Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!
This week I’ve attended three personally significant events. The funeral of an old friend, and two coming of age parties – one in my family, and one for an organisation I’m involved with that’s enriched thousands of lives through music. Needless to say, the speeches were central to both. The eulogies and the congratulations speeches I heard this week were wonderful. We heard things we didn’t know, and got to share and remember some things we all knew. They were heart warming, illuminating, inspiring. The people who gave them had worked hard to make them so.
Whether casual or formal, speeches are pat of most ceremonies and rituals. These occasions mark a change in someone’s life, a celebration, or the beginning or end of something.
A ceremonial speech really is a big moment for a speaker. You can make (or break) the event. A memorable speaker will be the highlight of a special occasion whether it’s a happy or a sad one.
If you find yourself having to deliver a eulogy, or propose a toast or make valedictory remarks, make sure your speech emphasises the identities and values that unite the people in your audience. They want to feel they are part of one group. Your speech is a way of saying ‘we all belong to this community/group/family/profession and there are things that we share’.
The normal rules apply: work out what you want your audience to take away from your speech at the end. With one clear message in mind, you can then develop some points to lead you there. Memories of shared experiences, or your own reflections on the occasion are good material to use.
Your speech should include the different interests and viewpoints of people in the audience. Say something about what the person or the occasion means to you, but also look at what others will be feeling. What would a friend, family member or colleague, want to hear? An 18th birthday could be spoiled for the parents and grandparents if the speech was only from a young person’s point of view. If you’re speaking about your sister, make sure you say something about her in her other roles – as a school friend or daughter. If it’s your grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary you need to mention their old friends as well as family of all generations. A graduation speech should be relevant for the students, their parents, families and teachers. A eulogy needs to take account of the whole life of the person you are mourning. You will need to research these perspectives, and speak to others as part of your preparation.
You will certainly need personal anecdotes or stories. You are expected to be entertaining on these occasions, but take care – humour needs to be carefully crafted and well presented. Your jokes must be kindly. It is not the time for payback, or in-jokes, or reminiscences about ‘socially unacceptable’ experiences. Only joke about things that everyone in the room will understand. ‘No embarrassment, no surprises’ is a good rule for special occasion speeches.
Depending on the occasion you may be on a stage or at a microphone on the floor. Often the audience at a dinner or party will be at tables all around you, and you need to be specially careful to include everyone with your eyes as you speak. You musn’t speak with your back to anyone, so if the organisers haven’t thought of this, make sure you take a speaking position that gives you command over the whole room.
If your speech requires you to propose a toast, invite everyone to ‘charge their glasses’ and stand up. Raise your glass as you say a single sentence: “good luck” or “long life” or whatever suits the occasion. Allow the audience to repeat it, then everyone resumes their seats and you sit down too.