Monday, May 28, 2012

5 Tips for Giving an Honorable Eulogy

It's Memorial Day in the United States today. A day we are supposed to remember the men and women who have died in battle defending our country (and the free world), both its land and its peoples, as well as its ideals and interests.

Today, “war” doesn't mean the same thing, isn't perceived the same way, as it was back when we were extricating ourselves from the British, fighting among ourselves in the Civil War, or banding together with the Allied Forces in World War II – but soldiers have gone forward under the same mindset in all generations: to give service, and even their lives, to their country.

Offering a memorial talk for anyone, be it a soldier, a friend, a parent, a grandparent, or even a child, poses a challenge to even the most seasoned speaker. Rarely, however, are all, or even any of the mourners 'seasoned speakers'. Instead, it is family and friends who are pressed into service with little time to prepare, much less process, the emotion involved in their task.

If this someone is you, or someone you know, I hope the ideas below will help you offer your thoughts and bring comfort to those in mourning with you.

5 Tips for Giving an Honorable Eulogy

1. Be Personal. Unless you're an outside moderator, such as a preacher or public official, you had a connection to the deceased. Share the connection. Use your personal relationship as a touchstone in your talk, so we can see where in their life you fit in. It will make your words more meaningful, and perhaps give us insight into whom we're mourning, even if we thought we knew everything about them.

B. Tell Stories. How did you first meet? Did you have any adventures? What is your lasting memory of interacting with them? Starting with “I remember when...” will instantly put you into your tale, and help transport the audience from this somber scene to one that held more joy, more excitement, more hope.

Stay positive, and don't reveal facts that were meant to remain private, or that could create controversy. Now is not the time to reveal embarrassments or shocking realities. Now is the time to be honoring, focusing on the best aspects of the life that was lived.

C. Laughter Heals. In most cases, it IS okay to use humor in a eulogy. Your funny anecdotes with your friend will help others remember their own joyful moments. Keep in mind there is a difference between being humorous and making fun. In a memorial, the deceased should never be demeaned or called out for the sake of a laugh. The less you knew him or her, the less you know those gathering, the more cautious you should be. Finding humor in times of pain, however, can be a great way to honor the dead and help heal the living.

There are many types of memorial services. If you're at a wake, humor can be more involved and is actually expected and desirable. If it's a ceremonial burial, humor may be taboo. Know the situation you're in.

D. Be Short. The longer you speak, the greater the chance you will either be overcome with emotion, or your audience will become overcome with the desire to make you sit down. Don't try to say everything – just hit one or two points, and sit down so the next person can speak.

If it is your child, parent, or sibling, you can't really put a time limit on your grief – you have a lifetime of thoughts to share. Going on too long, however, opens the door for you to say more than you want to, and can go from healing to despondency, from honoring to painful public grieving. Start with two or three ideas you definitely want to share, and if you go long, no one will think less of you. But know that once you have said what you were determined to say, you can sit down before breaking down, confident you've honored their memory the way you intended.

E. Speak Like a Human. Don't put pressure on yourself to be eloquent.  You can use a quote, a poem, even a verse from a song (said or sung), as long as it is pertinent to the deceased rather than an opportunity for you to look good. This is not the time to be concerned with giving the greatest eulogy in history. Be yourself – talking to a group of other people who loved the person you are honoring, just like you did.

We've seen a fair amount of very public memorials in the last 20 years that have 'raised the bar' for what we might expect from ourselves – from the pomp and circumstance of Princess Diana to the entertainment extravaganza of Michael Jackson to the somber despair witnessed following September 11th, 2001. Most of us won't find ourselves in those situations. Most of us will be in front of 25 to 200 friends and family in an afternoon service, at a loss for breath, much less for words. Don't expect yourself to be superhuman in these most human of moments.

Remember the memorial service is more for the living than the dead. It is a time for grieving for most, whether that comes through tears over death, celebration of life, or, most likely, a combination of the two. You've been asked to speak both for your own peace of mind and to add to the collective honoring of those in attendance – your thoughts, your memories, matter. Be Personal, Tell Stories, Laugh, Be Short, and Be Human – and you will show your honor and respect for both the living and the dead.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

If You Don't Write It, You Won't Say It

I recently had a speech contestant ask me if I'd watch his speech at the contest that night and give him some feedback. Always happy to do that - it's my job, but also a passion to help other speakers when I can.

I emailed him some basic thoughts, and asked if he'd send me his script so I could help him work through some  kinks in the speech. His reply? "I haven't written it down." My jaw quickly collided with my keyboard.

On one hand, it's somewhat impressive that he got as far as he did without a script (District Level). On the other, I can't help but wonder how much farther he would have progressed if he'd been willing to put his speech to paper, or at least to an electronic document. Why put yourself in the position of giving what amounts to a rehearsed impromptu speech time after time? Why put your audience in position of having to listen to it, for that matter?

I've written before on the benefits of writing your speech - but maybe it takes focusing on 3 Points of Pain to get my point across:

1. Sloppy Stories - you may have the perfect story in mind, but your mind has a way of adding fluff and diverting your train of thought mid-sentence if you have sharpened your story in writing. Don't risk wasting words on an aspect your story that doesn't matter. If you're talking about recovering from a head injury after a car wreck, for example, we probably don't need you to go into the details about how you financed the car when you bought it.

2. Train Wreck Transitions - you've memorized the order of your stories or point chunks, kudos to you. But if you aren't smoothly going from one point to the next, your audience gets mentally thrown around as they try to follow you from point to point. You can end up leaving them at the last town and, by the end, wondering how you got from the station to the final destination. Transitions are one of the few parts of a speech I recommend memorizing, if possible. It'll save your listeners from mental bumps and bruises, and possibly save you from getting derailed entirely.

3. Clumsy Closes - nothing ruins a great speech like a lousy close. People finish with the meat of their speech and then just seem to hit the eject button. They may be out of time, out of energy, or simply out of ideas - and they end up leaving their audience out in the cold. No matter how exciting, funny, and/or insightful the journey has been, if you don't bring them to a moment of closure, your message will be lost. I admit, finding your close is difficult - I do a wonderful job finding closes for others, but often call in help on my own.

The Bottom Line: If you don't write it - you won't be able to consistently improve upon it or even remember to say it from presentation to presentation. I'm not saying you have to memorize everything word for word, that you need to read your notes, or that you have to be perfect. In fact, I'm a big proponent of the trigger method of using notes in a longer presentation. But if you don't have something to reference as you prepare, something to build upon other than merely the ethereal and ever changing mental images in your head, you're limiting your audience's experience, and your own ability to Speak....and Deliver.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Fear of Public Speaking: Speak Anyway

Over the last few weeks, I've been working with a client who is simply scared to death of speaking in front of other people. Despite this acknowledged fear, he has come to the decision that he needs to put on seminars and make himself available to local groups as a speaker in order to create a clientele - hence he hired me to help him develop content, polish his presentation skills, and, ultimately, conquer his fear.

Frankly, the first two are far easier to handle than the fear itself - because fear is often built with emotional anchors from past experiences, outside forces seemingly beyond our control, the belief that we won't be good enough, and/or that an audience member will, at some point during our presentation, pull out an Uzi and blow us to bits because we weren't perfect.

Fear manifests in many forms in speakers at all levels. Even the most experienced speakers will generally admit to have some fear before going on - they've just learned to deal with it. Others break into a cold sweat just thinking about it, start to get an upset stomach right before going on, or literally have to let go of their last meal in the back room before taking the stage.

Whatever your individual fears, or the intensity level of them, they are real, tangible, and potentially crippling. I won't kid you - there aren't simple, cookie cutter answers to overcoming your fear, but there are some strategies to manage the fear, and Speak & Deliver anyway.

1. Accept Your Fear. It's OK. It's normal. It can actually be useful. Denying it will send you down a myriad of other rabbit holes as you try to determine what's wrong with your speaking, or lack thereof.

2. Pinpoint the Origin. I've had clients whose fathers repeatedly told them to shut up. Others were embarrassed at school. Some forgot their lines in a class play. Whatever the reason, pinpointing it allows you to look at it in a new light, especially with the help of a coach, and move beyond it.

3. Move Forward Anyway. That's one of the best qualities of the client I mentioned in the open. He's moving forward by hiring a coach, setting a date, and inviting attendees. He knows the day will come, and he'll have to speak. He'll be better than he thinks, and will be dramatically closer to managing his fears and accomplishing his goals than if he just sat focusing on his fear every day.

4. Practice. Wow, mind-blowing concept, isn't it? Even without an audience, forcing yourself to practice creates more confidence in your material and builds valuable mind-memory to fall back on in the moment. If you haven't given the speech from start to finish before you HAVE to give it, you are self-sabotaging your presentation, creating a situation for both failure and the excuse for why you failed, simultaneously. You deserve better. Practice in front of your lamp or into your hairbrush or a peanut gallery of stuffed animals, but practice.

5. Change Polarity. Negative energy is still powerful, and when you learn to harness it, much as a cowboy breaks a wild horse, it can generate enthusiasm, vocal power, and physical energy on the platform. See #7 & #8 to find where you might find a Speaking Cowboy.

6. Fail. Because you will. You will invariably fail to fulfill the image you've created into your brain of what you have to do to become a speaker. You will fail repeatedly, even when you've given the audience the most amazing performance, shared the most valuable information, and gotten a standing ovation. Because that's how most of us are wired - to find the one or fifty things about our presentations we didn't do well, even while our audience is leaving with a pad full of notes and minds filled with new ideas. Fail, and Speak Anyway.

7. Find a Toastmasters Club. A great way to ease yourself into speaking in front of a supportive audience, many of whom have faced similar fears, and continue to conquer them. Not a great way to get ready for a speech you have to give in the next two days, two weeks, or two months. See #8.

8. Find a Coach. A third party who will help you focus on what you've done right while helping you add new skills to your speaking - speechwriting, delivery, marketing, whatever you need work on. Find someone you respect, or is respected by those you trust. Get together with them and discover if you have rapport - if they are a good match for you. Not all coaches are perfect for all clients. Need me to help you Speak & Deliver? Email me at

There is nothing wrong with being afraid of Public Speaking. My client is still fearful, but he's giving a seminar this weekend anyway. I can't wait to hear how it goes, and start work with him on his next one.

Unless you let the fear stop you from sharing your value with an audience who needs to hear you despite your fear. We think you're better than you do. If what you say can help me, entertain me, educate me, inspire me - I will forgive a myriad of imperfections from you as a speaker. But I'm cheated out of all the preceding if you won't find a way to Speak & Deliver, even while shaking in your boots.


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