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Advice to advice-giver Bill Daley: Keep your graduation speech short

by Katie Banks
April 27, 2011

Graduates of '11 get the presidential treatment

Bill Daley is not the only White House figure who will speak to graduates this year.


President Obama will address the class of ’11 at Miami-Dade College in Florida and the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.


First Lady Michelle Obama will speak to students at the University of Northern Iowa, Spelman College and the United States Military Academy at West Point.



Brevity, humor and a personal message.

These are three elements that experts and students said should encompass White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley’s commencement speech at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana campus on May 15.

Oh, and by all means, he should leave the politics at home.

“Students want to move forward,” said John Murphy, an associate professor of communication at the University of Illinois. “It’s a big day for them and their families. As a speaker, you don’t want the whole day to be about you.”

Which means graduates shouldn’t expect Daley to use the stage as a political platform, said Mary Schmich, a Chicago Tribune columnist who wrote the wildly popular “Wear sunscreen” speech.  

“The mistake that a lot of graduation speakers make is to give a generic speech, or if you’re a politician, to give a political speech,” Schmich said. “People want something that’s going to make them laugh, move them, and excite them about going out into the world.”

Students agree with Schmich.

“When you get too political, I’m going to lose interest,” said Hannah Prince, an Illinois senior. “When you can relate to a whole audience with a personal story, I think it’s more intriguing.”

But prominent public figures have long used commencement speeches to promote policy initiatives.  

In 1946 Winston Churchill told graduates at Westminster College that “an iron curtain has descended across the continent” of Europe. George C. Marshall introduced the Marshall Plan in 1947 at Harvard University’s graduation. President John F. Kennedy used his commencement speech at American University in 1963 to announce a nuclear test-ban treaty with the Soviet Union. And in 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson revealed the Great Society in a commencement address at the University of Michigan.

As much as Daley, presumably, would like to join the ranks of these historically significant graduation speakers before him, Murphy noted that introducing policy changes isn’t exactly Daley’s role.

“The chief of staff is a behind-the-doors figure,” Murphy said. “He’s not there to make policy. He’s there to facilitate the president’s goals. He is more likely to talk about what a good public life means, how we should be bipartisan, or how we should cooperate.”

Avoiding politics would not only keep people awake, it would also enable Daley to skirt the more sensitive moments in his past. 

He wouldn’t have to talk about the Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election, in which he pushed Al Gore to rescind his concession. He wouldn’t have to backtrack on previous statements opposing Obama’s healthcare reforms and consumer protection policies.

And he wouldn’t have to explain how he can work for a pro-union president despite his service as a director of Boeing Co.

“I bet he would avoid that issue like the plague,” Murphy said about the National Labor Relations Board’s attempt to force Boeing’s production line back to unionized facilities in Washington state from a nonunion plant in South Carolina.

Not that the students really care about the future of Boeing, anyway. That is, unless the company is willing to hire them.

“The prediction last year was that by the time I graduated, the economy would be back on its feet,” Prince said. “And that’s just not the case. So if Daley talks about politics at all, it should be about the economy and if we have anything to look forward to.”

On that note, Daley could offer advice based on his experiences as an executive at SBC Communications, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and as U.S. Commerce secretary.

“Daley was in the business world for a long time,” Murphy said, “so he might talk about how they can make their own success in life or how they can contribute to the society they are about to join.”

Schmich agrees that staying true to himself may be Daley’s best bet when offering advice to students on graduation day.

“Keep it short,” she said. “Ditch the platitudes. Don’t worry about what somebody else said in their graduation speech. Be honest and genuinely reflective on how your own life experience might help the people you are talking to. And talk to them, not to Congress or the Rotary Club.”