Thursday, July 3, 2008

Writing a Valedictory Speech

In December 2007, I was honoured by my class to be elected Valedictorian. I was and am greatly pleased to have been chosen, but I may have been a bit more circumspect initially if I'd known what the task would entail.

Heading in I knew a few of the necessary details:

  • the audience would be my immediate nursing class (not the French and English classes from the other campuses), our faculty and our family and friends.

  • the speech would be at the traditional nursing pinning ceremony not the convocation. (Our convocation speaker & honourary doctorate recipient was Cathy Crowe, Toronto street nurse & my hero! Here's her speech in her newsletter and it's also in my previous post with the French translated.)

  • I would conclude the ceremony after speeches from both the Dean and our 3rd/4th year co-ordinator, awards and pinning portions were completed.
  • I'd have between 5 and 15 minutes -- 2 numbers which made me panic for several different reasons: Would I say enough? Could I say it all? Would I start droning on and on and on?
The idea of having 5 months to prepare seemed like heaps and heaps of time (one minute a month I joked...). My usual paper writing technique usually involves reading, researching and mulling over possible themes for weeks... until the point I start writing, a point that is usually the very last possible moment. I knew there would be some researching to do for the speech (quotes, facts and factoids) but I couldn't get those until I knew what my themes were.

So, here's what I did:

  • I started a notebook with ideas, just random, brainstormed ideas. No idea was too stupid to get written down. Nursing school is like a Far Side cartoon? You bet. Often. But, you didn't hear about that from me much past February, '08... This notebook was great because I fleshed out a few ideas exactly how I would say them if I was talking, or writing a term paper. In the end was able to change and use the best bits and/or the ones that flowed. Some pretty well developed ideas got left on the office room floor.

  • Much like a single person looking to get hitched, or a networking person looking for a new job, I told everyone that I had a big speech to write. Lots of people have heaps of experience (Toastmasters anyone?) and were able to share advice, often contradictory: "Have one idea and articulate it well" vs. " Use 3 ideas and then tie it all together" or "Start with a quote" vs. "NEVER start with a quote! Build up to a quote." I kinda glommed them all together and used three quotes that I built up to by articulating several ideas and then tied them altogether. Kinda.

  • I listened to/read other speeches. I did a bunch of the usual things: looked up a few on You Tube, I googled "Writing an inspirational speech", I looked at the speeches in my old high school yearbooks. Luckily (for me) in the months preceeding my pinning ceremony I had a wedding to go to, and a memorial (not so lucky, but great, great speeches), my partners med school graduation ceremony and her grad banquet. Also, I attended the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario AGM. Here I networked with lots of nurses. Work on getting a job? Nah, I asked about speeches. I was also privilaged to see both Dr. Sheela Basrur [youtube of a portion of that speech here] and Maude Barlow speak. Speeches aplenty! And I tried to remember what worked and what didn't.

  • To kill the writer's block, I wrote out a bunch of key points as if I were writing a really casual personal email/letter to someone: "Hey, just wanted to tell you about the best parts of nursing school were..." This (& Maude Barlowe) got me to the whole social justice part of my speech, which was major and the part I'm most proud of -- I think my classmates' accomplishments in this area were great and an excellent starting point in drawing out some of the big picture, group ideas that get lost on grad day when everyone is focused on "Today, I'm getting MY degree".
  • I left it for about a week before the big day because the day before our speech day was ANOTHER big day: the Canadian Registered Nurse Examination (CRNE). So I studied. But the speech was never far from my mind: some of the study material worked it's way in. Also, that late night, all speech'd eve my mum arrived for the grad weekend from Calgary (Mum's a grad of the St. Mary's Hospital Nursing School, 1952)

  • I ended up pulling it all together the evening after the exam but before I went to pick mum up at the airport as well as the morning before the ceremony. I would not recommend this. I was editing on the walk over to the University before the ceremony. Bad Idea. I never read it for anyone else before reading it out to the class. HORRIBLE IDEA!

Despite that, after all was said and done, it went well. I messed up a bit (well, HELLO! I didn't practice!), but I got good feedback. I did have to follow my classmate Kim (pictured right, I'm on the left) who gave speech after winning an award. She hates public speaking and yet she did awesomely. She gave a very touching tribute to her family and recited a Maya Angelou poem from memory! This was the act I had to follow!

Here are my hot tips if you have to present something similar (based on my experience and from watching other speakers):

  • In the week of anxiety leading up to the speech use visualization. Even though I never really read it through completely, as I was writing I visualized giving a great speech. If I got worried about screwing up in a particular way I visualized screwing up that way and fixing it gracefully.
  • There are some last minute changes that I do recommend: listen to the speakers before you and integrate their points/themes where they connect with yours. Give them the necessary credit, of course (and get the right person--I gave credit to the wrong one--oops)! Integrate any award winners, jokes or anything from earlier in the ceremony (with credit) if it fits and makes sense. If you know what someone after you is going to do, DON'T mention it. Don't steal their thunder.
  • If you flub a line, just stop. Don't say "um" or "sorry" or "Oh shit". Just stop and figure out where it went pear-shaped and start over. If you say completely the wrong thing DO say "Pardon me" or "Excuse me" and then repeat enough of it over again that it will make sense on it's own. If you just re-say the part you messed up the audience will be confused; you need to hand them the context over again.
  • Don't forget to bring your water up to the podium with you. I did. Oops. I felt like my lips were stuck together and my tongue was caught in the back of my throat.
  • If you lose your place just calmly take a sip of water and quietly find it. If you drop your papers, don't frantically shuffle them around. Calmly pick them up and sort them. Pretend you are doing it in slow motion to keep from looking frantic.
  • Use anecdotes and jokes that the vast majority of the audience is going to relate to or at least a selection for different groups so that all groups get represented. In my speech some of the jokes were insider nursing stuff so family and friends would be left out, but some I tried to make universal so every one was included. One of the speeches in one of my high school year books would only have been good if the historian had been presenting solely to the ski racers, football team and her best friends. Thanks, on behalf of everyone else.
  • Try NOT to read speeches from something that is too close in theme to yours. You'll just end up stuck on the themes of other people and not creating your own ideas. Also, don't copy speeches you find online. It's bad karma and you will suffer eternally. With that said, if you are a valedictorian, nursing or otherwise:



Here's my Speech to the University of Ottawa in Collaboration with Algonquin College BScNursing class of 2008 (including cues for me for pauses, etc):

Family, Friends, & Faculty,

It is my great honour to address you and the newly minted nurses of the University of Ottawa -- in Collaboration with Algonquin College-- Bachelor of Science Nursing Class of 2008!

I’d like to invite the ’08 nurses –because I know how much the LOVE it – to REFLECT (but don’t worry, you don’t have to journal it) but to reflect on their first day of Nursing School.

When I did recently, I noticed how much variety there is in our class. That first day some of us were
· back at class after the summer following high school or a college prep year,
· some had moved from another city or province or country,
· some were back after switching from another career,
· some had just dropped their kids off at their first day of day care,
· others had recently become “empty nesters”
but all of us were ready to embark on nursing—our idea of nursing, whatever that was! And our incomprehension of exactly what we were getting into was just the first stumbling block really… first year was full of, well, TEACHING, --seminars on how to make SOAP?! what did this have to do with NURSING?! Where were the NEEDLES!?

And now look where we are,
· people have moved from their parents home,
· relationships have started, & some people are engaged or are now married,
· deep networks of friendships have been established,
· classmates have become parents,
· yesterday we wrote—as one person put on her facebook status “the biggest exam of my life ever!”,
· high school grads--by next Monday--will be university grads.

In fact, we’ve completed the one thing shown in double-blind trials in peer-reviewed journals to be the one real marker of future nursing success: THIRD YEAR! The real thing to remember from third year is, it doesn’t matter if you don’t like one of the nurses you work with in the future, you won’t have to write a group paper with him or her… or if you do have to write a paper with him or her, hopefully that next time you’ll know what the heck that paper is about!

Honestly, is just me or did fourth year happen in the blink of an eye? It was like first and second year was the hike in, third year when we climbed the mountain, and fourth year was the tired walk down the valley to today.

Anyways, through all of those transitions in our personal lives our view of-and abilities in- nursing have changed from that first year. We understand that accumulation of skills wasn’t the point but the appreciation of client’s context and experiences. In listening to my former classmates -now colleagues- final Professionalism presentations a couple of months ago, over and over again people said that the best day of their consolidation placement wasn’t an amazing NG tube placement, or difficult patient with a chest tube and multiple IVs, but rather the day they handled difficult situations smoothly or juggled a bunch of patients and changes in plans well. It was that point where the facts and assessment skills learned over the previous years were the framework, and the ability to integrate it all came together and creativity and nuance became the keys to success.

There is a key player I’ve kind of glossed over in this discussion of integration and transition in our lives—the patient. Because now that we have begun to integrate all that we know – or think we know – and have begun to trust ourselves to do this we can truly be patient-centred in our practice. Somewhere in all of that will come the point where we will learn that the “being with” patients is the crux of it all rather than the “doing for” or the “getting from”.

And one of my points of pride is that we do have a class of people that look out from their own practice and lives to figure out how we can advocate for others. I recently got the chance to hear Maude Barlowe speak—she’s a huge advocate against the commodification of basic human needs like water or health care. Anyways, she quoted a 92 year old suffragette, feminist and life-long activist friend who says that “Social Justice is like taking a bath, if you don’t do it everyday you stink!”.

Our class understands this in spades and has lived it in a multitude of ways:
· by the grad committee in raising nearly $1500 for the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario’s HIV/AIDS foundation
· by taking a year and working internationally like Aleisha,
· by going to Sri Lanka after the Tsunami in 2005 like Kyla,
· by raising awareness for open adoption records in Ontario like Trina,
· by standing up like Adenike in one of the best bits of public speaking I’ve ever been witness to and pointing out very emotionally and eloquently the diversity of Africa as a continent and not a uniformly impoverished, HIV +, singular entity thank-you-very-much,
· by promoting leaving the pack behind well beyond getting credit for it,
· by getting everyone to sign birthday cards for a kid at CHEO who wanted to set a world record,
· and a multitude other examples of blogging, facebooking, and participating in fundraisers and petitions and organizations.


If you are here today, not as faculty or as a new nurses, but as one of the parents, grandparents, partners, spouses, children, friends who supported us through these 4 or 5 years and yet like the faculty and former students you know
· your CRNE from your CNO...
· your SN from your RN...
· if making any decision in your house now requires a lengthy
Assessment/Analysis/ Planning/Implementation /Evaluation process...
· if your graduating loved one surfaced from studying for the CRNE recently and you thought to yourself “Oh, THAT’s what they meant by self-care deficit”...
· and if you are here today because you watched your loved one transition from a na├»ve, mortified, disorganized anxiety-ball to a confident, caring and compassionate professional ...

...then this degree is as much yours as ours and we all join in thanking you for your love, encouragement and support for us through the process.


Also deserving of many thank-yous are the faculty. [Insert on the day: Val, thanks for putting up with the noise!] Initially, we were a disparate group united by a desire to care for and be with others on their journey to improve or maintain their health and now we are a group united as nurses who are capable of doing just that and it is you that we can thank for this.

Also can I say, despite how much we complained about it -- and I know I complained about it just about as much as the next person-- so this may sound odd, but thank you for professionalism class. Over and over in the final professionalism class watching my classmate’s presentations it was plain that professionalism was no longer a 3 hour seminar & discussion, but something we’ve all learned to embody and express in our words and actions and we have the faculty and instructors to thank. Tennyson said “I am part of all that I have met” and on behalf of all of the class, we are honoured to have met and had you all as part of our lives.

To my classmates, as the Dalai Lama is known to have said “The practice of compassion itself brings inner strength” so to the Nurses of Tomorrow, the class of 2008, I wish you all a long future of continued inner strength. Yesterday, people said they wanted inspiration from this speech here today. Please know that it is from all of you that I draw my inspiration.

Thank you & Congratulations.

*Pics stolen from:


dogsled_stacie said...

Jen, that was AWESOME!!! I loved the write-up too on how your prepared... classic Jen!! LOL

dogsled_stacie said...

That is "how YOU prepared..." duh... me going to bee valediktorian too!!!!

Jen said...

Thanks Stace! See, I'm spending my abundant free time gainfully-ish...

Writing a Research Paper said...

Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.

Wendybob said...

Thanks for the inspiration! (Though I won't plaigarize, I promise!!) I found out today that I have to give a valedicory speech on SATURDAY!!!

Hence the frantic Googling for inspiration. Thank you and I hope your nursing career is going fabulously!

gippy honey said...

You can now order an official Delta Gamma gold plated badge for $39.50. Over the years, some of you may have lost your original badge. Now there is a very affordable one available for purchase from J. Brandt!
nursing pinning ceremony

jowdjbrown said...

I knew that her speech sounded the socialist utopian themes that her husband has been advocating throughout this election, but I did not realize she had gone so far as to quote Alinsky.
speech recognition program