5 Lessons from Zuckerberg’s Harvard Commencement Speech

Mark Zuckerberg faced a greater challenge than defining the big idea for the Harvard Class of 2017 commencement speech. As an icon of the millennial generation, of the internet, and of connecting the world, Zuckerberg’s celebrity status, wealth, and various rumors and myths precede him, threatening to overshadow anything he says. Before building his big idea, Zuckerberg had to connect with his audience to really grab their attention.

Zuckerberg successfully positions himself alongside the graduates before challenging them to make their world a better place. Through story, reflection, and humorous and sentimental anecdotes, Zuckerberg tells a story that builds trust and intimacy. Surrounded by men in top hats, addressing an audience in rain ponchos, others dripping wet, his approach not only allows his message to be clear, but exemplifies his big idea: “…finding your purpose isn’t enough. The challenge for our generation is creating a world where everyone has a sense of purpose.”

Here we breakdown the top strengths of Zuckerberg’s Harvard commencement address and give our takeaways and tips that can be applied to anyone’s speech, commencement or otherwise.

1. Break the Tension

“If I get through this speech, it’ll be the first time I actually finish something at Harvard.”

Speeches can be awkward. If you’re addressing an audience of graduates, chances are they are much younger than you. Or, if you’re anything like Mark Zuckerberg, they already know a few of your stories. The old standby is to start with a joke, but subtlety is key. While Zuckerberg was never kicked out of Harvard, he did get into trouble due to a drunken prank, which you can still read about on The Harvard Crimson. To acknowledge the tension, he greets the audience, graduates, and members of the “ad board,” the group of people who could have ended his career at Harvard many years before, but with whom he is now sharing the stage. That simple nod to the board carries many layers: the early beginnings of his notoriety, mistakes of his past, and showing that he was once a student who had to follow the rules. Rather than telling a story with a punchline, the joke is implied. Breaking the tension doesn’t mean starting with a bang.

  • If there’s an elephant in the room, acknowledge it.

  • Use subtle humor to break the tension.

2. Build a Personal Connection

“This is my story too. A student in a dorm room, connecting one community at a time, and keeping at it until one day we connect the whole world.”

You may already have a connection with your audience, but the more personal you can make that connection, the more willing your audience is to hear your message. To build a connection with the graduates, Zuckerberg says, “I’m an unlikely speaker, not just because I dropped out, but because we’re technically in the same generation. We walked this yard less than a decade apart, studied the same ideas and slept through the same Ec10 lectures.” Zuckerberg not only establishes that he is more like the graduates than not, he situates his path with theirs. As he names dormitories, specific classes, and Harvard hangouts, he develops a sense of community. But having inhabited the same spaces is a superficial connection.

It’s not enough to say you are the same, you have to prove it. Anecdotes give people something to see in themselves. Zuckerberg says, “We’ve all started lifelong friendships here, and some of us even families,” which leads to two anecdotes that situate him as someone with humble beginnings. He recalls meeting his first friend at Harvard: “I was late so I threw on a t-shirt and didn’t realize until afterwards it was inside out and backwards with my tag sticking out the front. I couldn’t figure out why no one would talk to me — except one guy, KX Jin, he just went with it.” That guy now runs part of Facebook. And to bring everything full circle, Zuckerberg admits how that prank that brought him in front of the ad board lead to meeting his wife: “But without Facemash I wouldn’t have met Priscilla, and she’s the most important person in my life, so you could say it was the most important thing I built in my time here.” The audience may not be able to identify with these exact situations, but the stories humanize the person at the podium.

The more personal the connection, showing that you are on the same side, the more impact your speech will have.

  • Know where your life and your audience intersect.

  • Tell anecdotes that highlight your experiences the audience can identify with.

 3. Share the Journey, Not Just Milestones

 “The greatest successes come from having the freedom to fail.”

Audiences, especially graduates, don’t want a list of accomplishments, they want advice, and more importantly, they want to know it’s okay to trip over their next few steps. As Zuckerberg says, “The idea of a single eureka moment is a dangerous lie. It makes us feel inadequate since we haven’t had ours. It prevents people with seeds of good ideas from getting started.” “If [Zuckerberg] had to understand everything about connecting people before [he] began, [he] never would have started Facebook.” The purpose of your speech is to inspire and call people to action, so glossing over the steps you’ve taken to get to where you are won’t do them any good. A good strategy to empower others is through sharing your own experiences.

Your path to success is likely why you were asked to speak in the first place. Zuckerberg provides another anecdote from the early days of his company: “You see, my hope was never to build a company, but to make an impact. And as all these people started joining us, I just assumed that’s what they cared about too, so I never explained what I hoped we’d build…Nearly everyone else wanted to sell. Without a sense of higher purpose, this was the startup dream come true. It tore our company apart… And worse, it was my fault.” This is a story that many people probably already know, but Zuckerberg underscores it with personal responsibility. Without knowing the journey, your accomplishment is meaningless to your audience. Share your failures and successes.

  • People assume you’re just lucky; show them that all journeys have potholes and peaks.

  • Reflect on misguided ideas of success and reposition the audience’s beliefs.

4. You Are The Big Idea

 “But it’s not enough to have purpose yourself. You have to create a sense of purpose for others.”

Once you’ve made a connection, won the audience’s empathy and trust, you can hit them with the challenge. The big idea is just that, the most important part of your speech. Zuckerberg leveled himself with the audience and knows they have potential to have an impact on the future of our world. So he delivers his challenge: “Today I want to talk about three ways to create a world where everyone has a sense of purpose: by taking on big meaningful projects together, by redefining equality so everyone has the freedom to pursue purpose, and by building community across the world.” It’s the big idea of big ideas, but he breaks it down in specific, attainable goals. And, again, he provides anecdotes: “One of my favorite stories is when John F Kennedy visited the NASA space center, he saw a janitor carrying a broom and he walked over and asked what he was doing. The janitor responded: ‘Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon’.” This aligns his big idea with an accomplishment that is not only universally known, but is shared by everyone in America. The fact we were the first country to reach the moon, no matter how long ago it happened, is a national accomplishment. But it also illustrates that creating a sense of purpose for others is not as impossible as it may seem.

The other side of the challenge is proving that you are not passing the baton. Your words are just words until you support them with actions. Zuckerberg says, “And yes, giving everyone the freedom to pursue purpose isn’t free. People like me should pay for it. Many of you will do well and you should too.” This is maybe his loftiest call, since he is one of the wealthiest people in the world, but he doesn’t just talk about money. He provides another possibility, which is giving someone else your time: “I promise you, if you take an hour or two a week — that’s all it takes to give someone a hand, to help them reach their potential.” Part of a good speech is predicting the objections, and someone is sure to point out that Zuckerberg has a lot of money to give, but his time is probably much more valuable. Everyone’s is. Again he tells a story, this time about a group of young people he’s had dinner with once a month for the past five years, and how his time has affected their lives and their sense of purpose. People won’t just do what you tell them to, so lead by example.

The big idea is the most important part of the speech, but it won’t land if you don’t build yourself around it.

  • Anticipate objections and address them in your story.

  • Don’t challenge someone to do what you haven’t done or aren’t willing to do.


5. Emotional Resonance

“I hope you find the courage to make your life a blessing.”

All speeches must come to an end, hopefully. And after thirty minutes or so, you will probably lose your audience’s attention here and there. Your ending must be as memorable as the beginning. To intensify his message, Zuckerberg employs every strategy that makes his speech successful: personal connection, anecdotes, and big idea to tell another story. He tells the story of an undocumented young man, raised in the U.S., who “didn’t know if the country he calls home — the only one he’s known — would deny him his dream of going to college.” At this point, Zuckerberg has laid out his plan, the challenge, but here he lets his guard down and shows vulnerability. For his birthday, the young man asked for a book on social justice. He just wanted to learn more about what he could do to help others like him. Zuckerberg says, “But if a high school senior who doesn’t know what the future holds can do his part to move the world forward, then we owe it to the world to do our part too.” Throughout his speech, Zuckerberg paused for poignant moments of applause, but he held the longest here. Knowing when to save the big applause, like the climax of a movie, is important. If you can weave an emotional response in with your call to action, your audience can’t forget your big idea.

  • Leave a lasting impression by evoking an emotional response.

  • Anecdotes, anecdotes, anecdotes. Life experiences make the big idea all the more real.

While few people are as notorious as Mark Zuckerberg, and not everyone can tell the kinds of stories he has experienced, what Zuckerberg does well is evident: he understands his audience and the purpose of his speech. Graduates are excited about their big day. They’ve worked many years to get there, so the commencement speech can be just another lecture they have to sit through. Zuckerberg’s careful strategy of making a personal connection through story demands the audience’s attention, and emphasizes why his message is important enough to be heard. Watch the full speech here.

Although graduation commencements don’t come around too often, the lessons covered can be applied to any speech. Do you have any favorite commencement speeches? Let us know in the comments! And don’t forget to subscribe to our blog to keep posted for our future writings on all things presentations.

Written by: Dusty Cooper

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