Tim Cook: the conventions of the commencement speech are in danger of ossifying into rote gestures

The commencement address has become something of a mini-genre in US oratory. Celebrity writers, statesmen and stateswomen, and superstar CEOs are routinely invited to offer their wisdom to a class of new graduates at a university — and that wisdom travels around the world on YouTube.

The more famous the speaker, the better, and the more cornball the wisdom, cynics might say, the further it travels. Here is something whose conventions marry classical oratory (the affirmation of group identity; the nod to history; the exhortatory vision of the future) with the modern vogue for self-actualisation and positive thinking.

Steve Jobs, David Foster Wallace, Bill Gates and J K Rowling have delivered classics of the genre. Barbara Bush (as I noted here in this column a few weeks ago) made a memorable contribution.

Indeed, the genre is well-enough established that the comic writer Carl Hiaasen has just published a splendidly dyspeptic counterblast in Assume The Worst: The Graduation Speech You Will Never Hear. In the book, Hiaasen cheerily demolishes such “lame platitudes” as “Live each day as if it’s your last” (“terrible advice”) and “If you set your mind to it, you can be anything you want to be” (“total bull***t”).

So it was against a well-established template that Apple’s CEO Tim Cook spoke when he delivered the commencement speech on Sunday at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, where he earned his MBA. And he did not deviate far from it — after all, the man he called his own “friend and mentor” in the speech, Steve Jobs, helped to establish it.

Start with ethos: affirm your own connection with the crowd. Mr Cook spoke, he declared, as “a fellow Duke graduate”. He made a cheerful sporting in-joke, reminiscing about “cheering at Cameron [stadium] for every victory . . . cheering even louder when that victory is over Carolina”.

Make a self-deprecating joke. His elaboration on the cliché of the speaker modestly boasting that he is not very good at public speaking was to mention a recent exchange with his old management communications teacher. Bob Reinheimer “remembered a particularly gifted public speaker who took his class in the 1980s”. Was it him? No, it was Melinda Gates.

Stress the moment in time. It was Mothers’ Day in the US. It was the 50th anniversary to the day of Robert Kennedy’s campaign speech in Nebraska.

Invoke honoured predecessors: Steve Jobs, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King.

Look backwards in congratulation, then forwards:

“Say goodbye to act one of your life. And then quickly look forward. Act two begins today. It’s your turn to reach out and take the baton.”

Use fine, fuzzy-sounding words. We got: passion; vision; challenge; courage; change; path; words echo; transform; empower; aspire; inspire; make a difference; live your life to the fullest; that time is now.

“I’ve learnt the greatest challenge of life is knowing when to break with conventional wisdom,” he affirmed, conventionally.

Use anaphora and tricolon and antithesis:

“Our country is deeply divided . . . our planet is warming . . . our schools and communities suffer from deep inequality…”

“Don’t just accept . . . don’t just accept . . . ”

“We reject . . . we reject . . . ”

“Because they knew . . . because they knew . . . ”

“Duke graduates, you should be the last people to accept it. And you should be the first to change it.”

“Fearless like . . . fearless like . . . fearless like . . . ”

“It’s time . . . it’s time . . . it’s time . . . ”

End by exhorting the next generation to make a better world:

“It’s time for all of us to move forward. And it’s time for you to lead the way.”

Here, in other words, was a commencement speech that was as close to boilerplate as you are likely to find. Where Mr Cook departed ever so slightly from the usual script was that he also used the speech as a marketing opportunity for Apple — dropping in the old slogan “Think Different”, boasting of running the company on “100 per cent renewable energy” and taking a jab at Facebook by sniffing that at Apple “we reject the excuse that getting the most out of technology means trading away your right to privacy”.

Do I sound a little cynical? Perhaps. But to my taste the conventions of the commencement speech are in danger of ossifying into rote gestures. A graduating class well-trained in critical thinking will have sighed its way through these empty bromides.

If you are a CEO invited to give one of these, then, you can write a speech that will pass the sniff-test by sticking rigidly to the rules in the way Mr Cook did. But you will do no more than pass the sniff-test. Dare, as someone said, to think different.

Sam Leith is the author of ‘Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric From Aristotle to Obama’

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