Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

J.K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement address

[This post was featured in Six Minutes weekly roundup of the week’s best public speaking tips and techniques.]

J.K. Rowling’s first adult book has put her back in the news, and reminded me that she’s not only a great writer, she’s also an extremely good speaker. Her Harvard Commencement speech of 2008 on the fringe benefits of failure, and the importance of the imagination, is always in the “Best of…”  lists.

Commencement speeches are both a celebration and an encouragement. The genre uses the speaker’s own life story as the jumping off point for insights, lessons and advice to the young ‘uns, but their loftier purpose is to  unite the audience by illuminating the shared values, hopes, dreams and experiences we all have at this time of life.

Rowling’s  audience was eating out of her hand well before this event took place.   She’s inspired, entertained, provoked, and amused these young people (and their parents)  for most of their lives. And while she has an incredible story to tell,  it’s  very well known. So what will she reveal?

I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that have expired between that day and this.

I have come up with two answers….I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination…

…the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it….Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies….

Her speech is at its best  when she talks of her job at Amnesty International. Understanding the suffering of  others gave her a profound awareness of why  imagination matters, and that it can be used for good or evil.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise. … I think the willfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid. What is more, those who choose not to empathise may enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy. One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality. …

Like any good speaker, Rowling has a takeaway message, a call to action:

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better…

What can we learn from J.K. Rowling’s speech? Two things stand out:

Candid self-reflection is a powerful tool. Famous people are role models.  While Rowling’s  career trajectory would be  impossible to emulate, her brilliant success gives her influence and a moral authority which should be put to good use. Her speech is not ‘Here’s how I did it, you can do it too’, but ‘Here’s what I learned, and you can learn from it too’.

So given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

Tie your words to  your setting. Rowling’s speech is tightly bound to the  situation.  Everyone listening knows the Harry Potter stories and their characters. It’s an enormous shared experience and she uses it to create a connection with her listeners. She brings in her 21 year old self, and  in closing, recalls her own graduation. It’s immediate,  and  relevant, and touchingly direct.

I have one last hope for you, which is something that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life. They are my children’s godparents, the people to whom I’ve been able to turn in times of trouble, people who have been kind enough not to sue me when I took their names for Death Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.

So today, I wish you nothing better than similar friendships…..

Watch the whole speech here – and use the Comments tell me what you think of it. 

I’m very pleased that Andrew Diugan included this post in his roundup of the week’s best public speaking tips and techniques. Thanks Andrew! Take a look here at some of his other recommendations. 


4 comments on “J.K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement address

  1. Michael Gow

    Great speech, great article. Have you read David Foster Wallace’s This is Water? It’s a commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College. Very different to Rowling but they’re very different writers. In it’s own self referential, High Irony way it’s also very inspiring.

    Anyway keep up the good work,

    Michael Gow

  2. Michael Gow

    D’oh! Apostrophe! In its own way. The Wallace speech is on Youtube, just put in Thisis Water.

  3. Pingback: Public Speaking Tips and Techniques #95

  4. Jon

    Thanks for the blog post! Rowling is such an inspiration. That alone garners attention.

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