For its commencement speaker, the University of Wisconsin chose a football player.
And last month, when administrators asked the former Badger great and now an NFL star to send them the script he planned to deliver, he refused. "I said, 'What do you mean?'" J.J. Watt told ESPN. "'I don't write speeches. I'm just going to go up there and talk.'"
And that's pretty much what he did last Saturday in Madison. (He didn't use the teleprompters you see below.)
And it wasn't just university administrators who Watt unnerved. Early in the speech (around the 2:30 mark), the defensive end threw some head-slaps at professional speechwriters, making remarks that one of our executive communication colleagues who was there characterized as "disappointing and clueless, maybe even a bit damaging."
Maybe I shoulda wrote it down. Professional speechwriters said, "I will help you write your speech." … And my response was—and I hope I’m right—"I think they asked me to be their speaker because they want to hear what I have to say. Not what you have to say. Not what a speechwriter can write for me. Not what I can sit down and write out over the course of multiple months, and what I think you want to hear." I think and I hope that you want to hear what I’ve learned throughout my time, and what the University of Wisconsin taught me, what my career has taught me, what some of the things that I’ve been through in my life have taught me. …
And then, blissfully free of the shackles of speechwriting convention, Watt went on to issue forth the sorts of commencement platitudes that speakers have been spewing since the first graduation day at Athens Tech.
Among the bro-mides that Watt didn't need a speechwriter to help him come up with:
“You should have as big of dreams as you want to have. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
“The path to your dreams often never goes the way you imagine it will.”
“We all can use a helping hand.”
“Even on your darkest days … you can learn from it, you can grow from it, there is a silver lining that you can find.”
But you know what? As far as the audience was concerned, Watt's speech was probably every bit as effective as an average speechwriter would have done.
First, Watt brought the right spirit to the occasion. A light mood, but a sincere message.
There was some pretty good humor, because Watt is a pretty funny guy. He said a Wisconsin boy's closet consists of only three color combinations: green and gold (for the Packers), red and white (for the Badgers), and camo.
Watt also illustrated his points with appropriate stories and specific details. He showed vulnerability and candor, even putting himself in the his audience's shoes by admitting that he sometimes sits with a cup of coffee and wonders about his post-playing career: “What the hell am I going to do with the rest of my life?”
And he told a genuine story about the revelation he received when, even in these divisive times, Americans poured money into a fund he created to help victims of Hurricane Harvey, in Houston.
And he ended the speech with rhythm and style—an utterly conventional rhythm and style—that pleased the audience into a happy ovation.
Listen for yourself, and I think you'll agree: J.J. Watt is solid dude and a pretty thoughtful football player who gave a more than passable commencement speech.
As Watt also said in his opening, "Just because I didn’t write a speech down does not mean that I didn’t prepare. I spent time watching YouTube videos from many commencement speeches from many different people. Just like you, I read a whole lot of Wikipedia pages. And last night I crammed it all in and wrote something down on this little piece of paper."
In short, Watt thought a lot about what he wanted to say, and how he wanted to say it. He has a decent ear for how speeches are supposed to sound, and plenty of confidence in his delivery.
The day that all those things can be said about most leaders and most of the speeches they deliver, speechwriters will have to worry.
Meanwhile, as J.J. Watt considers his post-football life: Hey, maybe he can use his gifts to help other, less articulate athletes give better speeches. He's welcome to attend Speechwriting School, where he would learn the final points of how a speaker and a speechwriter might collaborate on a speech, to help the speaker express personal ideas without saying "shoulda wrote," at an institution of higher learning.
But if Watt thinks he's getting a scholarship, he's got another thing coming.
He'll have to pay his dues and prove himself, just like everybody else.
Welcome to the PSA, rookie.