The 7 Best Commencement Speeches Of The Century

Published May 6, 2014
Updated September 18, 2014

Best Commencement Speeches: J.K. Rowling, Harvard University, 2008

With references to Gryffindor, forgetfulness and gay wizard jokes, J.K. Rowling’s address to Harvard University was one of the best commencement speeches of all time. Yet for all of the light jokes and gut-deep laughter, Rowling speaks authentically and earnestly about the poverty that defined much of her life. “Rock bottom became the solid foundation upon which I built my life,” she says.

Rowling’s speech covers failure and its impact on the lives of graduates, then moves on to discuss imagination. She says, “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

Read the full transcription, or watch the entertaining speech below:

Winston Churchill, Harrow School, 1941

Sir Winston Churchill held a decades-long career as a civil servant in England, claiming various prestigious positions such as Prime Minister and First Lord of the Admiralty. Known for his dynamic, moving speeches, Churchill has been dubbed “the greatest statesman of the 20th century” by many historians. It comes of no surprise, then, that he gave one of the best commencement speeches of his time (and ours).

The most iconic sound bite from Churchill’s speech is an insistent, moving plea for graduates to stand their ground fearlessly. In Churchill’s words, “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never–in nothing, great or small, large or petty–never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

Winston Churchill Commencement Address

Source: Quotivee

Barbara Kingsolver, Duke, 2008

While Barbara Kingsolver’s commencement address ended on a high note, the majority of the speech tackled some of life’s toughest questions. In one of the best commencement speeches ever given to Duke’s graduating class, she discussed the fragmented state of the world, money, the environment, greed and progress. Yet eventually she wraps up the speech with a poem entitled, “Hope; An Owner’s Manual.”

Kiri Picone
Kiri Picone holds a B.A. in English and creative writing from Pepperdine University and has been writing for various digital publishers for more than 10 years.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.