Lo and Behold, the day so many of the nation’s brightest minds waited for had finally arrived. A rainy Thursday afternoon, May 25th, 2017 is one Harvard graduates will seldom forget, as they reached the celebratory day of graduation and received the most expensive piece of paper they’ll ever find.

Harvard’s reputation is one that does not need to be explained, and their commencement addresses often reflect so.

In the past ten years, commencement speakers have included Bill Gates, J.K. Rowling, Steven Spielberg, Michael Bloomberg, and Oprah Winfrey. Their 366th commencement was no different as it was Facebook founder (and famous Harvard dropout) Mark Zuckerberg’s turn to take the stage.

In preceding Facebook posts, Zuckerberg had revealed he spent months writing his speech, even travelling to the Cambridge campus early to visit his old dorm, reminisce about first dates with his now wife, Priscilla Chan, and look back on where everything started.

As the crowd donned ponchos and umbrellas, Zuckerberg wore his famous care-free smile and childlike excitement. He strode to the stage and began with a resounding “I love this place!” – The audience agreed.

What followed was a series of jokes and personal anecdotes which Zuckerberg laid out quite well. He told stories of his short time at Harvard and poked fun at his own lack of completion at the prestigious university. During this entire period he spoke eloquently with excitement, passion, and an overall attitude that engaged everyone. See how happy the people behind him look? (Above)

The fun aside, Zuckerberg quickly moved into his main talking point: ways to create a world where everyone has a sense of purpose. Not about finding purpose, he notes, but creating a world where everyone has a sense of it.

I strongly suggest watching the speech as the content itself and the points made are very moving and insightful. For that, hats off to Mark Zuckerberg.

Particularly intriguing, however, is the transition in atmosphere that was portrayed as the topic moved from personal anecdotes to serious advice for the leaders of tomorrow. An immediate change in facial expressions, tone, hand gestures, and voice fluctuation was present. He was becoming more serious as the topics did, which is not out of the ordinary.

As he dove deeper into the speech, Zuckerberg became more and more driven by what he had to say. He spoke about big, meaningful projects and doing things with one’s time that felt valuable. These are messages that resonate with the audience and were delivered by one of the world’s most influential, and therefore credible, people.

So why did the audience start to become visibly less interested?

There are a few key things to look for when a speaker goes from engaging the crowd to sounding like a lecturer. The first is a change in content. While Zuckerberg moved from charismatic teenage stories to deep messages about purpose, everything he said had a fair amount of resonating qualities with the audience. He wrote a great speech, one with many ups and downs.

The second potential indicator is the way a speaker’s facial expressions change. Due to the change in the nature of the content, Zuckerberg went from a smile and a laugh here and there to a very serious facial expression. This is often thought to be necessary when moving to a more serious subject, but an audience will actually remain more engaged if a speaker continues that same charismatic facial expression.

It’s no secret that messages resonate with people more effectively when delivered by a peer rather than a lecturer or superior.

Compare his facial expression and the interest level of the people behind him in the picture below with the first picture above. See the difference?

When Zuckerberg went from being the fellow college student telling funny stories to the experienced mentor giving life advice, he should have kept a similar facial expression – perhaps not laughing depending on the content, but consider the light-hearted facial expression made while explaining something to a friend versus the stern expression made when having a disagreement with a colleague: who is more likely to listen?

The final and perhaps most influential factor in audience engagement is voice tone and fluctuation, and from Zuckerberg it is night and day.

When his stories echoed in the Harvard campus he kept a fair pace, emphasized necessary points, and paused to give the crowd time to process his message. This is why everyone knew when to clap in the beginning of his commencement address.

Looking at his transition to meaningful messages of higher purpose, he did a full 180. Zuckerberg spoke with an impactful voice, but one that had little variation. The key to emphasizing points through tone is that contrast is key.

If you speak in a forceful tone for the entire speech, nothing in particular is emphasized. However, by fluctuating tone at certain points the audience pays much more attention.

Remember the kid in class who always had something to say? You probably tuned them out. Remember when the quiet kid spoke up for the first time in weeks? The class was so attentive you could hear a pin drop. Contrast is key

The zenith of awkward pacing for the audience was reached due to Zuckerberg’s pausing: it was all over the place. There were slight pauses inbetween key thoughts, yet no real time for processing when transitioning between entire messages and subjects.

One minute healthcare and the next democracy. Skip to 14:15 in the video below and watch 20 seconds.

Zuckerberg passionately says we must find a cure for diseases rather than just treating them – a very powerful sentiment. A few people begin to clap, cheer, etc. as he quickly moves on to his next talking point.

The audience loves participating in your speech. If you say something impactful, people want to cheer and show their support for a point. When not given that chance, it’s less engaging. Finish a thought. Wait a few seconds. Then move on.

The key takeaways here? Deliver meaningful content to an audience like you would when telling a story or explaining a point to a friend. Be passionate, impactful, fluctuate your voice, and pause appropriately.

Effective emphasis and pausing tells the audience when to clap and keeps them on the edge of their seats!

To Mark Zuckerberg, I have the greatest respect for you and all your success. I have every faith that you’ll continue to be a great leader in our society and share meaningful and insightful ideas that shape tomorrow. Let’s work together to ensure that each of these ideas are not just heard, but received.

If you’re reading this, please reach out!

-Ryan Laverty


You can watch the Speech Here

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