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How to Write a Salutatorian Speech – Guidance, Tips, and Examples

By: Compose.ly — January 11, 2019

Graduating students raising their caps in the air

Table of Contents

  1. Why Write a Salutatorian Speech?
  2. Five Tips for Writing the Speech
  3. Five Ideas to Get Started
  4. A Few Examples of Salutatorian Speeches
  5. Need Help? Hire a Speechwriter

So you’ve been asked to deliver a salutatorian speech? This staple of the graduation ceremony is a hefty responsibility, and the fact that you’ll be one of the first people on stage to speak only adds to the pressure to perform. No need to sweat it, though; you’re not the first person to be tasked with addressing your entire graduating class, and we’ve got some tips that will help you succeed with flying colors.

What Is a Salutatorian Speech and Why Is it Important?

This is the speech that you, the class salutatorian, will deliver to attendees at the graduation ceremony. The title of salutatorian is granted to the second-highest ranking graduate of a class (while the highest ranking member is referred to as the valedictorian). The hard work you’ve put in over the course of your academic career has led you here; now it’s time to shine in front of your peers.

You’ll be playing the opening act to the valedictorian’s headliner, but don’t think that makes your job any less important. While some of your duties may include introducing the other speakers and handing out an award or two, the meat of your task lies in getting the graduation ceremony off on the right foot.

You’ll be setting the stage for an event that’s supposed to celebrate you and your classmates’ academic achievement. As such, you will need to deliver an address that gets your fellow graduates to reflect on the highlights of your shared academic experience, forces them to think about the future, and imparts some wisdom that will positively impact their outlook. You’ll need to be inspirational, and you’ll need to do all of this without droning on for too long at the podium. It might seem easier said than done at first, but the following tips and tricks will make the process that much more manageable.

How to Write a Salutatorian Speech in 5 Steps

Let’s get into it, shall we? To write a great speech, you’ll want to stick to this simple, step-by-step writing process. Generally speaking, you’ll start with doing some research, then work hard to mold all that pertinent information into a few words worth saying on stage.

1. Know Your Ground Rules and Start Brainstorming

Before you even start jotting down ideas, you’ve got to know the parameters of the speech. Your school authorities will have the lowdown on this information, and if they haven’t told you already, you’ll want to find out from them if there are any special tidbits they want you to mention during your address.

These might include details like a shout-out to an individual the school wants to honor, or a nod to the ethics and principles of the school during your speech. Most importantly, though, you’ll want to nail down the maximum allotted time for your speech so you know how much you need to write. Typically speaking, salutatorian speeches run for five to ten minutes.

Now comes the time to brainstorm the main thrust of your speech. No need to reinvent the wheel here. While there’s room to put your own twist on what you say, it doesn’t much matter if you’re writing a high school salutatorian speech or an address for your graduating college class — the classic themes are already well-established.

Will you tell a story about a life-changing moment in your academic career and how it relates to a broader issue? Will you talk about how you and your classmates grew into your potential? Perhaps you’ll touch on how important it is to stay dedicated toward your goals, or how you and your graduating class have endured through a multitude of challenges.

The choice is yours. Just remember to research thoroughly so you know what you’re talking about and to create an outline so you can string together all your ideas coherently once you start writing.

2. Outline Your Ideas

Broadly speaking, the salutatorian speech should have three main sections: a quick introduction, a middle story section to illustrate your point, and a takeaway message at the end. Within those overarching segments, however, there are specific beats you’ll want to hit, and creating an outline can ensure you include them all in your writing. Here’s an example of a quick bullet list for a salutatorian speech:

  • Thank the audience for their time, and the previous speaker for theirs (if someone was on stage before you).
  • Introduce yourself and allude to the main topic of your speech with a quote or a joke.
  • Use a story to cover your main points. Highlight relevant subpoints that tie back to the broader topic.
  • Impart some wisdom or advice for the takeaway message.
  • Restate quote for emphasis.
  • Get the crowd pumped with a call to action.
  • Thank everyone for listening, then make a graceful exit.

The specific structure and symbolization you use in your outline is up to you, just be sure to keep your formatting consistent so you can form your ideas clearly.

3. Start Your Draft

Now that you have your outline, you should have a good idea of how to start your salutatorian speech. All that’s left is to put pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard, if you prefer) and flesh out your ideas. While you’re writing, remember to keep your language relatable to a broad audience and to be yourself — not a caricature of what you think a salutatorian should be. This will help your speech seem more authentic.

Though the themes explored by salutatorian speeches are ones that almost everyone knows, that doesn’t mean your address has to be stale or robotic. Open up, allow your creativity to flow, and explore the topic of your speech with your unique and personal perspective. Follow the basic storytelling rules to keep your narrative coherent, and don’t worry about writing too much at this point. Just let the ideas you have loose on the page so you’ll have plenty to work with when you’re editing.

4. Refine What You’ve Written

Now it’s time to sharpen your speech. This is where you take everything you’ve written thus far and chop it down for clarity and length. Remember that short and sweet is preferable to long and boring as you chip away to hit your time goal. You may have to practice reading what you’ve written a few times to ensure you’re not going overboard, and once you do, it’ll be time to introduce your words to a willing test audience.

5. Run It by a Third Party and Practice

The proof, they say, is in the pudding. In this case, the pudding is your speech, and you’ll want to let an objective listener “taste” your recipe to make sure you’ve got it right. Practice your speech in front of a few other students to make sure they understand what you’re saying and that whatever jokes you’ve included are connecting. Take their feedback, then head back to the “kitchen” and give it another try if necessary. Through continual refinement, you’ll be able to morph your writing to its perfected form and reach the broadest audience possible.

5 Ideas for Writing a Salutatorian Speech

Throughout the writing process, keep these general salutatorian speech ideas in mind to keep your creativity high and your fingers tapping away at your keyboard.

1. Thanks All Around

The overall tone of your speech should be upbeat and thankful. You’ve put in a lot of work to reach this point in your life, and should ensure that your appreciation is apparent. Thank your teachers, thank the administration, thank your friends, your parents, and anyone else you feel has helped you achieve success.

2. Use the Past to Tell a Story

Memories are what salutatorian speeches are made of, and you can convey those impactfully with a tight narrative. You can harken back to the anxiety you and fellow classmates felt upon entering your school for the first time, the long hours you put in on projects and papers, the hurdles you overcame by leaning on one another for support, or even those hilarious anecdotes that made everyone laugh until they were out of breath. Whatever it is, remember to tie it back to your main point and don’t get too heavy — this is a joyous occasion and your speech should reflect that fact throughout.

3. Talk About Inspiration and Future Goals

While drawing from the past, you’ll also want to touch on the future during your speech. You and your classmates have the potential to achieve great things, so talk about what some of your goals are for your post-graduation career if they make sense within the context of your main point, and inspire your classmates to think about the impact that they will have on the future as well.

4. Use Humor to Stay Relatable

A funny salutatorian speech, by and large, is a good salutatorian speech. There’s a power in humor that can win the hearts of your audience and help make your speech more relatable, which, in turn, will make your topic more digestible. Just remember two things: you’ll want to stick to your personal “level” of funny, and understand your audience before delivering those zingers.

On that first point, you can think of it like weight classes in boxing. Everyone has a natural degree of humor they can achieve on account of their personality (their weight class). If you try slugging it out “above your weight,” you’ll run the risk of getting knocked out quickly, but if you stick to your own weight class, you can be a champion. You already understand what kind of jokes you can and cannot pull off — stick to what you know, and you’re more likely to connect with the audience.

As for understanding your audience, you’ll want to stay cognizant of the fact that you’re delivering an address at a graduation. Though everyone in attendance is an adult (or close to being an adult), there’s an expectation that you won’t launch into a raunchy, George Carlin-style standup set in the middle of your speech. Avoid anything too controversial, and keep your jokes clean so they fit with the setting.

5. Quote the Greats While Avoiding Clichés

Quotes from notable thinkers and witty minds from human history that are germane to the topic at hand can enhance your speech, but clichés (like “we’re gonna change the world!”) are tired, hackneyed, and can make listeners tune out to what you’re saying. It can be a fine line, for sure, but try to stay original, avoid saying anything trite or boring, and bring your personal perspective to the table to keep your speech interesting.

Graduates in line wearing caps and gowns

Salutatorian Speech Examples

Need to take a look at how it’s done before you dive into writing a speech of your own? The following salutatorian speech examples should set you down the right path.

1. General Salutatorian Speech

Let’s begin with a standard, middle-of-the-road kind of salutatorian speech. This is a suitable-for-any-situation approach, so there’s little chance anyone listening would dub your speech a failed effort.

The Example

Hello one and all. It is my honor to welcome faculty and staff, friends, family, and parents to the graduation ceremony for the class of 2019. I think I can safely speak on behalf of all my classmates when I say “thank you” for joining us in this momentous occasion and implore you all to give yourselves a big round of applause!

Famed football coach Vince Lombardi once said that “individual commitment to a group effort” is what makes teams work, what makes companies work, what makes societies and civilizations work. No sentiment could be more applicable to this graduation ceremony, because whether you realize it or not, this day wouldn’t have been possible without all of us, working together. Each of you, in your own ways, provided some “individual commitment” that contributed to my personal success, and I’m sure most of my peers can say the same.

For me, it started at home, with my parents. Their tireless devotion to me, their only daughter, manifested itself in ways far beyond providing a roof over my head or food for my plate. Without their encouragement for me to excel, and constructive criticism whenever I faltered, I wouldn’t have developed into the woman you see standing before you today. But theirs was not the only effort that molded me. Teachers like Professor Agora challenged me to think and perform at a higher standard. Classmates like Ronnie and Max offered friendly ears off which I could bounce ideas and, dare I say it, role models to which I could aspire.

We all have that potential to be great, a greatness that is tempered by our choices and the people who enter our lives. I hope we never lose sight of that, and I challenge you all to make our own “individual commitments” so that we may continue to succeed — together.

2. High School Salutatorian Speech

If you’re delivering a high school salutatorian speech, you can emphasize how much the last four years have made you grow both personally and academically.

The Example

To my friends, family, classmates, teachers, and administration — I’d like to welcome you to our graduation and thank you all for being here. This ceremony is both a celebration of what we all have accomplished and a challenge for us to strive for even greater heights. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.” I, for one, have witnessed my own growth through these past four years, and have no intention of seeing that progression come to an end.

When I started here at Metro Academy, I was clueless. It’s the classic tale of a fresh-faced, introverted boy entering a big new environment where he could easily become overwhelmed, and I was, at first. Navigating hallways full of people, collaborating with other students, giving presentations in front of an entire classroom? I thought it would break me, but then something incredible happened. Instead of shunning me for being timid, you all opened your arms to me and showed me it was possible to grow.

Jake, the first friend I made here at Metro, came up to me one afternoon, saying he noticed that I seemed shy in class and offered to introduce me to some “cool people.” Over time, I made more friends, close friends like TJ, Rory, and Cynthia. The more I interacted, the easier I found it to participate in class, give those presentations, and walk those hallways with my head up high.

I’ve grown here at Metro Academy, more than I ever thought possible. Now that I know I can, I will never stop growing as a person, and as we move on to the next stage in our lives, I challenge all of you present to do the same — to keep growing and see just how far life can take you. Here’s to the Class of 2019!

3. Funny Salutatorian Speech

A funny salutatorian speech is a great way to break the ice and get the audience in a good mood. Just remember you don’t have impress like it’s open mic night — you just have to pull off what’s funny for you.

The Example

Salutations all! My name is Jeff Margolis, and I’m supposed to be here to deliver a generic speech about how we’re all great, and pretend we all wanted to show up to this arena at 10:00 AM dressed in jedi robes just to get a piece of paper. I kid, of course. A graduation is much more than just the piece of paper … Mr. Harris said we all get free chicken strips once the ceremony is over, so that’s why I showed up.

While I was writing this speech, I wanted to fashion some grand address about the importance of the pursuit of knowledge and how we can all change the world. You know, standard graduation speech stuff. In reflecting on the past for ideas, though, I came to the realization that we’ve all gained something more important than education during our time here at Stallworth — friendship.

Sure, we’ve learned things — important things — that will help us get jobs, become leaders, and succeed in life. It wasn’t the desire to land some high-paying position or “change the world” that got me through these past four years, though. It was all of you, my friends, my Stallworth family who made the difference.

Muhammad Ali once said that “If you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything.” Well, I’ve learned, that friends are those who are there when you need them, and I’ll be cherishing the bonds I’ve made here for the rest of my life. Which, I suppose, is my way of saying that friends, you should expect a call from me down the line when I need to borrow money. In all seriousness, though, I love you guys, and I hope we can all be there for each other as we continue our journey. Godspeed, class of 2019!

4. Short Salutatorian Speech

Short and to the point always works well for a Salutatorian speech. After all, you’re there to get the graduation off on the right foot, not deliver a sermon. Here’s how to go about it.

The Example

Good evening, honored guests and class of 2019, we’ve finally made it. I won’t belabor the point, since there are plenty of speakers who need to take the stage once I’m through, but I’ve got to deliver a few words about how elated I am to be standing here, and give a nod to all the people who made this possible.

To our families, I’d like to say that your love and support has made all the difference. The encouraging words, the shoulders to cry on, and all the contributions to our education have not gone unnoticed. Speaking personally, I’m thankful my father took such keen interest in seeing me succeed, and put in more hours than he needed to make sure I was on top of my assignments, involved in the community, and helping me develop my jump shot. Pop, I want you to know that if mom was still around to see this, she’d marvel at what we’ve accomplished together.

To the FC Honeycutt faculty, staff, and administration, we owe you a permanent gratitude. There are many students in this venue who others would have discarded as lost causes, myself included, but you never gave up on us or our ability to reach our potential. The going was tough at times, but you motivated us to clear the hurdles in our path, to stay in the proverbial race and see what we were truly made of. For that, I am thankful beyond words.

And to my friends, the FC Honeycutt class of 2019, we stuck together through it all. I feel privileged to say that I consider you my brothers and sisters and hope the years to come are just as fruitful. Unity is what makes us strong. Let the bonds we’ve forged carry us through life’s many challenges, and be the bedrock that grounds our future success.

Need Help? Hire a Speechwriter

Now that you’ve read through the examples, you should have a pretty good idea of how to start a salutatorian speech and add some content that will connect with your audience. The key is to draw from your personal experiences.

Throughout it all, remember this: you don’t have to be a genius. You just have to be yourself. Stay true to your personality throughout your speech, practice your delivery and observe the basic rules for public speaking, and refer to a few salutatorian speech examples to get your creative juices flowing. If it turns out you need a helping hand, there’s no need to fret; you can check out Composely’s speechwriting services to get some additional assistance in crafting an address that your classmates will want to hear.

This post was written by Compose.ly writer Dwight Hill.

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