This is a magazine for professional speakers, and aspiring speakers, but let’s remember that for all of us, some of the most challenging moments will be speeches we make in our personal lives. Those are the ones where it really counts. You can mess up a sales pitch and nobody knows but you. Fumble a Christmas address to the team and no-one will remember, but mess up at a wedding, christening or funeral and you’ll never forget.
Lots of people ask me for help about best man speeches, father of the bride addresses and all kinds of family occasions, but the one that people ask about more often than any of the others is the funeral oration. It’s a speech packed with complexity and challenges:
- You’re speaking for the whole family
- Everyone is emotional
- You want to do justice to the deceased and the bereaved
- It’s a one-off speech with no chance to make amends
At least at a wedding or a birthday party the mood is, generally, hopeful and future facing. At a funeral, it’s the past that counts, and the impression that you leave.
I went through this trial by fire for the first time last year, and I thought I’d write about it here to bring together some of my own learnings from the experience, and my ‘expertise’ as a speechwriter and speaker. I hope it helps.
John was my wife’s father. He died after 2 years of gentle decline with cancer, at the ripe old age of 83. He died surrounded by love and loved ones. He couldn’t have had a more dignified and peaceful end. He deserved it. John was a kind and gentle man who married Carol when he was 33 and she was 19. They’d lived a simple life and raised 2 kids. He’d worked all of his life, lived modestly, and left a legacy of love with his 3 grandsons that they will never forget.
The family asked me if I’d mind making the speech at the cremation. I was honoured and terrified to accept. Honoured for obvious reasons. I loved the man as if he was my own father. Terrified because he wasn’t my father. What if I messed up? All those straight talking Northern folk would never forgive me, and I’d never forgive myself.
I accepted, and did what I always do when I’m terrified of a speech I’ve agreed to make, I started work.
I’ve found over the years of big speeches and pitches that my nervousness is a reminder that I have work to do, and that once I lay out the work, my nerves disappear until the performance is nigh.
Here’s my approach and the work that I did. It follows my Fit, Focus & Flair approach to presentations and I used the same worksheets and thinking that I would for a business speech. I took my own medicine, in other words, and I found it useful for this most challenging of occasions. So how should we approach such an event?
1. Understand the Occasion
The first thing you have to remember is that you’re speaking as part of an event that has a structure. It’s structure comes from your culture, religion and family traditions and it’s important that your preparation explores what is expected of you from all parties:
- The church – What will be said before? Who will say it? What will they say? How long will they take? Do they have any advice for you from their experience of such events?
- The family – What do they want from you (and families have politics too, so don’t expect everyone to be in agreement)? What tone do they want? What can’t be talked about? Where should the focus be?
- The culture – If the family is from a different culture, they may have different expectations of what your speech should be, so it’s a good idea to ask and listen.
In this case it was relatively simple to do this. John wasn’t a religious man; the service would be short and held in the chapel of rest at the crematorium, with John’s coffin in place at the front of the room. I would speak from a lectern after the non-religious ‘Celebrant’ had introduced John and his life to the gathering. He would lead the ceremony, and I would have 5 minutes after him to make my points.
My mother-in-law, wife and her brother were the main ‘stakeholders’ in the speech, and they were very clear about what they wanted from me. They wanted a respectful, amusing reflection on the life of the man they loved.
2. Apply structure of your own
Use the structure of the speech to layout the bones of what you’ll have to do. I made a worksheet. Seriously. In all of the speeches, talks, training sessions, videos and podcasts that I’ve created in my life, I’ve come to learn that the story structure of the piece is the most important part of the planning process.
I was to tell a story of a man’s life. Every great story has a sequence of events that make it easy for the audience to follow and understand the story when you get to the end. The simplest of story structures requires a beginning, a middle and an end.
Act 1- Introduce the characters, the context and the challenge – ask a question to be answered by the story
Act 2 – Add intrigue, tension and plot- make the audience think ‘where is this going?’
Act 3 – Answer the question posed in act 1, resolve the tension, give the audience a happy ending
Think of the structure like a set of empty boxes that you’ll fill with ideas and words and images, and then set off to talk to the family for the right words to say.
3. Identify your goals
This is really important. As the speaker representing the family of the deceased, you need to be really clear about what is it that you’re trying to achieve. In my first discussions I got a clear brief from my wife and her mother on what they wanted. Now I had to write my goals for the speech. Those goals come out of a few, simple questions:
- Who is it for? – The family and those who knew him and loved him
- How do you want them to feel at the end of your speech? – Happy to have known him, sad that he’d gone, but positive about the legacy that he’d left in his warmth, his love and his family.
And those were my goals. A kind of ‘magnetic north’ to guide my speech. A fixed mark for me to come back to to test whether what I was creating would work.
4. Talk to the stakeholders
John was my wife and her brother’s father, Carol’s husband and my sons’ grandfather. He wasn’t ‘mine’. If all the speech did was play out my experience of their father, grandma, husband it would be one dimensional and selfish – wrong for such an occasion.
The speech had to represent the whole family. So I set off and asked as many people as I could the same, simple question: What did John mean to you?
Then I sat back and listened. I got funny stories; crazy stories; faddy, fussy, chaotic examples of John the organist- poor but enthusiastic; John the grandad – building a special stool in his workshop so that his 5 year old grandson could sit in front of his grandad at the wood working bench and make toys together. John the mad professor mending vacuum cleaners with bits of recycled string and wire; John the hoarder – being forced to move all of his ‘rubbish’, bits of metals, wood, computers, tools and projects into the garage from the spare bedroom as his wife despaired at the mountains of clutter all through the house.
I listened, wrote notes and added a few recollections of my own, and then I looked at what I’d got to see the ‘shape’ of the speech emerge.
5. Listen for the words
I really listened. I listened to what was said, and how it was said. I listened to the words people used to describe John and his life, because I wanted those words to be the ones that I used. John was a working class lad from Sheffield, a Northern city in the UK. His wife was from a mining village in South Yorkshire. And in representing him I needed to talk, at least a little bit, like the audience. Use their words sometimes, not just mine.
Alan Bennett, the English writer, so often praised for his ‘authentic’ dialogue was once asked where he got his ideas for stories and his ‘ear’ for language from. He said, ‘I sit on buses and listen to real people talking. There is my source and my inspiration…’
So I asked questions, listened, learned and noted down what the people who knew him best and loved him most said.
6. Find a big idea
Once you’ve got lots of ideas, and are beginning to lay out the first draft of your speech, it’s time to let the ‘Big Idea’ find you. Every speech needs a central theme or idea to summarise the subject in its entirety, but so many don’t really understand what it is.
The Big Idea for any speech is like the hook in a pop song, an ‘ear worm’, the one thought, phrase or idea that people will remember when they’ve forgotten all the detail – and they will forget the detail. In the gentle dignity of a funeral oration, it’ll help you and your audience to ‘get’ the point of your whole speech. It’s not hard to do, but it takes a little time. Here’s how.
Lay out all of your ideas on cards or post-it notes and sort them into themes. Maybe there’s a ‘dad’ or ‘grandad’ theme. Maybe there’s a ‘work’ and ‘home’ theme, and maybe there are a few funny stories. Summarise them, group them and see if there’s one group, theme or idea that stands out. And so often, when you do that, there is one recurrent theme, or one phrase that sums everything else up.
In this case, there was one idea that seemed to resonate. John’s greatest fortune and his only focus in life was his family. At the centre of that was his wife Carol. Everyone I spoke to told me how much he loved her, and how, once they’d met, everything changed for him. And as I was talking to Carol, she told me that John used to always save the last strawberry on his plate for her. I’d never heard that story before, and Carol couldn’t remember how it had started, but what a lovely image. ‘The last strawberry on the plate…’ John was the kind of man that would give you the last of anything that he owned. The last strawberry on the plate…
7. Put it all together
With a story, a big idea and lots of things to include, now comes the time to start to assemble everything into a speech that will fill the time available. There are lots of great articles on speech structure and rehearsal on Presentation Guru so I won’t go into detail here but these final stages require that you:
- Start gently
- Tell your story simply
- Finish well
I didn’t want to work from a fully written text, because I don’t like doing that, I think it can make you sound detached from the words, and too stilted, so I went for my preferred method and wrote simple notes in bullet form and rehearsed around them until I became fluent.
8. Rehearse for flexibility
Every actor knows that rehearsal makes the difference between knowing the words and giving a great performance, but many, even experienced, speakers just don’t rehearse enough. They think that knowing the words is enough. Don’t make this mistake. It’s not enough to know the words, you have to have said them out loud at least 6 times before you even know what they really mean; before you can begin to say them with any real connection. I have 3 pieces of advice for you here:
1- Practice out loud – Only then will you know if you can say the words and they work. My experience tells me that if, as you’re rehearsing, there are lines that don’t come out right, or cause you to trip and stumble every time, then just change them. I find that if I leave them in and think ‘It’ll be OK on the day’, it won’t be OK, I’ll still trip over them. Sometimes we write words and phrases that are just difficult.
2- Don’t memorise – Memorizing a speech is a sure fire way to get stuck.
3- Get feedback from friends and family – Feedback from someone you trust will help you test whether your speech actually sends the message that you want to convey. So do the speech in front of a human being you love and ask very specific questions to test whether it does what you, and they, want the speech to do (go back to your goals for the speech). Questions like ‘What is the key message?’, ‘Is there anything you’d add or take away?’; not general questions like ‘Is it OK?’ or ‘What do you think?’, which tend to put the poor receiver on the spot and result in you getting lots of thought and advice that you didn’t want and can’t use.
These three parts of the rehearsal process will mean that you’ll know your speech backwards, sideways and forwards and that you’ll be able to do it in many different ways, because you’ll have rehearsed that way. You’ll be truly fluent, and when you stand up to say the words on the day you’ll be able to look at the people there, focus on them, smile, cry and laugh with them as you speak. Anything less and you’d be so focused on remembering or reading the words that the truthfulness and the moment would be gone. Yes, have notes or cards as a back up on the day, but don’t memorise or read.
9. Understand the room and the space you’ll be speaking in
It’ll really help you on the day if you know what the room will be like. Is it a Chapel of Rest with a podium or a microphone? Is it a church with echoing vaults and no amplification for your voice? Is it a crowd of 300 people or will it be small or intimate? It’s important for you to know, of course; not because it will influence what you say, but it will change how you feel and what you must do on the day.
If you can visit the space, I’d do that. If you can’t visit then get someone to send you a picture or some video of what the space is like from where you’ll be speaking just so that you wont be surprised by anything on the day. You want to be in total control for the sake of your friends and family, and in memory of the deceased.
10. Just say the words you’ve prepared, be moved by the occasion. Leave the emotion in
Lastly there’s the doing. Walking to the podium at the expected time, turning around and looking into the faces of all the people who loved his person, it is hard to keep control of your emotions, and if, occasionally, your tears get in the way, don’t worry. Breathe, compose yourself, look at all of the friends and family willing you on and imagine the person who’s there only in spirit smiling encouragingly at you and continue when you’re ready.
Tell them the story of this person. The simple, truthful story of a life lived. Say the words you’ve prepared, in the way you’ve rehearsed it, don’t change a thing, and all of your work will show. You might even be a little proud of yourself when you’re done.
To help you prepare for this most important of speeches, I’ve prepared a downloadable word document. It follows the steps that I have outlined here:Download
I’ve also saved a copy of the written speech here for you to read if you wish. It’s the notes that I printed out and took into the room with me:Download
To help me write this article I looked at the Wikihow article and found it very useful too.