Ghosted Graduation

One of the more hilarious eccentricities of the nonconformist Vanderhof brood in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1936 play, You Can’t Take It With You, was Grandpa Vanderhof’s fondness for listening to commencement speeches. Even back then, it was well-established that the only people who really enjoyed listening to commencement speeches were the speakers themselves. Chatterbox has never been a commencement speaker. (This makes him feel a little blue this time of year.) But he has always assumed that writing a graduation speech–especially a really tedious graduation speech–would be lots of fun. Where else would you be given the opportunity to force a large audience to sit still while you disgorged every idiot notion you ever had about the meaning of life?

For some people, however, writing commencement speeches apparently is not fun. Or so Chatterbox gathered when he stumbled on David Slack’s Web site. “You have a commencement or graduation speech to deliver, and just don’t have time to prepare it?” it begins. “You’re looking for something fresh to say? You’ve come to the right place.” For a fee that’s typically between $100 and $200, Slack will write the speech for you. Slack, a former speech writer for former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, has been running an online speech-writing business since 1995. In addition to writing commencement speeches, he writes keynote speeches, motivational speeches, retirement speeches, annual-meeting speeches, end-of-the-year banquet speeches, and wedding speeches, to name a few.

When Chatterbox rang him up in Auckland, New Zealand, Slack was deep in his May-June busy season, when he typically writes two or three speeches a day. “I just turned one around in an hour,” he said. “That was for someone who was panicking.” Slack said about 95 percent of his business comes from tongue-tied VIPs in the United States. He wouldn’t name names, of course, but he did tick off some of his venues. “I did one for the MBA program at Boston U,” he said. “I did one at Wharton.”

Before composing a commencement speech, Slack has clients fill out an e-mail questionnaire (“Is there any particular reason you have been invited to speak?” “How long would you like to speak?”). Then, usually also by e-mail, Slack grills the client about the school in question, the sort of people likely to be in the audience, and the client’s own career and “personal convictions.” With a modesty that is no doubt mandatory in this trade, Slack told Chatterbox that his role is merely to draw out from the speaker what it is he or she has to say. “The content is never the problem,” he said. “It’s the form. If you can show them how to open it in an engaging way, carry it along in a compelling way, and bring it to a conclusion in a memorable way, then you have a great speech.” Does Slack recycle material? “Sometimes,” he confessed, “there will be some nice lines or nice images that I’ll move from one speech to another.” Quotations that are appropriate once are liable to be appropriate again. But Slack insisted that once he’s used a piece of rhetoric “one, two, or three times, I get tired of it,” and he doesn’t use it again. Honest.