Memorable Graduation Speech Themes

Use a Quote to Focus Your Graduation Message

Graduation speeches should center on a theme that the audience and graduates will remember.
Make the graduation memorable by delivering a great graduation speech. GETTY/: Frank Whitney

Imagine that it is graduation night and that every seat in the auditorium is taken. The eyes of family, friends, and fellow graduates are on you. They are waiting for your speech. So, what message do you want to share?

If you have been selected to give the graduation speech, you must consider three things: your task, your purpose, and your audience.


You must know the requirements and the setting in which you will be giving the speech. Be prepared to ask the following questions so you can determine how you will best complete the task:

  • What is the deadline for providing that speech?
  • How much time will you be given to speak at graduation? 
  • Where will you be speaking? 
  • Will a school administrator review your speech? 
  • Will you be able to practice in this setting beforehand?
  • When will you speak in the program?
  • Will there be anyone in the audience that you need to acknowledge?
  • Do you introduce someone after you complete your speech?

Be sure to practice your speech. Speak slowly. Use notecards. Put an extra copy of the speech within reach, just in case.


A theme is your message to the audience, and your message should have a central unifying idea. You may use support for your theme. These may include anecdotes or quotes from famous people. You may include quotes from teachers or students. You may include song lyrics or lines from movies that have some special connection to the graduating class.

You could decide, for example, to use a quote to speak about setting goals or taking responsibility, two possible themes that you might consider. Regardless of your choice, you must settle on one theme so you can have your audience focus on a single idea. 


Each member of the audience at the graduation is there for one member of the graduating class. While they are waiting before or after the conferring of diplomas, however, you will have an opportunity to bring the audience together in a shared experience. 

The audience will include a wide age range, so consider using cultural references or examples in your speech that are already understood. Include references (to teachers, to events, to disciplines) that can help the audience better understand the academic institution, and avoid references that target a limited few. You may use humor if it is appropriate for all ages.

Above all, be tasteful. Keep in mind that your job in giving the speech is to create a bridge or story arc that connects the graduates with the audience. 

There are some general suggestions for each of the ten themes suggested below.

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The importance of setting goals

Graduate speaking on microphone
Write a graduation speech with a message the audience will remember. Inti St. Clair/ Photodisc/ Getty Images

Setting goals can be the key to future success for graduates. Ideas for framing this speech could include inspirational stories of individuals who set and then achieved their high goals. For example, you might want to review some quotes by famous sports people, Muhammed Ali and Michael Phelps, who talk about how they set their goals: 

"What keeps me going is goals." -Muhammed Ali

"I think goals should never be easy, they should force you to work, even if they are uncomfortable at the time."
-Michael Phelps

One way to conclude a speech about goals is to remind the audience that goal setting is not only for special events like graduation, but that goal setting should be ongoing throughout life.

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Take responsibility for your actions

Responsibility is a familiar theme for speeches. The usual approach is to state how important it is to accept responsibility for actions without lecturing.

A different take, however, is that while it may not be difficult to take responsibility for your successes, there is something to be gained in taking responsibility for your failures. Blaming others for personal mistakes is not an option. Ultimately, failures can provide you the ability to learn and grow from your mistakes.

You may also use quotes to help to expand the importance of taking responsibility, such as those offered by two political icons, Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt:

"You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today."
-Abraham Lincoln

"One's philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes... and the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility."
-Eleanor Roosevelt

For those who want to import a more cautionary message, they may want to use a quote by Malcolm Forbes, a businessman:

"Those who enjoy responsibility usually get it; those who merely like exercising authority usually lose it."
-Malcolm Forbes

The conclusion of the speech can remind the audience that accepting responsibility can also lead to a strong work ethic and a drive to succeed. 

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Using mistakes to build a future

Talking about the mistakes of famous people can be quite enlightening and quite fun. There are some statements by Thomas Edison that reveal his attitude towards mistakes:

"Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up."-Thomas Edison

Edison saw mistakes as challenges that forces to make a choice:

  • We can allow mistakes to discourage us
  • We can ignore mistakes completely
  • We can learn from mistakes

Mistakes can also be a way to measure the total of life's experiences. That may mean more mistakes are a sign of many experiences a person has had. The actress Sophia Loren said:

"Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life." -Sophia Loren

A conclusion to the speech can remind the audience that not fearing mistakes but that learning from mistakes can increase a person's ability to deal with future challenges to achieve future success.

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Finding inspiration

A theme of inspiration in a speech might include great stories of everyday people doing amazing things. There may be some recommendations on how to find inspiration through events or places that can lead to inspiration. A source for inspirational quotes may come from artists who can articulate what inspires their creativity. 

You could use quotes from two very different kinds of artists, Pablo Picasso and Sean "Puffy" Combs, that could be used to inspire people:

"Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working."
-Pablo Picasso

"I want to have a cultural impact. I want to be an inspiration, to show people what can be done."
-Sean Combs

You may encourage your audience to identify their inspiration at the beginning of the speech or the end by using synonyms for the word "inspire" and by posing the questions:

  • What encourages you?
  • What influences you?
  • What motivates you?
  • What provokes you?
  • What sparks you?
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Never give up

Graduation may seem like a strange time to use a quote stated under the desperate circumstances of the Blitz during World War II.  Winston Churchill's famous response to the attempted destruction of the City of London was a speech delivered on  October 29, 1941, at the Harrow School in which he declared: 

"Never give in, never give in, never, never, never - in nothing, great or small, large or petty - never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."-Winston Churchill

Churchill claimed that those who achieve in life are those who do not stop in the face of obstacles.

That quality is perseverance which means not giving up. It is persistence and tenacity, the effort required to do something and keep doing it until the end, even if it is hard.

"Success is the result of perfection, hard work, learning from failure, loyalty and persistence." -Colin Powell

The conclusion of your speech can remind the audience that obstacles, both large and small, will come to life. Instead of seeing obstacles as insurmountable, consider them as opportunities to do what is right. That is what Churchill did so eloquently.

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Creating a personal code

With this theme, you may ask your audience to dedicate time to thinking about who they are and how they have formed their standards. You might model this time by having the audience take a brief moment to consider your request.

This kind of reflective practice helps us to create the lives we want instead of reacting to events to form who we are. 

Perhaps the best way to share this theme is by including a quote attributed to Socrates:

"The unexamined life is not worth living."

You may provide the audience with some reflective questions they might ask themselves in your conclusion, such as:

  • How do I show respect for others?
  • How do I show compassion for others?
  • How do I meet my responsibilities?
  • How do I maintain my integrity?
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The Golden Rule (do unto others...)

This theme draws on the guiding principle taught to us as small children. This principle is known as The Golden Rule:

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The term "Golden Rule" began to be used widely in the 1600s, but despite its age, the term is understood by the audience.

This theme is ideal for a brief story or several short anecdotes that include teachers, coaches, or fellow students as an illustration of this principle. 

The Golden Rule is so well established, that the poet Edwin Markham suggested while we know it, we would be better to live it:

"We have committed the Golden Rule to memory; let us now commit it to life.​"- Edwin Markham

 A speech that uses this theme suggests the importance of empathy, the ability to understand the feelings of another, in making future decisions.

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The past shapes us

Everyone in the audience has been shaped by the past. There will be audience members in attendance who have memories, some wonderful and some terrible. Learning from the past is essential, and a speech that employs this theme may use the past as a way for graduates to apply past lessons to inform or predict the future.

"I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past."

Encourage graduates to use their past experiences as a starting place. As Shakespeare penned in The Tempest: 

"Past is prologue." (II.ii.253)

For graduates, the ceremony will soon be over, and the real world is just beginning.

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 As part of this speech, you could highlight why the concept of focus is both old and new. 

The Greek philosopher Aristotle is credited with stating:

"It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light."-Aristotle

About 2,000 years later, Apple CEO Tim Cook said:

"You can focus on things that are barriers or you can focus on scaling the wall or redefining the problem."-Tim Cook

You might remind the audience that focus removes the distractions associated with stress. Practicing the ability to focus allows for clear thinking which is critical for reasoning, problem-solving, and decision making. 

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Setting high expectations

Setting high expectations means establishing a path to success. The suggested indicators for high expectations to share with the audience are stretching beyond a comfort zone or being unwilling to settle for something less than you want.

In the speech, you might point out that surrounding yourself with others who also share high expectations can be motivating.

A quote by Mother Teresa can help with this theme:

"Reach high, for stars lie hidden in your soul. Dream deep, for every dream precedes the goal."-Mother Teresa

The conclusion to this speech might encourage the audience to decide what they think they can achieve. Then, you might challenge them to consider how they could go one step further in setting a high expectation.