Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!
A eulogy is, without doubt, one of the hardest public speaking commitments there is. How you approach it will depend on who the deceased person is and how you are connected to them. It is one thing to reflect on the long life of an elderly person, even someone very close and dear to you. To speak about the death of a young person is an altogether different matter. If someone’s death was expected that is different from eulogising a person who has died suddenly.
There are many things which make delivering a eulogy challenging.
You may be inexperienced and you may face a large crowd. You may be distressed. Unlike most speaking occasions you may not know much about your audience and you won’t get much rehearsal or preparation time. You will have to negotiate the situation as it takes place – getting up and down from the pulpit or lectern, managing the microphone and deciding where to stand and speak.
Whatever the circumstances, delivering a eulogy is a privilege, an honor and an opportunity. Your words are extremely important to the occasion, and will be treasured by many. A eulogy should touch the hearts of all and include insights which will help those present gather strength and take comfort.
Although you may be the speaker, you are not the center of attention. Your job is to focus everyone there on the life of someone else. Everyone at the funeral is connected to their lost relative or friend in their own way. So in a sense they each mourn someone different. Whether they are mother, sister, friend, neighbour, teacher or colleague, each person listening has their own feelings, their own knowledge, their own understanding and their own relationship to look back on. A eulogy should respect and acknowledge this diversity of experiences, but it must find common ground to unite everyone on the occasion, in grief and memory. You need to make observations which most of those present will relate to. You are paying tribute to someone you have all lost. It’s a time to voice your memories and impressions, to create a picture of this person who is missed, and offer comfort to those who share this grief.
1. Keep it short
People are there to mourn the loss of a family member or a friend, not to listen to a long speech. Some suggest 3-5 minutes or 5-7 minutes.
2. Keep it in perspective
When an older person dies who has lived a good long life, a funeral is more of a memorial to that life; the eulogy can be a little lighter. When a young person dies, it is a tragedy; any humor must be restrained. There can be some light laughter, but it must fit the mood of the situation and not cause people to be uncomfortable. FYI, it is encouraged to laugh; laughter is part of the mourning process.
3. Keep it true
Give a eulogy that fits the person. If the person was a joker, share some of the best jokes. If the person was very accomplished, highlight those accomplishments. Don’t try to paint a perfect saint of someone who was well known not to be. It is tempting to put the absolute best image on someone’s life, but make certain that it is still an image about the person.
4. Share personal stories
It is good to give some stories about the person. Funerals are mostly about the memories. The person who gives the eulogy should be someone who knew the deceased, so the eulogy can be a personal tribute. Here is some very good advice and examples.
5. Keep it about the person
Remember that the eulogy is about someone else, not you.
What if I cry?
Many speakers fear that they will break down, and many do. Rehearsing you speech is important. If emotion overwhelms you have a better chance of continuing if you are very familiar with your words. Speak it aloud several times, with an audience if possible, that way you will be accustomed to the emotional experience and the feelings it arouses.
If you do break down that is quite alright – others listening are always forgiving, so you should never worry if this happens to you. Your listeners will also be distressed and will be sympathetic. Take time to recover your composure and resume.
I am delighted that this post has been included in Andrew Diugan’s Six Minutes weekend review of the best public speaking articles.Thank you Andrew.
Readers – please share your experiences in the comments, and pass this post on. It always helps to learn from others.