Depending on your perspective, I’ve been fortunate or insane enough to have been given the opportunity to deliver hundreds of presentations to audiences large and small. I’m often asked by my coaching clients and training participants, “what is the most difficult speech you’ve ever delivered?” Of course, those particular speeches stand apart from all the others so I’m able to answer without hesitation. The runner up for most difficult is a speech I delivered at a competition called Speak Tank hosted by the National Speaker’s Association. Speaking in front of your peers who have intimate knowledge about your expertise is always a tall task because you forfeit the advantage of knowing more than your audience. However, the winner of my personal most difficult speech contest is without question the delivery of my late grandfather’s eulogy. On top of the normal jitters that come with delivering a presentation were the sad emotions that weighed on that solemn moment.
Looking over my grandfather’s casket draped with an American flag honoring his military service and staring into the pain-stricken eyes of my family was almost too much for me to bear. That said, I firmly believe that if you’re asked to honor a deceased family member or friend, although it won’t be easy, you should proudly accept. What follows are some simple tips that will help you successfully prepare for delivering a eulogy should such a sad occasion arise.
Like every other presentation, it’s important that you know your audience. Specifically, you want to consider the mix of family, friends and professional associates who will be in attendance. Keeping in mind that your primary audience will be family members of the deceased, the tone of your remarks should be based on the collective personality of the family. For example, my family is collectively a bunch of self-aware, straight shooters who don’t mind laughing at themselves. Taking this into consideration, my opening lines of my grandfather’s eulogy were, “Most of you know that my granddad had a million ways to jokingly remind me that I wasn’t one of the smartest guys he had ever met. And, as I stand here holding back tears, I must admit that the old man might have been on to something because this is definitely not one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.” The church erupted in laughter! The tone was set and I fought back tears until I made it to the end.
At its foundation, tone is king in these emotionally fraught situations. It’s critical that you strike the right balance between sincerity and humor. Equally important is respecting the amount of time that you have been granted to speak. Too often, speakers selfishly breach the established borders of time because they mistakenly equate the length of their speech to the depth of their homage, when the opposite is true.
Once you approach the microphone, introduce yourself to the audience by briefly unpacking your relationship to the deceased. This will allow your listeners to receive your remarks in the proper context. One of the most effective ways to honor the deceased and to make their eulogy memorable is to give a sneak peek into your private relationship that highlights one or two of their strongest values. The audience, especially the immediate family, will find comfort in hearing that their loved one stood for the same things, both in private and in public. Saying something like, “When I was going through a rough patch in my life (insert deceased name) shared some advice with me that will stick with me for the rest of my life. He said…” Such statements subtly suggest to those gathered that the deceased was principled and, more importantly, that they will never be forgotten.
I’m never at loss when it comes to prescribing the perfect presentation tips for a given situation but when it comes to eulogies, all bets are off. The emotional gravity of the situation transcends practicality. My one word of advice would be to pause as long as you need when you are overcome with emotion. If you care to see the perfect eulogy (in my opinion) check out Billy Crystal eulogizing Muhammed Ali. You never know the minute or the hour. Rest in peace Kobe Bean Bryant.
Dez Thornton is a communications coach who helps you say the right words in the right way when they matter most! For more information, see www.dezthornton.com.