Our Favorite Commencement Speaker: Senator Cory Booker

The spring of university commencement ceremonies wraps up this week, ending (according to this website) with an address from legendary soprano Renee Fleming across town at Northwestern’s graduation on the 22nd. We’ve watched a bunch of these speeches over the past few weeks, and wanted to share with you our pick for the season’s best:

That would be New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, speaking to the graduating class at Temple University. If you’re going to watch one speaker, he’s the one to see.

There are so many reasons why Sen. Booker rose to the top of our list. He held our attention for a full 26 minutes, mesmerized us with his stories, inspired us with his message, and effectively hit the right notes, all while doing a great job with gestures, vocal variety and eye connection.

Booker approached the podium, placed his speech on the space in front of him, and proceeded to engage his audience without even looking at his text. He took his time as he weaved his way through a personal, self-deprecating anecdote, to a series of great quotes from Ghandi to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Martin Luther King, Jr., to a final story that circled back to his opening tale, pulling all of his thoughts together in a final message that elicited a standing ovation from the graduates and their guests.

If you watch Booker with the sound turned down, you can still see how engaged and animated a speaker he is. His arms are in constant purposeful motion, his eyes wide open and focused on his audience, and his face changing expression by the second. You’ll notice how his head bobs in yes-and-no motions, he speeds up, slows down and pauses, he smiles, and he occasionally shuts his eyes to punctuate his words. That’s the impression he makes BEFORE you hear his words.

Beyond his physical skills, we see that Booker is a masterful storyteller. His opening story, about his appearance on Henry Louis Gates’ PBS program “Find Your Roots,” exposes his human side as he describes himself as the cocky young mayor of Newark. He was humbled, he tells the crowd, when he learned that Gates paired him on the show with John Lewis, the Georgia congressman who played a vital leadership role in the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s. While Gates showed Lewis standing up to law enforcement officials when crossing the bridge in Selma, he showed Booker “falling off my Big Wheel, skinning my knee and running to my Mama!”

The story itself is not the most powerful story we’ve ever heard from a speaker, but his willingness to be vulnerable helps his audience relate to him more personally. More importantly, as we’ll see later in his speech, this story sets the stage for a poignant, life-changing one that he’ll share shortly: how Lewis’ actions in the ‘60s inspired a generation of Americans, including one man who stood up for Booker’s family when they tried to purchase a home, successfully fighting the redlining practices that kept many people of color from buying homes.

We strongly recommend that you find 26 minutes to watch Booker’s address at Temple. Let his words, stories and physical movement sink in. You may find a few new ideas to try in your next presentation.

Click here to watch Cory Booker’s 2018 Temple University commencement speech

The Senator was a busy man this spring! If you want more, click here to see his address at Princeton’s 2018 Class Day

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