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13 Apr 2017
My journey to writing a valedictorian speech

This year, I applied to be the valedictorian1 of University of Waterloo’s Mathematics Class of 2017 (afternoon session). The process of considering applying, actually applying, doing research for the speech, writing the speech and preparing the delivery was super fun and I got tons of takeaways from it. I didn’t get selected for it unfortunately, but my test audiences liked it enough that I figured I should recycle it into a blog post.

So here is the script, exactly in the format that I used while presenting it. The annotations represent various reminders: emphasis points, pause points, smile points and stressed syllables reminders.

  • Mr. Chancellor, members of Convocation, ⎮⎮ professors, friends and family ⎮⎮ and of course, fellow graduates: thank you all, for being here today.
  • One great 😃 thing about Waterloo is the opportunities to meet amazing people, both within and outside of school.
    • Here is one of my stories. During an internship, I met a fascinating manager.
      • He was important at the company. Funny and charismatic, brainy yet altruistic. ⎮⎮ Someone who made it in life. ⎮⎮ All of us interns looked up to him and we asked him, how can we get from where we are, to where you are?
      • He said: I could look back and tell a story. It would sound like there was a nice series of steps that lead to my success.
      • But in reality, my career was a complete accident.
      • I got promoted because I was at the right place at the right time.
      • I got my social skills from acting a medieval knight in a renaissance fair.
      • I met my wife when I was trying to hit on ⎮⎮ her roommate.
      • But those things only happened because I was getting myself involved, that I was putting myself out there.
    • He wanted to say that he got lucky, but he wanted to tell us that luck 😃 , paradoxically, is something that is under our control.
    • That success is not about following a predefined path, but placing yourself 😃 in a position to be able to take advantage of opportunities, as you will never know when they come.
  • My fellow graduates. You have all found your own path. A path that brought you to this day.
    • You have been working hard. When I sat with you just a moment ago, I never knew I could be so proud of, … … well… …. …sitting.
      • It was a nice chair.
    • And you too should be proud! ⎮⎮ The diploma you are getting today may just be a piece of paper, but your experience is unique and invaluable. ⎮⎮
    • The journey had rough times.
      • We all had busy weeks with just one assignment too much.
      • We also had moments of delights 😃 .
        • Like when the path from DC to MC was finally paved.
      • And more good things will await. Let us be future-orieented.
      • As rich as these last few years have been to us, they are only the first in what I hope will be decades of a fruitful career, and a rewarding life.
  • This is not the end. It’s the beginning 😃 . The beginning of you becoming a person you haven’t even imagined yet. The beginning of you changing the world. Hopefully for the better.
    • It starts with the things we have learned.
    • I would like to share with you a lesson that marked me in first year, from Professor Prabhakar.
    • As graduates of Waterloo, we start life in a remarkable position. We can be leaders in our fields. We will have the power to have our opinions heard and to influence others.
      • But ⎮⎮ power alone is cold.
      • 😃 Our next step is to balance it with warmth for others. It’s when you balance power and warmth, that you can be charismatic. It’s when you combine power and warmth, that you will truly have impact.
      • Personally, for all my technical knowledge, it’s by wanting to help that I got confidence, that I got my name out there, and that I got lucky enough to be in front of you today.
  • And I would like to finish off with a quote.
    • I’ve come across many quotes over the years. I chose this one not because some famous person said it and it sounded nice.
    • But, ⎮⎮ because this quote has, in my time here, come up over and over and over and has always been relevant.
      • It’s by Dale Carnegie: “Interested people are interesting.” ⎮⎮ eye contact ⎮⎮
      • It says that being an interesting person is not innate in who you are, but about what you do.
        • Being interested in others, makes you warm. Being interested is having a passion and doing unusual things that make people want to learn more about you.
        • For a math student, unusual could be something like doing improv. And anyone can sign up for an improv class.
      • Once people find you interesting, opportunities will keep coming your way.
      • Take a well-deserved break now, ⎮⎮ you just climbed over a mountain.
      • Enjoy your new life. I won’t wish you luck, because I know that if you put yourself out there, you willll get lucky.

It was great to work with Christina Tan from EloquentSpeaking, who was an amazing coach helping me perfect the delivery. The annotation were from working with her. Preparing the speech was also a great way to wrap up a term where I took a drama and a public speaking class2, whose professors I need to thank for letting me present the speech during class. Christina also gave me time to present at Learning Night. And of course, it was great receiving feedback from the ~70 people who had to hear much rougher versions of this speech.

Work-through of the design of the speech

In the remainder of this blog post, I’ll share what thought processes lead me to designing the speech the way I did.

If you ever apply for valedictorian in the future (and I recommend you do for the experience!), this could save you a bit of work, since I did a fair bit of research to decide what to write. Of course, don’t take any of this as advice. In fact, you might want to do the opposite, I didn’t get selected after all ;). But I’m hoping that whether you end up agreeing or disagreeing with the choices I made, reasoning through it can help you. There’s plenty of generic speech writing advice out there. This is a concrete work-through.

Mr. Chancellor, members of Convocation, professors, friends and family and of course, fellow graduates: thank you all, for being here today.

This is the customary way to start a valedictorian speech, with some minor variations (e.g. ladies and gentlemen). This is a requirement, so there’s not much decision-making involved in the first sentence.

Note that in most situations, you should never start a speech with a sentence that doesn’t say anything. One of the points that was most emphasized in our public speaking class was “start with a strong, attention-grabbing intro”. People will like you as long as the content is interesting. Saying “thank you”s as you walk up the stage is fine, but this particular sentence is too officially-worded to be said casually.

One great thing about Waterloo is the opportunities to meet amazing people, both within and outside of school.

This is to lead into the introduction which is a story. Stories typically make strong introductions. Humans are naturally wired to like stories. Stories allow the audience to relate to the speaker and understand their words as coming from personal experience.

My story resulted from Waterloo co-op, but it happened outside of Waterloo. It’s rather long (longer than a minute) so it’d be weird to start telling the story directly without mentioning Waterloo.

Here is one of my stories. During an internship, I met a fascinating manager. He was important at the company.

Whether to mention the company by name was a contentious issue and I’ve heard a lot of differing opinions. On one hand I don’t want to be name-dropping and focus attention on a particular company. On the other hand it helps with credibility. I tentatively opted against it because they are only well-known within certain circles, but I was planning to consult with the committee on this issue if I had gotten selected.

Funny and charismatic, brainy yet altruistic. Someone who made it in life. All of us interns looked up to him and we asked him, how can we get from where we are, to where you are?

Said person was very influential to us interns and one of the amazing things was that, despite being in a high position of power within the company, he took a lot of time out for us, even if we just wanted to talk about life. I’m trying to convey that here.

He said: I could look back and tell a story. It would sound like there was a nice series of steps that lead to my success. But in reality, my career was a complete accident.

This is approximately how I remember it. I wanted “a complete fucking accident” but it might have been inappropriate for convocation.

I got promoted because I was at the right place at the right time. I got my social skills from acting a medieval knight in a renaissance fair. I met my wife when I was trying to hit on her roommate.

Here I’m listing concrete examples. Without them, it wouldn’t be a story, just a disguised quote.

The third point is something he actually said, and also works well as a joke.

On the topic of jokes, most valedictorians try to insert a few into their speeches. Some jokes succeed, some fall flat. Of all the speeches I watched, most jokes that fail do so for the same reason: they don’t built up to the joke. The punchline is usually at the twist of a joke, a comment that goes against what the audience had anticipated. A punchline alone usually isn’t a joke. Furthermore, delivery is also important in the build-up. In my presentation, there is a slight pause: “hit on … her roommate”.

Example of a joke that didn’t work: “journey back with me to first year algebraaa…don’t worry it’ll be painless I promise”. The punchline is too predictable, and I can’t come up with a variation that doesn’t sound apologetic. If the joke feels like it’s something the speaker needs to say, it’s going to be less funny.

Another important point about jokes is that nobody really understands how jokes work. As far as I’m aware, there’s no “funniness algorithm”. Even professional stand-up comedians come up with their sketches after testing out hundreds of variations of their jokes with smaller audiences. I had to adjust my delivery with a few tries to get that laugh.

But those things only happened because I was getting myself involved, that I was putting myself out there.

Here, I’m summarizing the rest of the story. It would otherwise get too long.

I also initially made the mistake of leaving out this sentence, which made gave the impression that the story had no point.

He wanted to say that he got lucky, but he wanted to tell us that luck, paradoxically, is something that is under our control. That success is not about following a predefined path, but placing yourself in a position to be able to take advantage of opportunities, as you will never know when they come.

Here, I am making the point explicit and setting the tone of the rest of the speech: “luck”, “putting yourself out there” and “taking opportunities”. No matter how interesting an intro is, its purpose is to introduce something, after all!

Now the more interesting question is, why did I pick this as a theme?

First of all, valedictorian speeches do not need to have a central point, a main takeaway. They can spend all five minutes reminiscing about the past. However, I wanted to optimize for memorability. I wanted to use the occasion to try to have a little bit of impact, and reasoned it wouldn’t have much of an impact if people didn’t remember something about the speech. I quickly learned that this was easier said than done. One thing that struck me was that after watching past speeches, I couldn’t remember anything useful from any of them. Except the one that was a poem, that one was cool.

The theme has to be positive, since this is convocation. It should also be reasonably realistic. By the time of graduation, we’re past the point where anybody seriously believes grandiose but vague claims like “you’re all brilliant”. I do believe there’s lots of hope for everybody and that’s a theme of my speech, but people have learned to recognize platitudes by now and not take them seriously.

There are a lot of common themes for these sorts of speeches. Hard work is typical, and I do have material to share on the subject. It’s true that it’s important but it gets repeated so much nowadays in advice blog posts, speeches, etc, that people have been desensitized to it. It’s also a little out of touch - by the time of graduation, most of us have seen people succeed by virtue of privileges or natural talent. Hard work is a necessary component, but speeches about hard work tend to make it sound like it’s all there is.

Gratitude is another common theme, but I didn’t feel like it would work very well the math (mostly computer science) students of Waterloo, who are more likely to take it as being told what to do. I would rather have a future-oriented speech than a past-oriented speech anyway.

Exploration is also a common theme, but again, not for this audience. Relative to a lot of majors, the job opportunities that come with being a computer science students were fairly predictable (e.g. major tech companies). Most of them have just secured a job and have a predictable career path for at least a few years. It’s not the right speech at this point in time.

Ultimately, I chose luck as a theme because it represents my current progress on answering the question “what career advice can you give me?”. I get asked this all the time in various forms now that I’m a grey-bearded senior student, but I always struggle with it because there’s almost no advice that is not dependent on a lot of context. When people give advice, they rarely state the assumptions behind them. People succeed in wildly different ways: academia, industry, startups, and things completely unrelated to programming.

I talked about this a while back with a friend who also gets asked for advice often and we ended up concluding that the only general thing we can suggest is to be aware of your surroundings, and to be aggressive in taking opportunities.

My fellow graduates. You have all found your own path. A path that brought you to this day.

Here, I am coming back to the audience. I came up with two short sentence about ‘path’ that follow well from the previous sentences (“…not following a predefined path…”) and sound pretty good.

You have been working hard. When I sat with you just a moment ago, I never knew I could be so proud of, … … well… …. …sitting. It was a nice chair. And you too should be proud!

In the actual delivery, I accelerate and increase volume (this is the setting-up of the joke) until I suddenly switch to acting awkward with “sitting”. I’m saying “haha, the proudest moment of our lives so far is us sitting for two hours”.

Convocation is supposed to be a happy moment where graduates reflect proudly on what they have done. I do want the speech to acknowledge that. However, it’s surprisingly hard to do. On average, attempts at this from previous speeches are cringy. Why? Nobody wants to be told to feel an emotion. The speaker should say things that make people feel proud without prescribing it. It’s a basic writing rule, show don’t tell.

You can hype people up if the speaker can get very energetic and passionate while finding the exact right words to say. However, I wasn’t confident in my ability to do that, I’m not that expressive on average.

Instead, I opted to immediately make a joke to show that I’m not taking myself too seriously.

My hypothesis is that a joke eliminates the cringe, which is the main problem. Fundamentally, people agree they should feel proud and do feel proud. The problem is when the speaker prescribes it. To solve this, I create a sudden fluctuation in the amount of seriousness. This makes the speech more dynamic and interesting. It’s also a technique that “fascinating manager” from the previous section was able to do extremely well and it allowed him to talk about heavy topics (like return offers) much more effectively.

The diploma you are getting today may just be a piece of paper, but your experience is unique and invaluable.

This is one of the many passages where I try to say something that is true while also trying to be in touch with the audience by being realistic. Realistic about the fact that yes, a lot of people are just interested in the degree so they can apply for a stuff that requires a piece of paper. On an average day, those are not people I invest a lot of energy on, but for convocation, I really want to reach everyone.

The journey had rough times. We all had busy weeks with just one assignment too much. We also had moments of delights.

Every valedictorian speech talks about happy and sad times. However, most spend at least one of their five minutes on it.

I have mixed feelings about it. It’s very very hard to find common experiences with the huge undergraduate population of Waterloo. Obligatory mentions, based on past speeches, like Bomber Wednesdays, is not something everybody cared about.

It ends up being about the speaker trying to make a series of jokes like the one below, because they tend to be quite relate-able. It’s entertaining, but I don’t think it’s necessary to spend a whole minute on it.

Like when the path from DC to MC was finally paved.

This is delivered much faster for humor purposes.

And more good things will await. Let us be future-oriented. As rich as these last few years have been to us, they are only the first in what I hope will be decades of a fruitful career, and a rewarding life.

I’m quickly setting tone back towards the future. My philosophy is that regardless of what experiences you’ve had in the past, positive or negative, successful or disappointing, the future can be better.

This is not the end. It’s the beginning. The beginning of you becoming a person you haven’t even imagined yet.

A lot of speeches include the end v.s. beginning cliché. It makes sense, it’s true and sounds pretty good. What I’m proud of is my extra touch “a person you haven’t even imagined yet”. It fits well with the theme of luck and unknown opportunities. I also like it because I begin with a cliché, which tend to tune people out very quickly, and surprise with an “ah-ha, did you see this variation coming?”.

The beginning of you changing the world. Hopefully for the better.

This nicely leads into the next section.

It starts with the things we have learned. I would like to share with you a lesson that marked me in first year, from Professor Prabhakar.

Originally, in-between these two sentences, I also had “Our professors taught us valuable lessons”. I took it out because of time reasons, but in the end I was under the time limit. This would be the first thing I would add back. One of the side-goals of this section was to acknowledge our professors by quoting one of them, rather than saying “I would like to thank…”. Again, show don’t tell. But it’s a lot less clear by leaving that sentence out.

I wanted to avoid thanking professors directly. Not that I had bad experiences with them - quite the opposite, I praise Waterloo professors as being very dedicated to teaching and providing a great undergraduate experience.

Rather, one of the very first things I did before writing to speech was to talk to a few and ask them about valedictorian speeches. In particular, I asked about the customary “thank you [group x] for your support” section. The response I unanimously got was something along the lines of “yeah, we like being thanked, but we hear these speeches all the time, we’d rather you say something interesting”. I wanted to give them what they wanted, and that shaped how I approached the writing of the speech.

As graduates of Waterloo, we start life in a remarkable position. We can be leaders in our fields. We will have the power to have our opinions heard and to influence others.

The speech he gave was five years ago so I don’t remember it word-by-word, but he did say something like that. It was to the advanced CS class students, but I think it’s perfectly fair to extend it to Waterloo graduates in relation to the rest of the world.

But power alone is cold. Our next step is to balance it with warmth for others. It’s when you balance power and warmth, that you can be charismatic. It’s when you combine power and warmth, that you will truly have impact.

Here I’m cheating a little. The essence of the lesson is there, but I adapted the specifics of the lessons to something that would work better for convocation. The actual speech he gave in class was about privilege. In particular, being willing to give up a little bit of it to make the world a fairer place for those who have less of it in the environment we’re in. In particular, it was about women in CS.

That speech was the one that got me to care about this topic, to educate myself, and to pay attention. It’s still a very important issue for me to this day. However, there’s no way I could do it justice by sliding in a few sentences. If I did, it would seem out of place and political. Even when I just tried to talk about privilege, I couldn’t get this section to work, so I rewrote it entirely to talk about power + warmth. That worked better, my test audience understood the message.

Personally, for all my technical knowledge, it’s by wanting to help that I got confidence, that I got my name out there, and that I got lucky enough to be in front of you today.

This is to conclude the section about power & warmth, while tying it to the rest of the speech. I explain how it relates to me personally, and how it relates to the main theme, luck.

That being said, I’ve received comments that the speech in general has structural issues. The main point can be felt, but is not verbalized clearly. The power & warmth section is the biggest offender as coming out of nowhere, and I was intending to revisit it again, possibly removing it entirely.

And I would like to finish off with a quote. I’ve come across many quotes over the years. I chose this one not because some famous person said it and it sounded nice. But, because this quote has, in my time here, come up over and over and over and has always been relevant.

Quotes are nice. They’re basically a selection of the nicest-sounding sentences people have come up with in human history. People ‘quote’ quotes for a reason.

However, in this modern day and age, we are exposed to inspirational quotes all the time. So quoting a famous figure begs the question: “why this quote, out of all quotes?”.

I think it’s important to communicate the answer to the audience. I want to show that I’m not just being flowerly. I’ve made the effort to try to be aware and inside their heads. I want to answer their question before they ask it. My hope is that, if I succeed, they will pay more attention to what comes next, enough for it to become a flashbulb memory.

It’s by Dale Carnegie: “Interested people are interesting.”

This is by far the quote that comes up the most often in my life. I always come across circumstances that remind me of this quote. I always end up using it in conversations about past events. I always end up using it to explain advice to people I give it to.

It says that being an interesting person is not innate in who you are, but about what you do.

The goal of this sentence is to try to reach everybody.

From past experience, people who’ve already had the life experience supporting this quote tend to be very happy to hear it and go “ahhhh, yes!”. They know it intrinsically, but haven’t heard it said clearly in words before.

Then there’s people who haven’t had those life experiences yet. They don’t think of themselves as interesting people. Given the target audience (math, mostly computer science), there’s a lot of smart but shy or socially withdrawn students in the audience. I’m telling them that their situation can change easily.

Being interested in others, makes you warm.

Making a connection to the previous section about power & warmth. It’s also closer to the meaning of the quote in the original context, which was about being interested in other people, although I like the more general interpretation of being interested in anything.

Being interested is having a passion and doing unusual things that make people want to learn more about you. For a math student, unusual could be something like doing improv. And anyone can sign up for an improv class.

A bit of concreteness from my personal experience. People often look at extroverts with colorful personalities and think “I could never be like that!”. But the world becomes so much more promising once you realize that just signing up, getting your feet wet, is a step few people take. Consequently, just taking the first step gets you 80% of the way there.

Once people find you interesting, opportunities will keep coming your way.

At this point I’m starting to wrap up.

Take a well-deserved break now, you just climbed over a mountain.

Convocation is in the middle of summer break.

Enjoy your new life. I won’t wish you luck, because I know that if you put yourself out there, you willll get lucky.

And here I’m sending people off while repeating the theme of the speech one last time.

What’s not in the speech

There’s a couple of things I omitted in the speech, which were the main reasons that I didn’t get selection.

“We thought your speech was really good and could tell that you had put a lot of thought and effort into preparing it. […] There were a few weaknesses, such as the fact that you didn’t seem to acknowledge your class or that it was convocation or to thank the families/professors for their support.”

Those were voluntary omissions and in the end, I wrote the speech I wanted to write. If I were to do something differently, it would be to write a more compelling speech, one that can overcome that objection. Not cater to it.

If I lay it side by side like I am right now, I sound ungrateful for omitting the thank yous. However, during the actual ceremony, nobody does the side by side comparison. Not if the speech is interesting and gets people to hold their breadth.

I already explained why I didn’t want to thank the professors directly. I didn’t address convocation very directly for the same reason. I thought the best way to respect the audience was to write something worth their time, and to use subtle cues to signal that I’ve considered their worth as human beings (e.g. not telling them how to feel).

Families was a tricky one. I had good familial conditions growing up. I, erm, “chose” very good parents. However, that can’t be said of everybody. There has been a lot of discussions of mental health issues this term and a common theme is parents who put too much pressure on their children, forcing them into suboptimal choices, both for their career and health. I suspect that it is particularly common at Waterloo due to the large immigrant population. And for families that don’t have this problem, it comes back to “do they really need me to tell them to be grateful?”. As such, thanking the parents for their support seemed like overreaching. My final deciding factor was that nobody comes to convocation waiting the valedictorian to thank them.

That being said, the committee has a point. As one of my professors eloquently puts it:

It was too bad that you were not chosen. I do understand that some people find it important to thank families, etc. It is really a matter of taste. As noted in your email and speech, the important part is the journey. Glad that you enjoyed the process.

So if you’re reading this and considering applying for valedictorian, you probably don’t want to do what I did, throwing away the valedictorian speech template entirely ;). In the end, what I did was writing a 5 minute commencement speech 3, not a valedictorian speech.

But enjoyed the process, I certainly did.

Thanks to Christina Tan, David Choi, Hang Lu Su, Shirley Du, and many others for reviewing and their help!


  1. At Waterloo, the valedictorian is a position you apply for. There are some grade requirements and the applicants needs to demonstrate that they are fit to represent the graduating class (campus involvement, etc), but the selection is mostly based on the speech. 

  2. DRAMA 102: Introduction to Performance and SPCOM 223: Public Speaking 

  3. They are so much more interesting. 

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