Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!
First time speakers are often squaring up to taking the mike at a special occasion. Maybe it’s your mate’s 21st or wedding, someone has a birthday with a zero in it, or you’ve won something, are leaving somewhere or leading something. The audience is probably your peers, and while you may think that makes it easier, don’t be fooled. There are traps for the unwary.
Events which mark achievements and milestones like birthdays, engagements, weddings, anniversaries, farewells, retirements, competitions, and awards, all feature a speech. It’s part of our ritual, we ‘say a few words’ to denote a change, or a celebration in someone’s life.
A memorable speaker is the highlight of a special occasion. A bad one has people dying inside and desperate for it to end.
The golden rule of Special Occasion Speeches that everyone needs to relate to what you say. The speech is a way of saying ‘we all belong to this family/community/group of friends/profession and there are things that we share’. Except if the occasion is a funeral, it’s also important to be relaxed, and leave ’em laughing.
So, your speech needs to incorporate different interests and viewpoints of people in the audience. You should say something about what the person or occasion means to you, but also consider what others will be feeling.
What would a friend, family member, colleague, or football coach want to hear? An 18th birthday is spoiled for the parents and grandparents if the speech is only about what they’re like with their friends. If you’re speaking about your sister, make sure you say something about her in other roles – as a school friend, wife 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 say what’s important for the students, their parents, families and teachers.
You need to research these perspectives in advance, and collect information from others as part of your preparation.
You got the job so you could be entertaining, but take care – humour needs to be carefully crafted and well presented. Your jokes must be kind. Despite the tradition of embarrassing the guest of honour, it is not the time for payback, or in-jokes, or reviving locker room or share-house stories about things from the naughty old past. Use good taste, and keep it clean. If you are going to ‘out’ someone or roast them, make sure the payoff is REALLY good and will work for everyone who is listening. Try the ‘want will Grandad think?’ test before you commit yourself to any embarrassing anecdotes.
Here’s Hugh Grant’s character making a hash of his Best Man’s Speech in Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Depending on the occasion you may be on a stage or at a microphone on the floor. The audience at a dinner or party may be at tables arranged all around you. You need to work hard in this case to include everyone with your eyes as you speak. You musn’t speak with your back to anyone, so make sure you take a speaking position that gives you command over the whole room.
Of course, you must rehearse. Getting up and down might be a challenge, so practice how to traverse the room and get to the right spot. You need also to think about your appearance, and you can get some advice on that here.
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.