Celebrities: They’re one of us! How the year’s best commencement speakers made themselves relatable to graduates

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Written by

Alexa Harrison

It’s that time of the year again: commencement season. Across the globe, crowds of students and their loved ones gather to watch the distribution of diplomas and listen to congratulatory words delivered by administrators, faculty members, and celebrity commencement speakers alike.

There’s no doubt celebrity commencement speakers are one of the most beloved graduation ceremony traditions. And while celebrities certainly have inspirational tales to share, they also face a particular challenge: how do they (famous, successful figures) get their words to resonate with fresh-faced, green graduates, who have yet to have any experience real-world challenges or wins?

The secret to building trust that most commencement speakers used was to forge common ground with listeners. The most poignant celebrity commencement speakers of the year dedicated time in their speeches to deliberately create a connection with the audience of grads, which in turn, made their words seem more relevant and ultimately worth taking to heart.

In a recent Forbes article, Dean Brenner, Senior Vice President at Qualcomm, explains why this works:

“Knowing your audience and demonstrating that knowledge is one of the most effective ways to connect with and persuade them. Taking the time and care to consider their situation, analyze their needs and confront their particular problems not only shows that you are thoughtful, thorough and well-prepared, but also that you respect their time, their process and their context. Respect given almost always becomes respect earned, and the respected speaker more often than not is a successful one.”

To understand how 2019’s best commencement speakers managed to create feelings of connection with graduates and the tools they used to make themselves seem relatable and trustworthy, take a look at three of the year’s most popular speeches.

Kristen Bell, University of Southern California School of Dramatic Arts


On May 3, 2019, actress Kristen Bell gave the commencement speech at University of Southern California (USC) School of Dramatic Arts. Bell is a highly successful actress with a roster of hits like the television series Veronica Mars and the animated hit movie Frozen. Bell’s status as a Hollywood celebrity is a stark contrast to that of the people in her audience: drama students who want to pursue a career in the arts. Deftly, though, Bell used her speech to make herself seem not like a movie star, but a relatable, fellow arts-lover by incorporating a slew of relevant and entertaining pop culture references throughout her talk.

Bell opened her speech with a pop culture allusion: her own movie Frozen.  She referred to herself as a “Disney Princess,” then promised to keep the references from her hit song “Let it Go” to a minimum. Then, Bell continuously peppered pop culture references into her words of wisdom; she mentioned her famous actor husband Dax Shepherd, Aunt Becky from Full House, Beyoncé, and several characters from Game of Thrones. Bell deployed a technique that we tend to pin on “cool” adults trying to connect with younger people around them: she showed she was knowledgeable about current trends and up-to-speed with what matters in pop culture, and in turn painted herself as someone who understood USC grads’ interests and values, and therefore, had pertinent advice.

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Jennifer Garner, Denison University


This year, Jennifer Garner spoke at her own alma mater, Denison University. Garner’s direct link to the school made it easy for her to create common ground with her audience: she had actually shared their very same experience of sitting in those graduation seats, 25 years earlier.

To make that connection clear, Garner included many “inside jokes” and school-specific terms in her talk. Some of her mentions that got knowing reactions from the audience included: explaining she empathized with their hangovers from “raging” at the Senior Soiree; describing boys she knew from FIJI (a nickname for one of the schools unofficial fraternities, Phi Gamma Delta); and praising a current student occupation of the DCGA, the on-campus student government building.

Denison graduates could feel like they were listening to “one of their own” when Garner spoke, and understand her advice was worth trusting, since it got her from where they were sitting to the place where she is today.


Tim Cook, Tulane University


It could have been hard for college graduates to naturally relate to Tim Cook, the CEO of one of the world’s most successful tech companies and an exec whose net worth is somewhere over $625 million. However, Cook was able to increase his relatability factor during Tulane’s commencement ceremony by talking about his Southern upbringing and values, as well as the time he had previously spent in New Orleans because he had previously lived close to it.

Cook grew up in Robertsdale, Alabama, a Southern town on the Gulf Coast just two hours away from New Orleans. Because he was raised in a community so similar to the one Tulane is in, he could clearly convey to grads that he shared and appreciated their values, helping his message resonate.

Cook opened talking about specific spots and experiences in New Orleans to display his knowledge of the area. He mentioned the popular local bar The Boot, and described his favorite local snack: beignets and beer. He also described that he shared a common understanding of what really matters in life with his New Orleans audience: community, caring for other people, and working with others rather than working alone.

He opined, “Maybe I’m biased, but I’ve always thought the South, and the Gulf Coast in particular, have hung on to this wisdom better than most. In this part of the country, your neighbors check up on you if they haven’t heard from you in a while.  Good news travels fast because your victories are their victories too. And you can’t make it through someone’s front door before they offer you a home-cooked meal.”

By vividly and wistfully describing the Southern principles he shared with his audience, Cook was able to make plain that he and his listeners had shared values. This boosted the trustworthiness of his message, since they knew it came from a source that cared about the same things as they did, and painted it as one worth considering.

A celebrity commencement address isn’t just an opportunity for a school to hire a famous person to entertain graduates and their families. It’s also an opportunity to have a successful figure deliver inspirational words to a group of students leaving the safety net of school and entering the real world. In order to make their advice seem relevant and useful, the best commencement speakers spend time creating common ground with their audience. By employing techniques to show grads that they share and understand their values and experiences, speakers can make their messages resonate and drive home the power of the lessons they have to offer.

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