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The valedictory speech is a staple of graduation ceremonies. It is usually delivered by the valedictorian (the student with the highest grades in the graduating class), although some colleges and high schools have abandoned the practice of naming a valedictorian. The terms "valedictory" and "valedictorian" come from the Latin valedicere, meaning a formal farewell, and this is core to what a valedictory speech should be.
Understand the Goal
The valedictorian speech should fulfill two goals: It should convey a "sending off" message to the members of a graduating class, and it should inspire them to leave school ready to embark on an exciting new adventure. You likely have been chosen to deliver this speech because you've proven you are an excellent student who can live up to adult responsibilities. Now it's time to make every student in your class feel special.
As you prepare your speech, think about your shared experiences with the class and the people with whom you shared them. This should include popular and quiet students, class clowns and brains, teachers, principals, professors, deans, and other school employees. It's important to make everyone feel as if they played an important role in this shared experience.
If you have limited experience in certain aspects of school life, ask for help in collecting important names and events you might not know about. Are there clubs or teams that won prizes? Students who volunteered in the community?
Compile a List of Highlights
Make a list of highlights of your time in school, putting more emphasis on the current year. Start with these brainstorming questions:
- Who received awards or scholarships?
- Were any sports records broken?
- Is a teacher retiring after this year?
- Did your class have a reputation with teachers, good or bad?
- How many students remain from freshman year?
- Was there a dramatic event in the world this year?
- Was there a dramatic event at your school?
- Was there a funny moment everyone enjoyed?
You might need to conduct personal interviews to learn about these benchmarks.
Write the Speech
Valedictory speeches often combine humorous and serious elements. Start by greeting your audience with a "hook" that grabs their attention. For example, you could say, "Senior year has been full of surprises," or "We're leaving the faculty with lots of interesting memories," or "This senior class has set records in some unusual ways."
Organize your speech into topics describing these elements. You might want to start with an event that's on everyone's mind, such as a championship basketball season, a student featured on a television show, or a tragic event in the community. Then focus on the other highlights, putting them into context and explaining their importance. For example:
"This year, Jane Smith won a National Merit Scholarship. This may not seem like a big deal, but Jane overcame a year of illness to achieve this goal. Her strength and perseverance are an inspiration to our whole class."
Use Anecdotes and Quotes
Come up with anecdotes to illustrate your shared experiences. These brief stories can be funny or poignant. You could say, "When the student newspaper printed a story about the family who lost their home to a fire, our classmates rallied and organized a series of fundraisers."
You can sprinkle in quotes from famous people as well. These quotes work best in the introduction or conclusion and should reflect the theme of your speech. For example:
- "The pain of parting is nothing to the joy of meeting again." (Charles Dickens)
- "You will find the key to success under the alarm clock." (Benjamin Franklin)
- "There is only one success: to be able to spend your life in your own way." (Christopher Morley)
Plan for Time
Be mindful of the appropriate length of your speech. Most people speak about 175 words per minute, so a 10-minute speech should contain about 1,750 words. You can fit about 250 words onto a double-spaced page, so that translates to seven pages of double-spaced text for 10 minutes of speaking time.
Tips for Preparing to Speak
It's important to practice your valedictory speech before giving it. This will help you troubleshoot problem spots, cut boring parts, and add elements if you're running short. You should:
- Practice reading your speech aloud to see how it sounds
- Time yourself, but remember you may speak faster when you're nervous
- Focus on remaining calm
- Put aside comedy if it feels unnatural
- Be tactful if broaching a tragic topic you feel needs to be included. Consult a teacher or adviser if you have any doubts.
If possible, practice your speech using the microphone in the location where you'll be graduating-your best chance might be just before the event. This will give you an opportunity to experience the sound of your magnified voice, figure out how to stand, and get past any butterflies in your stomach.