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Why Robert De Niro's Graduation Speech for New York University's Tisch School of the Arts Class of 2015 was so Effective

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Robert De Niro gave the graduation speech for New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts class of 2015. He spoke about the way society perceives the arts as an illogical career path, and that there will be rejection and struggle in the students’ futures. He assures them that these things are expected and should not discourage them. Without explicitly saying so, De Niro argues that resiliency is the key to this industry. He conceals his message that there each student has to be their own light at the end of the dark tunnel that they will enter in once they attempt to work in the arts. De Niro’s goal is for his speech to encourage the students to take his advice, which gives the speech an element of persuasion. Overall, De Niro’s speech inspires his audience and his method of organization primarily allows him to gain attention, earn credibility, inform, and persuade his audience effectively.

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The main reason that the speech is effective is that it is well-organized. De Niro structured the speech to move from attitude to action. He begins by saying that following one’s passion to study the arts leads to a pattern of rejection and joblessness. He explains that it will be easy for the students’ attitudes to be negative, but then he reassures them. He changes gears to encourage them to be ready for the potential rejection, which he says is normal and okay. His advice is that they continually say “next” when an opportunity or job passes by. This advice contributes to the effectiveness of the speech because it takes a real negative situation that the students will likely face, and turns it into a positive. Turning negatives into positives is the quintessence of the communications and arts industry.

With the attitude to action structure, De Niro is able to accomplish other organizational feats that afford his message its effectiveness. His introduction is saturated with humor, the body of his speech is a mix of his own personal stories and inspirational phrases, and his conclusion drives home the action that De Niro wants the students to accept as the best route to take in their futures.

Before De Niro even begins his introduction, he pauses and says that he has to blow his nose. He also points out the impracticality of the gowns due to their lack of accessibility to your pockets. Through these gestures and awkwardness, De Niro establishes that he is not nervous. Then once he actually begins the speech he expletively tells the Tisch school graduates, “[y]ou made it, and you’re f***ed.” The audience sincerely laughs at this joke because everyone realizes that it is more difficult for arts students to get jobs than doctors or lawyers. However, he does not leave them disheartened. He also tells them, “[w]hen it comes to the arts, passion should always trump common sense.” This lays the foundation for De Niro to talk about passion and the legitimacy of earning an art degree. He continues to incorporate humor throughout the speech, and uses it to convey a keen awareness of his audience. For example, he makes a joke about how the arts can lead to drugs, and says that he would approve of having a couple of drinks when you have to speak in front of graduates and their families. De Niro’s use of humor shows that he is not nervous, which strengthens his portrayal of believing his own messages.

In the body of his speech, De Niro tells a list of stories from his career history. For example, he wanted to play the role of Martin Luther King Jr., but did not get the part. He read for another role seven times, but the producer and director instead chose an actor who was more well-known that he was at the time. Then De Niro intermixes bits of encouragement and advice. He tells the students to “[l]isten to all of it and listen to yourself.” As well as other short phrases including: “don’t be afraid to fail,” “if you don’t go, you’ll never know,” “[r]ejection. It isn’t personal,” and to always say “next” if an audition or application does not go in their favor. These phrases would be easy for the students to call upon if they become discouraged in their futures because they are short and simple. He also advises them to remember that they are only responsible for their own part in a collaboration, and they are not responsible when critics do not think a play or a movie is bad. De Niro thus arms them with the mental tools they need in order to be happy, whether or not they become successful. That is more important than any advice which would contribute to a successful career progression.

It becomes clear that De Niro cares more about the students’ mental states than their jobs. In his concluding sentence, De Niro drives home the idea that once they change their attitudes and accept temporary failure with a smile, they will ultimately be successful. The last thing he says is, “I know you’re gonna make it, all of you. Break a leg. Next. Thank you.” This one sentence does several things for the speech. First, it shows De Niro’s transition from telling the students that they are “f***ed” to that they will make it, which explains De Niro’s overall point that once they face the reality of their situations, they will be okay. Second, he uses a phrase that is unique to the arts industry, which also figuratively reflects the fact that negatives may just be positives in disguise. Break a leg literally means a wish for a painful broken bone, but also a wish of good luck and that the receiver of the imperative performs well. That is exactly what De Niro is telling them throughout his speech. Finally, he emphasizes his advice to say next whenever an opportunity passes by. This sentence effectively ties the speech together and leaves the student hopeful and inspired.

In addition to organizing his speech well, De Niro builds up his credibility throughout. A couple times in the middle of the speech, he pretends like he is reading from a teleprompter, by stumbling and repeating a word until it seems as though someone else flips to the next card. He does this when he urges the students not to “make a production out of it,” which is also ironic because that is exactly what arts students are going to do in any job they get.

De Niro also heightens his credibility when he lists local places that his audience knows. He says, “[y]ou didn’t get that waiter’s job at the White Oak Tavern? Next. You’ll get the next one, or you’ll get the next gig tending bar at Josie’s,” and after each mention of a local place, the crowd cheers. De Niro confesses that he did not attend Tisch, but worked for a lot of people who did. This confession effectively makes him a relevant and credible speaker for this particular audience. His awareness of his audience can also be found when he says that graduates from the school of education will have jobs, “shitty jobs, lousy pay” but still jobs. His joke about poor teaching salaries is well received by the all of the professors at the graduation ceremony.

DeNiro takes away the students’ sense of safety in his introduction. He tells them that they will be not belong in many of the jobs that they will try to get. He tells them that it is difficult, and sometimes pointless to stand out, because the producer will just go with somebody well-known instead. Once all of the basic levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are taken away from them, De Niro tells the students that self-actualization, personal satisfaction, is what they need in order to make it in the arts industries. They do not need to be successful, they need to be happy and satisfied with who they are as passionate, driven, educated graduates of the Tisch school of the Arts. This organizational style of explaining negativity that masks positivity, or darkness leading to light, undoubtedly allows De Niro’s message to effectively inspire his audience.

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