If there is one piece of wisdom about commencement which is most often ignored, it is this: the purpose of commencement is to honor your graduates and their accomplishments. That is it.
Of course, all commencements drift from their true purpose to varying degrees, which is fine right up until the point where the reasonable majority start to perceive the ceremony as droning on too long. As a commencement coordinator, part of your job involves managing the scope of your ceremony, and keeping the clock in-check so that graduates and spectators do not feel as though their time is not being valued. The unfortunate reality is that the longer your ceremony takes, the more likely it is you will face these scenarios:
- Graduates leaving the commencement ceremony early;
- Audience restlessness, which can be the catalyst for some spectator disruptions;
- Declining faculty and staff attendance at commencement, as your ceremony develops a negative reputation for its length;
- Graduates and their families remembering commencement not for its meaning and significance, but instead for taking too much time.
At a recent commencement at a major university, the ceremony featured:
- A four minute introduction of the university's president honoring all his awards and accolades
- A 15 minutes speech by the president touting the university's growth and success
- A four minute introduction for the keynote speaker, a state legislator whom it's safe to say not many people knew
- A 15 minute speech by the keynote speaker, much of which was devoted to his political initiatives
- Over five minutes of recognition of people such as the university's Board of Directors, dignitaries, and the spouse of the university's president
- A four minute presentation on the importance of staying involved with the university's alumni association
- Three faculty awards, complete with those individuals being recognized on stage to receive commemorative plaques
All of this was in addition to a 25 minute processional for graduates to enter the ceremony floor, the Presentation of Colors and singing of the National Anthem. It was almost an hour and a half into the commencement before the first of over 900 graduates approached the stage, and the entire event from start to finish was minutes shy of three hours. Not surprisingly, that ceremony suffered from audible audience restlessness and a significant number of walk-outs after graduates received their diplomas.
So what is the appropriate length for a commencement where graduates are individually recognized on stage? With the understanding that each ceremony is unique, the guidance provided below represents collective observations from GradImages, whose staff members attend thousands of commencements each year:
- One hour & 30 minutes: this is generally the "sweet spot." If your ceremony is wrapping up around the 90 minute mark, then most graduates and spectators can tolerate that length with ease, and should not perceive the ceremony as having taken too long.
- One hour & 45 minutes: by one hour and 45 minutes, many spectators begin to struggle with boredom. This is evident through a noticeable increase ambient conversational noise, and additionally evident because a significant number of graduates and audience members are looking down at their smart phones.
- Two hours: approaching the two-hour mark, boredom starts to lead to restlessness and, in some cases, rowdiness. Many graduates and spectators will perceive the ceremony as taking too long.
- Two hours & 30 minutes: by this point, most in attendance likely feel as though their time is not being valued, and the conclusion of the ceremony is perceived as being more important than any of the final items in the commencement program.
Again, these are broad, general observations from thousands of commencements across North America.
Every ceremony has its own set of unique circumstances, and there are legitimate reasons why some commencements might take longer than others. For example, your school or university might have a very prominent keynote speaker, or a large number of graduates. Comparatively speaking, "large" is generally more than 800 participants, Unfortunately, neither of the scenarios above would increase the attention span of graduates or spectators, which means you need to find other ways to keep the length of your ceremony under control.
In part two of our series, we will take a look at various methods schools and universities are taking to reduce the length of their commencement ceremonies.