Ask Helen: Public Speaking

Dear Helen:

I’ve been asked to give the keynote at my son’s small liberal arts college graduation. I’m not shy, but I’m just a software game designer whose app went viral. Can you get me started?


Dear Non-Dignitary:

Experience is hard to transfer, and hard-earned wisdom often sounds like banal platitudes. But what you say might get remembered or help some kid live a better or easier life. Think about what you wish you’d known sooner, about what you learned over time, in slow and sometimes painful ways. Offer up reality and hope in equal measure.

Be honest, sincere and brief. Talk about what you know and how you learned it. Make the talk punchy. Speak in simple, clear sentences. Let them see the real you behind the words (and the app). Tell the truth as you know it: whatever you think will make their lives happier, even if it’s not all roses. Make them think; make them laugh; make them listen.

I’d say some or all of the below:

Choose to be happy. Life’s too short to be miserable or to make things more complicated than you need to. Take your lumps when they come and learn how to bounce. Life’s full of knuckleheads and knuckleballs. No one’s immune or exempt. Make your own good luck; then be willing to share it.

Make time for good friends and loving family. They’ll be there for you in the long run. And you’ll get to be there for them. Some of what you’ll remember best when you get older aren’t the easy or happy times. They may be crises when you had to make tough decisions, when you had an opportunity to step up, help out and give much more than you may think you are able.

Take good care of your body and your health. Your youth may make you feel you’re immune from aging. But all those munchies add up. Smart eating and regular exercise will enable you to enjoy life longer and more happily than if you end up a bloated coach potato. Learn to cook a week’s variety of healthy foods. It’ll help you get dates too.

Keep reading and learning. Pursue knowledge in every form, even once your diploma is wall art. That can mean anything from trying a new language or sport to a new computer game. Keep your mind facile and active so it’s there when you need it.

Enjoy what you do for a living. Try for something you genuinely love. If that’s not possible, aim for jobs that optimize your strengths but also keep challenging you. Any day you wake up dreading going to work, update your resume and start looking for new opportunities.

Spend your money wisely. Have fun and adventures. Treat your friends when you’re flush and they’re not. Don’t be too proud to say thanks when you need help. Save for things you want or can’t predict you’ll need. Give tzedakah freely and often. Make your money work for you.

Take good care of your parents. They won’t be there forever; you’ll miss them when they’re gone. Make the time for an extra phone call or visit. Share your life. (OK, not everything, because they’ll forget they were just as reckless or stupid). Tell them often that you love them, and appreciate all they’ve done for you.

Be honest and kind. Offer to help often, even if it takes you out of your way. Tell folks what you feel, even if it’s awkward. Take care before you speak ill of others. Don’t let disagreements linger lest they erode your relationships.

Have a spiritual practice. Go to synagogue, meditate or go for long walks. Practice gratitude for all you’ve got. Appreciate something new each day. It’ll keep you happier in good times and get you through the tougher ones with less stress.

Stay flexible. You can’t control everything, and you shouldn’t want to. Control freaks are often frustrated. We live in a world of marvelous surprises. It’s good to have goals, and to plan to manifest them. But don’t go through life with blinders on. If you do, you’ll miss lots of what the universe offers. Leave room and time for good things to happen that you might not have the imagination to predict or ask for.

Love wisely, often and well. Make your world a loving environment for those around you and you’ll create a good and happy life for yourself. Know your values. Be willing to stand up for them and live by them. Laugh often and deeply along the way.

A resident of Eugene since 1981, Helen is a member of Temple Beth Israel, where she studies and speaks on Torah. She claims to have black belts in schmoozing, problem-solving and chutzpah. She’s a writer and an artist ( Please email your questions to

Print Friendly, PDF & Email