Why Will Ferrell’s USC commencement speech was a grand slam

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Written by

Alexa Harrison

Image source: Gus Ruelas, Variety

Commencement season is upon us. You know what that means. Celebrities, statesmen, and scholars across the world are delivering words of encouragement as graduates cross school stages for diplomas. And we’re watching the videos.

There have been lots of great commencement speeches so far this year. However, there was one speech, in particular, that’s become a sensation: the address given by Will Ferrell at the University of Southern California commencement on May 12, 2017.

Sure, we all agree that Will Ferrell is hilarious. But what is it about his commencement speech that’s caused it to garner more than 1.9 million YouTube views in mere days (and more than 4.4 million over the years since it was given) and get press attention from outlets ranging from TMZ to Time, Maxim to MSNBC.

We analyzed Ferrell’s speech. We found he had shaped his address the way the best communicators do: In a way that would resonate with audience members.

Ferrell wanted his speech both to congratulate and inspire the graduates listening to him. He wanted them to believe in their own ability to build a future like his, despite the fact that they might not know what they want to do right now.

Ferrell’s attempt ended up being a grand-slam. His commencement speech is inarguably inspiring and motivational. It resonated not only with the people in the audience that day, but also a global audience who’s had the chance to take it in via the Internet.

Why was Ferrel’s speech so impactful?

Here’s how Ferrell’s speech smartly uses powerful presentation strategies in order to entertain, grip, persuade, and ultimately make an impact:

He created common ground with his audience

It wasn’t hard for Will Ferrell to find common ground with his listeners. He, too, had graduated from USC in 1990. Ferrell made that known from the get-go, telling his listeners:

“It is incredibly surreal, one might even say unbelievable, that I get to deliver this address to you. As a freshman in the fall of 1986, if you were to come up to me and say that in the year 2017 you, Will Ferrell, will be delivering the commencement address for USC, I would have hugged you with tears in my eyes…”

By telling the graduates that he was also a USC graduate, he made it possible for his audience to relate to and trust him. At Duarte we’ve experienced how much closer you can get to your audience using common ground. You can do it even when you speak to a large audience. In her book on persuasive presentations, Resonate, Nancy Duarte sums up the importance of creating common ground:

Creating common ground with an audience is like clearing a pathway from their heart to yours. By identifying and articulating shared experiences and goals, you build a path of trust so strong that they feel safe crossing to your side.

Will Ferrell’s establishing common ground helped bridge the gap between the incredibly successful celebrity, and the newly graduated students ready to embark on their journey in the adult world.


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He told a story

Storytelling is a powerful tool. Ferrell used it masterfully by making the most of his commencement speech a story about his time at USC. He weaved a tale about how he went to school to get a degree in “Sports Information” – but he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do professionally (maybe, sportscasting?). However, while at USC, he began to develop an interest in comedy when he played a practical joke on an intimidating professor. The professor ended up loving the joke and asking him to do it again. Ferrell explained that his experience at the school sowed the seeds of his desire to entertain. Slowly but surely, he was able to build a career that afforded him success.

When you’re speaking to an audience, using stories is a great way to grip people. You entertain and leave them wanting to know what comes next.

Additionally, storytelling is an incredibly effective way to get people to hop on board with your message. Stories literally physiologically change peoples’ minds. This helps them feel like they can empathize and trust what they are hearing. Jonathan Gottschall, the author of The Storytelling Animal, explains, “When we read dry, factual arguments, we read with our dukes up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally and this seems to leave us defenseless.”

By structuring his speech as a story, Ferrell helped ensure his address wasn’t a snoozer. He also made sure that the graduates were ready to believe his important closing message:

“To those of you graduates sitting out there who have a pretty good idea of what you’d like to do with your life, congratulations. For many of you who maybe don’t have it all figured out, it’s okay. That’s the same chair that I sat in. Enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of the result.”

So they left feeling hopeful and empowered.

He used contrast

Another way that Ferrell made his speech so darn entertaining was by using contrast. To keep listeners hanging onto his every last word, he contrasted the “Will-that-Was” (a student at USC who worked in the humanities audiovisual department) and the “Will-that-Is” (a former SNL actor who created Anchorman, Old School, and is now receiving an honorary doctorate from a world-class university).

Contrast is a tool that creates tension in speeches. It creates a gap between two areas. Then, it gives the speaker the opportunity to deliver the solution that will bridge that gap. Duarte explains, “Your job as a communicator is to create and resolve tension through contrast. Building highly contrasting elements into a presentation holds the audience’s attention. Audiences enjoy experiencing a dilemma and its resolution … ”

By contrasting his days as a student and his days as an entertainer, Ferrell was able to reveal to the audience how he moved between the two. He was then also able to explain to graduates that they, too, will be able to do something similar.

He made the audience the story’s hero

Ferrell told his own personal story in his commencement speech. However, he made sure to place the listeners at the center of that story. In fact, as he began to tell the narrative portion of his address, he switched to the second person. He directly said,

“You are the graduating class of 2017. And by every statistical analysis, you are collectively considered the strongest class ever to graduate from this university. All of you have excelled in various courses of study.

Ferrell used his own examples to illuminate how the graduates could expect to navigate through their own life’s journey, now that they are embarking on a similar quest.

By making the audience the hero of the story, a speaker or presenter is able to make the message feel more relevant to listeners. Ferrell ended his commencement speech explaining to the graduates how they could expect their hero’s journey to end:

“Trust your gut, keep throwing darts at the dartboard. Don’t listen to the critics – and you will figure it out.”

Commencement addresses are usually inspiring. But, Ferrell really knocked it out of the park when it came to delivering a commencement speech that transformed. After looking at the powerful persuasive tools he used, we can bet that many of them left moved by his empowering and uplifting message. (Or, maybe it was just his very … beautifully … sung rendition of that perennial hit “I Will Always Love You” delivered at the end of his address that really hammered things home for listener.

Will Ferrell | USC Commencement Speech 2017


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