Will Ferrell has made us laugh for years. He’s entertained us with his SNL skits (More Cowbell!), movies (Elf and Talladega Nights) and antics, like when he played baseball for ten major league teams in one day.
It turns out he’s not a bad speaker either. We watched him address the Class of 2017 at the University of Southern California commencement a few weeks back, and he did a great job. The students (and their families) appeared to love him. He delivered some serious messages about overcoming the fear of failure, told stories of his own personal journey from USC undergrad in 1986 to his current status, and reminded us all why he has consistently succeeded as a comedian.
He spoke to a giant audience in an outdoor setting, no easy task for any speaker because of all the potential distractions. And while there was no fire and brimstone from Ferrell (except when he “yelled at” his three young sons in the audience to keep their hands off each other), he displayed a nice and pleasant speaking style. He had good gestures, a conversational tone, lots of personality, and best of all— a great capacity to fill his speech with surprises.
His ability to surprise the audience—to do something unexpected—was the most engaging part of his presentation, a tool he used effectively to keep his audience with him. He surprised them in small ways, such as when he said he was proud to be one of the most famous alumni of USC, along with John Wayne, Neil Armstrong, and Rob Kardashian.
He also surprised the graduates in medium-sized ways. Ferrell, who received an honorary doctorate from USC that day, took a moment to recognize his fellow recipients of doctoral degrees (including Dame Helen Mirren) and their phenomenal accomplishments in the fields of social work, spinal surgery, and AIDS research. He then hilariously compared those accomplishments to his own career highlights, which include running naked through Montrose, California in Old School, eating gum off the New York streets in Elf, and playing cowbell. “I think my fellow doctors would agree that, based on our achievements, we are all on equal footing.”
And he surprised the USC graduates in big ways as well. He told a great story about how he once dressed as a janitor to crash a lecture that one of his friends was attending—he arrived announcing that he was there to clean up some vomit. He ran into the class’s professor—a fairly prominent literature professor—some weeks later on campus, and was expecting to find himself in trouble. Instead, the prof told him how funny he was, and encouraged him to make more appearances in his classroom as the janitor, during which the professor delightedly played along. The surprise here was that, as Ferrell told the audience, this was more than a funny story: the encouragement he received from that professor gave him “permission to be silly and weird,” and would keep him motivated as he pursued a career in comedy.
That last example was the most important of all, because it showed us there are other ways to surprise your audience than telling a joke. Sharing a good story with an important message, or punch line, can be unexpected. Singing a song, as Ferrell did twice (once singing the theme to the original Star Trek TV show, and at the end singing Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”) also will wake up an audience. You can also try showing a great photo, taking an extra-long pause, using a strange prop (such as, perhaps, a sledge hammer or chain saw), wearing unique clothing items, imitating your favorite play-by-play announcer (PUT IT ON THE BOARD—YESS!) or dramatically changing your volume.
Will Ferrell was funny, of course. But he was also a master of the unexpected. He entertained AND made important points. He reminded us that his movie Anchorman, though a big hit, took three years to find someone to produce it. He describes the first time he was invited on stage during an improv comedy show, and was too scared to say anything. The truth is, he told his audience, “you’re never not afraid. I was afraid to write this speech.” He shared that he’s always struggled to balance the fear of failure with the fear of “What If,” meaning…what if he never tried at all to do what he wanted to do? Now there’s a great message for graduates and for the rest of us.
In this situation, doing the unexpected meant showing that Ferrell could be both funny AND serious. He wrapped up by reminding students who don’t yet have their future figured out that he was in that same spot, and encouraged them to enjoy the process. And then he sang the Whitney Houston song.
To all you graduates out there of all shapes and sizes, we say this: don’t be afraid to come up with creative ways to surprise your audience, and to do things that are unexpected. There are unlimited ways to do it, and we can’t wait to see them. Thanks for the motivation, Dr. Ferrell!
We’ll close by wishing our own congratulations to all of the graduates in your lives. May they all know that their efforts are appreciated, and may all of their hard work pay off for them now and in the future.