back to school to get an advanced degree.

So you can imagine my surprise and delight when I received an email a few weeks ago from my industry friend, Kevin Coupe who is a well-known thought leader in the supermarket and food business at the Morning News Beat. (I had been a guest speaker at a summertime Marketing Business Class he teaches at Portland State University in Oregon a few years ago, and after class we went to dinner. His wife Laura and daughter Allison joined us—we had a fabulous conversation—and Allison and I felt an instant connection. She and I have stayed in touch the last few years via email.)

So, on Saturday, Allison Joan is supposed to graduate with her masters in special education. But, of course, because of the pandemic, she won’t have a graduation ceremony (which she was looking forward to because she has a 4.0 GPA), so we’re just going to celebrate at home.

So, I have a favor to ask.  Would you record a 2-3 minute video commencement address for her that I could play when we’re having dinner on Saturday night? Just words of wisdom … or whatever you want to tell her. I guess what I am hoping for is some advice for going forward … the stuff that I could tell her that she’d never pay attention to because I’m her father. The stuff you’ve learned in your life and career that you’d want someone to tell your daughters.

Thanks… I appreciate it.”  

The first thing that I noticed were the words “commencement address.” My heart skipped a beat, as giving a college commencement address has been on my bucket list for almost 10 years! But this wasn’t the type of commencement address I had in mind when I added it to my list. Of course, I replied immediately and told Kevin “yes.” And then I started thinking: what kind of “stuff” had I learned in my life and career that I would want to share with a recent grad?

I made a few notes, then on a Friday morning, while I was working from my home office, I recorded it on my iPhone. As my mom would always say, “Technology is just amazing!” I had watched Kevin’s recordings for many months, and my partner Jack had just done a “happy birthday” message for one of his nieces. I watched how they looked into the camera, how they both made their recordings seem folksy and human, and then, I just did it. No makeup, no special lighting, I was just real and I spoke from my heart.

When I was done, I watched it and then emailed it to Kevin. I heard he received it, but that was it.

Until yesterday’s mail arrived. A handwritten card from Allison:

“Dear Karen,

Words cannot express how touched I was at your contribution to my commencement video. Your words brought tears to my eyes, and it was amazing how appropriate they were—far more than any regular commencement speech could’ve been. I feel like you laid out the challenges and opportunities I will have really well—I’ve spent today making a list of the things I want to accomplish and how to make the days ahead of me my best ones—cause they will be! And I loved the reminder that it’s okay to ask for help and to use my connections to help with success.

 The greatest thing is I get to keep the video on my laptop so in moments when I need a little inspiration or encouragement, I’ll be able to turn to you again (and I hope I can reach out in person as well … ).  I hope to have dinner again soon! Thank you again! 

 Sincerely, Allison

P.S. Your shirt is the coolest shirt ever!”

Well, talk about making a difference in someone’s life! Check, check, check! I got the chills.

Perhaps there is a lesson here.  Maybe one of the gifts of the pandemic is that instead of “being a number” at a graduation, or having to listen to someone you don’t know or have a connection to, there is now an opportunity to make your graduation more personal and full of meaning. Is there a special person in your life who is celebrating a momentous occasion? Don’t be afraid to record a personal message.

A couple of hints that gave me peace of mind in doing this:

  1. In advance, outline the three or four points you want to make (that way you are not rambling or running out of things to say).
  2. Look directly at the camera on your mobile phone—it makes the recipient feel as if you are talking directly to them.
  3. Make it personal. Come up with one or two specific memories that you can mention. This will make the recipient feel like this is a personal message to them.
  4. It’s okay to be a little scrappy when you are doing it—it makes you seem more approachable and is easier than getting all dressed up and being worried about the background, tripping over a word, etc.
  5. Do at least one run-through. I recommend you record it, so you can play it back and see the angle of the camera, how your hair looks and to make sure you’re not doing any weird motions.

If you’d like to see my “First Commencement Address”— here it is!


Onward and upward!


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