Case Study: David McCollough’s Commencement Address to Wellesley High School

June 11, 2012

By Tasha Frankie, Ph.D.

David McCullough Jr.’s commencement address to the students of Wellesley High School has been receiving attention recently because it delivered a message atypical of commencement addresses, namely “You’re not special.” However, in delivering this message, McCullough intended to inspire students to pursue life. Here, EffectCheck® is used to explore the lexical impact of the emotions that he evoked in his address across three different categories of communication: generic, congratulations, and opinion.

The Address Generically

When examining Mr. McCullough’s speech with EffectCheck, the generic category shows it to be relatively high in evoking anxiety through the use of words such as {not, no, but}, as well as hostility {not, don’t, no}, and depression {not, no, but}. It’s also slightly higher than typical communication in evoking confidence through words such as {life, best, special, will, love}, as well as compassion {you, your, love, life, weddings}, and happiness {life, love, best, all, weddings, special}. Graph 1 shows the EffectCheck profile across the six emotional scales that EffectCheck addresses.

Commencement Address EffectCheck Generice Analysis

Graph 1: EffectCheck analysis of McCullough’s commencement address
as compared to generic communication.

Viewed as a Congratulatory Speech

Commencement addresses are not a generic form of communication. They are intended to congratulate graduates, and inspire them in the future. Thus it is also appropriate to examine McCullough’s address relative to other congratulation communications. In this category, we see that McCullough’s address evoked very high levels of anxiety, hostility, and depression, and very low levels of confidence, compassion, and happiness, relative to typical congratulatory remarks. Yet, parents and students alike responded favorably to the speech. McCullough told students what they shouldn’t be proud of, and challenged them to reach further for true accomplishments. This resonated well with his audience and stood out as something out of the ordinary. Graph 2 shows the EffectCheck analysis for the address relative to congratulatory remarks.

Commencement Address EffectCheck Congratulatory Analysis

Graph 2: EffectCheck analysis of McCullough’s commencement address
as compared to congratulatory remarks.

The Address as an Opinion Piece

McCullough’s address was also certainly his opinion shared with the graduating students. In the context of an opinion article, EffectCheck shows that the speech evoked high to very high levels of compassion and happiness, and between low and typical levels of anxiety, hostility, depression, and confidence. Graph 3 shows the profile for the address in light of other opinion pieces. The high level of evoked happiness and compassion help explain why the speech was so well received even though it was delivering a message of "you’re not special."

Commencement Address EffectCheck Opinion Analysis

Graph 3: EffectCheck analysis of McCullough’s commencement address
as compared to opinion pieces.

Summary

Speeches often span across multiple categories of communication. It sometimes is necessary to examine the emotional impacts of an address relative to several categories in combination with word clouds to determine priming effects and to assess whether or not the overall lexical emotional impact is as intended. Mr. McCullough’s commencement address is one example in which no single category completely covers the intended goals of the address; however, examining multiple categories can provide insight into why such a seemingly negative speech (when viewed in the context of a generic document or a congratulatory letter) was well received by the audience.

The full text of the commencement address can be found here: http://www.bostonherald.com/news/regional/view.bg?&articleid=1061137286&format=&page=1&listingType=Loc