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College students and their families say they’d be less likely to snooze through a commencement speech delivered by Oprah Winfrey or Queen Latifah than former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton or Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

That’s according to a Credible-sponsored poll of 1,000 people who were asked to rate the appeal of more than a dozen well-known personalities scheduled to speak at college commencement ceremonies around the nation this spring.

Those taking Credible’s survey said they’d feel more inspired by Apple CEO Tim Cook than Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and rated children’s author Daniel Handler (“Lemony Snicket”) more intriguing than ESPN anchor Hannah Storm.

Key survey highlights

  • Oprah Winfrey, Jimmy Carter and Queen Latifah were rated as the most exciting commencement speakers among this year’s headliners
  • Top-rated speakers tended to be “safe bets” that few were offended by, or “polarizing” candidates with more passionate supporters than critics
  • College commencement speeches may sometimes be dismissed as a rote formality, but more than 60% of those polled said commencement speakers were, or will be, "extremely" or "very" important to their graduation experience
The chart below shows how excited poll respondents said they would be to hear the following commencement speakers at a college graduation ceremony. Respondents rates each speaker on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the least appealing and 5 the most.

Polarizers and ‘safe bets’

Looking beyond the averages and breaking out results by individual, some top-ranked speakers seemed to have a polarizing effect — many people tended to rate them as either most appealing (five), or least appealing (one). Oprah, Hillary Clinton and Queen Latifah are examples of high-ranking, but polarizing, speakers.

Most students and their families didn’t feel that strongly about “safe bets” one way or the other.

Other speakers could be characterized as “safe bets.” Most students and their families didn’t feel that strongly about them one way or the other, rating them in the middle of the scale (two, three or four). Michael Keaton and Tim Cook were among the top, non-controversial picks.

The tendency of top-rated speakers to either be polarizing or safe bets helps explain why only a handful of speakers registered average scores greater than three out of five.

Oprah, who will speak at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism on May 11, received more “most appealing” ratings (282 people rated her a five) than any other speaker. But her overall average score — 3.17 — was dragged down by 243 “least appealing” votes.

Survey respondents were most likely to rate Michael Keaton a three, and the star of “Batman” and “Mr. Mom” also attracted the second fewest number of “least appealing” votes (194).

Former President Carter was the least objectionable speaker.

Although former President Carter was the least objectionable speaker — receiving a survey-low 192 “least appealing” votes — he still received “most appealing” ratings from 257 respondents.

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on the other hand, not only received the fewest number of “most appealing” votes (72), but 381 survey respondents rated him a one (“least appealing”).

Clinton was rated as the “least appealing” speaker votes (393) of any speaker. But she also had a base of support from 215 respondents who rated her “most appealing.”

Keeping the audience in mind

Of course, every school’s student body is unique, and colleges often seek commencement speakers with their specific audience’s interests in mind.

DeVos and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will undoubtedly get friendlier receptions at Ave Maria University and Virginia Military Institute than they would at Kent State University or Barnard College, where Keaton and soccer star and LGBTQ activist Abby Wambach are slated to speak.

Graduates of Lynchburg, Tennessee-based Liberty University may find ex-President Carter an inspiring choice. Last year, newly-elected President Donald Trump was the featured speaker at the private, evangelical Christian college’s graduation ceremony.

(Credible’s survey was conducted on April 6, two weeks before Trump announced that he plans to address graduates of the United States Naval Academy on May 25.)

President Trump delivered the commencement address at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, on May 13, 2017.

Video extends a speech’s reach and impact

In the age of YouTube and social media, the right commencement speaker can not only please graduates and their families, but raise the school’s visibility.

More than a formality

Although students and their families may not be hanging on a commencement speaker’s every word, only 12 percent of respondents said their commencement speaker was (or will be) “not at all important” to their graduation experience.

Among those who’d attended their own college graduation, only (45%) remembered who delivered their commencement address. Nearly three-quarters of that group (75%) said their commencement speaker added to their overall graduation experience.

Driving home the importance of selecting an appropriate speaker, 13% of those who remembered their commencement speaker said the chosen speaker detracted from their overall graduation experience. Roughly the same number said the speaker had no impact.

If they could pick anyone

Provided the opportunity to choose any living person to speak at their commencement ceremony, regardless of whether that person is actually delivering a 2018 commencement address, the top 10 picks were:

  1. Barack Obama
  2. Donald Trump
  3. Morgan Freeman
  4. Oprah Winfrey
  5. Bill Gates
  6. Michelle Obama
  7. Mark Zuckerberg
  8. Will Smith
  9. Hillary Clinton
  10. Neil deGrasse Tyson

Other popular write-ins included musicians and singers (such as Kanye West, Bruno Mars, Paul McCartney, Pink, Reba McEntire, Willie Nelson, and Usher); comedians (including Dave Chappelle, Jim Carrey, and Roseanne Barr); movie actors and directors (such as Angelina Jolie, Christopher Walken, Clint Eastwood, Robert DeNiro, Jennifer Aniston, Johnny Depp, and John Cena); celebrities and TV personalities (including Kim Kardashian, Bill Maher, Dave Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, and Dr. Phil); athletes and coaches (such as Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Brett Favre, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Nick Saban); politicians (including Newt Gingrich, Mike Pence, Ron Paul, Al Gore and Bernie Sanders); and business leaders (such as Satya Nadella, Richard Branson, Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates).

A significant number of respondents said they’d like to hear their mother, father, or a favorite teacher speak at their graduation.

Methodology: Online survey of 1,000 adults 18 and over conducted April 6, 2018 by Pollfish.