Here It Is: The Greatest Graduation Speech of All Time

Dan Bergstein explains the art of writing the perfect graduation speech.

june 2016 department of wit graduation speechNishant Choksi for Reader's Digest

I was humbled and honored to be asked by the president of this outstanding university to speak to you today. Who am I? I am Gavin Presgrave, and for the past 39 years, I have written graduation speeches for hundreds of celebrities and nervous valedictorians. For decades, I have come up with new ways to say future, and, at the risk of bragging, I was the first graduation-speech writer to compare life to a book.

If I’m known for anything, it’s for starting speeches by saying, “I promise to keep things short, as I’m sure you are all impatient to go forward to the wonderful lives I hope you will live.” I’m proud of that. But perhaps my most renowned work came during a commencement speech at Penn State in the spring of 1977. During that speech, given by someone whose name I forget, I first used the phrase “As I look out into this sea of eager faces …” And that “sea of faces” thing was a real game changer in the world of graduation-speech writing.

Yes, I’m proud and humbled to say that I’ve won several awards for my graduation speeches. In 1997, I won a Herman (our version of the Oscar) for Best Use of a Children’s Author Quote. That same year, I was nominated for Best Opening Joke, which went like, “Oh, no! We’re all wearing the same gown! How embarrassing!” It was a crowd-pleaser. And last year, I won for Longest Somber Pause During a Speech That Mentioned the Fictional Passing of My Mother.

But my life path has not always been smooth. I shocked my peers in 1993, when I wrote a speech that did not include song lyrics by Bob Dylan, the Beatles, or Kermit the Frog. I nearly lost my job and license after that. Though perhaps I made up for it a year later when a speech I wrote for the president of MSU consisted of nothing but quotes from Einstein, Yoda, and Steve Jobs.

So what have I learned during my career? What important lesson can I pass along? I’m not sure, but I’m nevertheless reminded of the day my mother died. Moments before her passing, she told me life was a book and even the saddest of chapters shall come to an end. If you can read the sad chapters swiftly and the happy chapters slowly, then yours will be a life worth living. So, Mom, this one is for you. [Raises face to the sky. Pauses somberly.]

Most of you have no idea what lies ahead or what course your lives will take—two other ways of saying future. I know this. The journey you’re about to embark on—three!—will be filled with twists and turns. We may not need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, but it can’t hurt to carry an umbrella. As I once said, “Tomorrow is a gift wrapped in time. Now is the time to open it!”

There are some out there who will not remember my name or my speech. In this sea of eager faces, I can see that many of you are not even listening. But a good speech is one that is not exactly heard and remembered but is in its way, well, absorbed. What does that mean? You’re college graduates now; you tell me.

Let us never forget where we came from, or racism, or our nut allergies, or the Alamo, or how terrorism has changed the world. Let’s also remember what Curious George said: Nothing. The Man in the Yellow Hat said everything. Will you be Curious George or the Man in the Yellow Hat? Both are good choices, and that’s my point. And also never let us forget that it’s said Einstein failed math.

You are all about to open new chapters of your own books. Shall we turn that page together?

Barnes & Noble Review (June 4, 2012), Copyright © 2012 by Dan Bergstein,

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