This was posted on June 16th, 2016, from The University of Pennsylvania (From 2011).
What would a speech coach say?
First, let me say that this is Denzel Washington. He’s a movie star and not a professional speaker. He’s a celebrity brought in to give an inspiring commencement speech. Just having Denzel show up at your graduation would be inspiring in and of itself. I think it is very cool that he delivered it.
Also, it is very easy for me or anyone to critique as an after the fact. I have no idea if Denzel had a speech coach or not. I have no idea how much he prepared. I’m just watching along with the other 500,000 viewers just like you. And, I am a huge fan of his. I felt it might be educational for you to see this speech critiqued.
- 0:53 OK, on his opening, you can see for yourself. I remember Robin Williams saying that celebrities get an extra minute of grace at the beginning, and I’m sure at commencement, as opposed to a comedy club, it is even more grace.
- 1:00 The faculty, dignitaries, and student’s acknowledgements make sense in a speech like this. In a professional speech, I would hold this until after your opening. Then, grab their attention, draw them in, and set up your premise, then the niceties. This type of speech is acceptable due to the formality of the event.
- 1:19 “I’m honored and grateful to be here.” Again, this is the one speech that it’s cool if sincere. I believe Denzel is truthful and humble.
- 1:35 “That’s right, he played on the basketball team. Unfortunately, the coach didn’t give him enough playing time, but we’ll talk about that later.” His delivery was funny, personal and helped connect him to his audience. Excellent.
- 2:03 “I get a warm reception when I come to Pennsylvania, except when I wear my Yankee’s hat,” he said. Very funny and connecting as well, even though it is a competitor. Of course, there are Yankee fans in the crowd, and they cheered. It was personal as well. It was authentic and fun.
- 2:49 He acknowledges he is nervous. When it is authentic, especially outside of your normal lane to give a speech, I am a fan of saying it. Don’t try to hide nervousness or fake confidence. The audience has a 6th sense, and they can tell. I love that he says if you put him in a scene as an actor, he can handle anything. It is perfect that he uses specific scenes in specific movies, as well. He says, “From here, I can see every single one of you, and that makes me uncomfortable.” If I were coaching him, I’d suggest he say, “From here, I can see you.” It would feel more like a one-on-one conversation as we teach. You can mean a collective audience, and you can also mean one-to-one. It makes the audience “feel” like you are speaking directly to each of them.
- 5:12 He mentioned talking about juicy Hollywood moments and mentioned a few. He then said that they wouldn’t want to hear about that because they were above that. Then said, “They might go for that at Drexel, but not over here.” Very funny! You can tell it is a rival without even knowing, and any playful punches at rivals are always great fodder. He even tagged the joke by laughing and saying, “Oh, I’m in trouble now.” Very connecting.
- 5:54 Great relatable humor for the parents when he said he likes to see how his money is being spent. Nice.
- 6:07 He received an academy award but never got a magic meatball after waiting in line at the food truck. Researching your audience and what is “top of mind” during their day-to-day activity is an effort well spent. Especially when you can tie it directly into your speech. It doesn’t have to be perfect because it is about them. He had several more references like that. Know that comes from research and or observations.
- 7:19 He talked about taking risks. He then quoted Nelson Mandela. I love the quote, but Denzel, they want to hear about you and your life lessons. Unless that quote helped shape your life, why quote someone else? They invited you, and they wanted Denzel’s life wisdom! You only have twenty-two minutes.
- 7:57 He uses the analogy of not falling back on anything and instead, “falling forward.” I’m obviously a fan of the concept since it was the message of my 2001 speech. When I wrote mine, I was not aware of the book by John Maxwell, so maybe Denzel never heard of the book or my speech. Not sure how I feel about that one.
- 8:12 Now, he references Reggie Jackson, which most people in the audience probably never heard of him. His point is still made, but why not use a personal story. I believe that would have influenced the audience and be remembered much more than the example he used.
- 8:24 I like the strategy of using “Fall forward” as a transition line. It is very effective.
- 8:26 Now, he uses Thomas Edison as an example. He references 1,000 attempts to invent the lightbulb. He said, “I didn’t know that.” Then it makes me wonder, how did you find out? In a few minutes of research, it seems like it was thousands of times. One said Edison himself said it over 3,000 times. He said that 1001 was the lightbulb. That makes me question the data, but again why not use his own real-life experiences from the beginning of his career. I do not doubt that his rejections and audition stories from his early career would be powerful. I’d love to hear dialogue from someone who told him he’d never make it.
- 8:54 Now, he sets up the structure of the rest of his speech. He tells us that he has three points. His first point is that you will fail at some point. In our world, the speaking world, this would be a long time to get to the first point.
- 9:05 “At some point, you will suck at something,” he said. This gets a huge laugh. Well-delivered and truthful. That is refreshing.
- 9:23 Yes! Now we are getting to a Denzel story. If he asked me, and he didn’t, I’d suggest he cut the Edison and Reggie Jackson examples and get to the Denzel stories sooner.
- 9:50 He actually loosens up here and has more fun. He becomes even more engaging. One suggestion would be that instead of saying he was shrinking; I’d love to hear his internal dialogue. It would be powerful. What he did still works, but it would make it even better. We’d relate more because we’d feel it more.
- 10:12 Love the expression of the accompanist. Awesome!
- 11:33 The dichotomy of the other actor and him creates humor. Well-done.
- 12:16 Denzel telling them that he prayed and continued to fail is inspirational. That is what we want to hear from him.
- 12:53 Love this! The story of performing in the same theater of his first failed audition. Awesome. I’d still love to hear a moment when he was on stage or after the show in that theater reflecting back, rather than just giving us the facts.
- 13:12 You have the talent to succeed, but do you have the guts to fail?” If that is original, that is brilliant writing.
- 13:32 He quotes his wife and Les Brown. Always great to give credit. He read’s Les’s example of the ideas that came to you gathering around your death bed. Denzel tied it directly to the graduates, which is excellent. I wish he’d use an example from his life to back up Les’s analogy.
- 15:27 “You will never see a U-Haul behind a hearse.” Love it. It makes you think.
- 15:42 “The Egyptians tried it, and all they got was robbed.” Great tag that, again, makes you think.
- 16:21 He says, “OK, here’s my last point about failure.” It is a bit confusing to us because we aren’t clear on his structure. He said three points. Is this the last point about the first point?
- 17:18 Very cool that we hear about a low point in his life. We often think superstars don’t have low points. He mentions his mom’s beauty shop. I’d love to hear his mom’s name and see her in there. He mentioned this woman who was staring at him. I’d love a tiny bit of description of what she looked like so that we could see what Denzel saw. It would draw us in more.
- 17:59 I love what the woman said, just curious if it was something she said that he’d never forget. Why did he read it?
- 18:25 When the counselor speaks to Denzel, great dialogue, by the way, I’d love to see a few seconds of young Denzel’s reaction to that. It would be a beautiful moment.
- 19:08 I love that he is very encouraging here, speaking directly to the students.
- 19:39 OK, here it was very clear about his structure earlier when he said he had three points. I may have missed it, but I’m not clear on exactly the second or third points.
- 20:12 Very funny, telling the audience to rent the movie Philadelphia and when they watch it, he gets 23 cents.
Make no mistake. They loved him. It was good. I think he could have easily cut a few things, and a few enhancements would have made it even more memorable. Remember, it is easy for me to sit back and be a critic. These are the same principles we teach at Stage Time University and coach presenters during our weekly coaching calls.
If you like this format, let me know, and I’ll critique a couple more. I hope the specificity shows you how you can make your speeches even better.
This 8-minute speech of his, I love:
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Please share your thoughts below!
Darren, I found watching/listening to Denzel Washington’s commencement speech, while concurrently reading your comments of what he did well and what he could have done better, to be a worthwhile practice.
I would very much appreciate if you would do this kind of thing again.
i agree with Marylou 100%!