Student speaker contest

Graduating students have the opportunity to submit for the Harvard Chan Student Speaker Contest to speak at Convocation and the Harvard University Student Orations Contest to speak at Commencement.

Harvard Chan student speaker contest

The 2024 deadline to submit is March 25, 2024, at 12:00 PM.

One graduating Harvard Chan student will be chosen to deliver a brief inspirational speech at the School’s Convocation Ceremony. Students interested in competing for this honor must submit a copy of their speech, no longer than five spoken minutes in length.

Interested students must:

  • Review the guidelines below.
  • Submit an electronic copy of your speech through the Student Speaker Contest Submission Form.
  • The top 3 finalists will be notified during the first week of April if they have been selected to advance to audition in person. A speech coach is available to help students prepare for the auditions.
  • In-person auditions will be scheduled in mid-April.
  • The finalist will be able to meet with a speech coach, for a minimum of 8 hours, between the auditions and the ceremony.

Authors of selected speeches will present their speeches to a selection committee composed of staff and students. The committee will then choose one speech for presentation at Convocation. If you have any questions regarding the competition, please email

We wish you the very best in the speech competition.

Harvard Chan convocation student speech guidelines

The following are suggested guidelines for the Harvard Chan student convocation speech, many of which come from students who have been involved in past speaker-selection processes. The speech ultimately needs to be delivered in less than 5 minutes and will eventually need to be no more than 550-600 words. For the selection process, speeches need to be less than 750 words.

Choosing a theme

The theme is the central idea to your speech. It should be specific to the speaker but have relevance to the wider audience. It can be helpful to brainstorm about a few key themes and ask others for input to make sure you are going in the right direction. Some themes to consider include:

• underscores the great need in the world for health, justice, and security
• presents a compelling human story from the speaker’s own life, e.g. your personal journey to public health
• illustrates the motivation why we’ve chosen to make public health our life’s work
• emphasizes the core need of collaboration in solving public health problems
• encompasses the student experience or an important lesson learned during your time at Harvard Chan

Developing a draft

One technique in drafting a speech is to begin by writing down all of your thoughts about a topic to generate ideas before you begin the editing process to hone in on your key messages. Once you have a draft that is developed without considering the constraints of time or word count, you can then begin to edit by removing pieces that are not relevant to your central theme.

Think about your speech in three parts: the introduction, body, and closing. Public speakers will often say that the structure of a speech involves a) telling an audience what you’re going to tell them, b) telling them, and c) summarizing what you just told them. When you have a clear key message to keep coming back to, you will be able to keep your audience’s attention longer and be more memorable.

Every story or speech has a narrative arc similar to a bell curve. You set the stage, introduce the key figures, build tension by illustrating the key conflict and crisis, and finish by resolving it. Consider how you are taking your audience on this journey. Introducing a key figure or character that your audience can identify with is often one strategy to grab their attention early on. An effective resolution or call to action will leave your audience feeling satisfied.

Delivery and presentation

Make sure you read your speech out loud by yourself and for other people. This will help you get a sense of the pacing and any parts of the speech that feel unnatural for you. Practicing out loud helps you to develop your awareness of any verbal habits you have that are distracting (saying um, hesitating) and how you react when you are nervous e.g. some people freeze, some speed up, some move around too much or too little. Think about your volume, eye contact, hand gestures, and body language. The feedback you receive can help you to make changes in your draft or develop strategies to address any habits that may be distracting to your delivery.

It typically isn’t recommended that you read your speech directly from paper or memorize a script word for word. You want to be able to make good eye contact and engage with the audience instead of looking down at a paper. A better alternative may be to have bullet points on note cards so that you can remember your key points and have a tool to help you if you get off track.

Things to keep in mind

• Know your audience – think about who your audience is and what you want them to know, do, or feel.
• Consider the tone of your speech – remember that convocation is a time to celebrate the accomplishments of your classmates and mark the beginning of new endeavors in public health
• Be mindful of using cliches, quotations, or inappropriate humor – especially consider what is fitting for a global audience.