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Top 10 Most Inspiring Celebrity Commencement Speeches

VO: Phoebe de Jeu WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp

Everyone loves to hear words of comfort and encouragement from someone who has truly made it. Tom Hanks, J.K. Rowling and Meryl Streep are just a few of the stars who have given memorable speeches at college graduations. WatchMojo is counting down the most inspirational and uplifting commencement speeches.

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Script written by Nathan Sharp

Top 10 Most Inspiring Celebrity Commencement Speeches

Everyone loves to hear words of comfort and encouragement from someone who has truly made it. Welcome to, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top ten most inspiring celebrity commencement speeches.

For this list, we’ll be looking at some of the most uplifting celebrity commencement speeches and making our choices based on how moving and memorable they are.

#10: Jon Stewart

College of William and Mary (2004)

Turns out that satirical talk show hosts make killer commencement speakers. Stephen Colbert absolutely rocked his 2011 speech at Northwestern, as did Jon Stewart at Virginia’s College of William & Mary a few years prior.. Stewart comes running out of the gate with a painfully accurate comment about how dull and boring graduation ceremonies are and by poking fun at himself for being a third-rate celebrity speaker. However, it’s not all jokes, as he delivers some scathing and reflective remarks about the terrible state of the world and the unpredictability of life. Some of his jokes may land a little flat, but the combination of humor and sincerity make Jon Stewart’s speech a good one.

#9: Aaron Sorkin

Syracuse University (2012)

Aaron Sorkin is one of our generation’s finest writers, so you know that his commencement speech was going to be something magnificent. Sorkin spoke at Syracuse University and within the first three minutes he was calling the graduates super dumb and barely functional. It doesn’t get much better from there, as he relays anecdotes about a failed actor, AIDS, and a debilitating drug addiction. But like a tough parent, he uses these topics to touch on the harsh realities of life. While he eventually speaks about doing good, his bluntness is refreshing. Sometimes the most inspirational thing to hear is that life sucks!

#8: Tom Hanks

Yale College (2011)

Let’s be serious, Tom Hanks could trip on his robe and do nothing but cough into the microphone for fifteen minutes and we’d all call it inspirational. But all joking aside, Hanks proves with this beautiful speech that he is just as lovely a man as everyone thinks he is. Hanks shows up clad in a suit and a Yale cap and absolutely commands the crowd for the next twenty minutes, offering incredibly well-thought out jokes and inspiration in equal measure. His views on fear and faith are beautiful and uplifting, and it allows us to feel, however briefly, a little more hopeful.

#7: J. K. Rowling

Harvard University (2008)

If there’s anyone we can look up to, it’s J.K. Rowling. Rowling came from depression and poverty, but changed her life into something extraordinary and historical. In her speech, the humble Rowling uses the Harvard stage to discuss the importance of failure. However, she uses this tough topic as a springboard to discuss ambition and self-betterment. She used her own failure to realize certain things about herself and to focus on what she was good at – writing. And now she’s a billionaire giving a commencement speech at Harvard. Failure is an uncomfortable but necessary part of life, and hearing it from J.K. Rowling is, paradoxically, incredibly comforting.

#6: Meryl Streep

Barnard College (2010)

Expectations were probably sky high for Meryl Streep’s Barnard College commencement speech. After all, she’s one of the greatest and most celebrated actors of all time, so she knows a thing or two about achieving success. Streep forewent the usual all-encompassing and generic inspirational platitudes to address and focus on the primarily female audience. She talks about the rise of strong female protagonists in film, the shedding of prejudices about women, and the rise of empathy. Streep does not touch on material success, but she allows us to feel hope for a better and more equal and balanced future.

#5: Conan O’Brien

Dartmouth College (2011)

With this speech, Conan O’Brien demonstrates why he is considered a masterful comedian. He begins with numerous jokes about Dartmouth choosing him as speaker, the unfairness of life, the college’s president, and its wimpy motto. However, about three quarters of the way through he switches gears and speaks about his well-documented failure on “The Tonight Show.” Like those before him, he speaks about how failure gives people clarity and shapes them into becoming something truly original and unique. Celebrities have an innate ability to make us feel comfortable with the idea of failure, and perhaps no one makes us feel more comfortable than the warm, endearing, and endlessly funny Conan O’Brien.

#4: Ellen DeGeneres

Tulane University (2009)

We don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that Ellen DeGeneres is one of the most inspiring and groundbreaking entertainers of our generation. She inspired millions when she came out in 1997, and her behavior in the face of the resulting adversity was brave and encouraging. She brings this uplifting personality and optimism to her Tulane commencement speech. She uses her burdened past and the poor treatment she received to convey her belief that happiness comes from being true to who you are. If you know who you are and don’t conform to anyone’s ideas or pressure, you’ll be OK. Cue Lady Gaga.

#3: Steve Jobs

Stanford University (2005)

For his 2005 Stanford commencement, Steve Jobs relayed three stories about his life and three key lessons. The first story concerns connecting the dots in life. We don’t see the dots connecting things while we are busy living our lives, but we may see the bigger picture upon reflection. This, he says, is a form of destiny. The second story revolves around not settling and finding your true passions. The third involves his own cancer diagnosis and how it taught him the value of death. It all comes together to form a terrific speech about being true to yourself, following your heart, and going after what you were put on Earth to do.

#2: Barack Obama

Howard University (2016)

Man, just imagine getting Barack Obama as your commencement speaker. It’s safe to say that hype was extremely high for Obama’s speech at Howard, and luckily, he did not disappoint. Obama suitably touched on many problems facing America today, including difficult race relations, employment, and the huge gaps in justice for African Americans. However, he inspires confidence by declaring that the world is better and more inclusive than it has ever been, and that this generation has the power to inspire some truly world-altering change. This amazing speech was followed about a month later by an equally memorable one from Michelle for City College of New York, securing the Obamas’ legacy as national treasures.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

Jim Carrey

Maharishi University of Management (2014)

Amy Poehler

Harvard University (2011)

David Foster Wallace

Kenyon College (2005)

#1: Oprah Winfrey

USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism (2018)

Is it cliché to say that Oprah gives the best commencement speeches? Probably. But is it a cliché if it’s true? Oprah has given many terrific commencement speeches, including one at Stanford in 2008 and another at Harvard in 2013. However, her 2018 USC Annenberg speech is one for the ages. In it, she addresses the controversial political climate and the use of social media to spread toxicity and false information. However, she also gives everyone hope by declaring that we have the power to ward off evil, to combat false information, and to spread joy. It was a much-welcomed and necessary balm in the midst of a turbulent time in American history.

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