So, class of 2012, are you special or not? To hear David McCullough Jr.’s commencement speech at Wellesley High School last weekend, today’s graduates are not special at all, except maybe to their own circle of family and friends.
While this harsh dose of reality is no doubt true, the message has created a firestorm. Many have applauded the speech, while others (most of them parents) have expressed anger. The speaker himself has defended his remarks, noting that he simply wanted students to understand that “with their privilege comes responsibility.”
There is a lesson to be learned here about effective communication. McCullough undoubtedly wanted to get the audience’s attention, and he succeeded. But by doing so in such an unexpected (some might say harsh) manner, his real message was lost. Many in the audience heard only “you’re not special,” a sentiment well outside the message platform traditionally delivered at a graduation celebration. Yet his full remarks say so much more. A good portion of the speech is devoted to encouraging the students to look beyond accolades toward achievement; to focus on learning for the sake of learning; to dream big, work hard, and think for themselves. In one of his best lines, he urges students to “climb the mountain to see the world, not so the world can see you.”
The initial negative point raised by the speaker overshadowed the positive messages. I don’t disagree with his overall objective, but a different approach to his delivery could have made a world of difference.
Anyone with a tough message to deliver should prepare the audience for what is to come. Be sensitive to their expectations. Let them know why the tough message is important, deliver it, remind them again of its value, and then put it in the context of a broader message platform.
Never once in his actual speech did McCullough tell his audience what he wanted them to take away from his “you’re not special” message. He told us after the fact in media interviews. Had he done so right in the beginning, during his actual speech, he would have achieved his goal. And the focus would have remained on the students rather than on him.