Retirements, Weddings and Funerals

Whether you’re a frequent communicator or an occasional one, chances are you’ve had the experience and pressure of speaking at some of life’s most important moments. Whether it’s a colleague’s retirement, a friend’s wedding or a loved one’s funeral, these important life moments raise the bar on wanting to get the message right and covering all the highlights.

I’ve helped with these moments hundreds of times by writing a toast, editing a eulogy, or bringing humor to a retirement speech. And in each instance, the communicator shares the concern and pressure of getting it right and saying it all. They feel responsible for communicating the importance of the individual as well as their relationship with them.

It’s a classic example of the difference between a communicator who is worried about everything they need to say and loses focus on what a group of listeners really want to hear. I had to follow my own advice a week ago when my son got married, and it brought the “rules of engagement” for these short speeches top of mind. 

Like any speech, success is defined by what listeners want to hear.

The “rules of engagement” are:

Make a Point.

While most speakers feel the pressure to give a summary of events or cover a timeline, it’s better to make a single point than talk through a laundry list of points. Listeners want to hear one or two points about an individual, not every point. In fact, the most important goal is to connect the audience or group to the individual being honored, and it works much better to focus on a few ideas and bring them to life with stories.  

Stories set time, place and situation. So even listeners who weren’t a part of the story can connect to the situation and relate to the individual because of it.

Use Humor. 

All life moments include emotion. Whether it’s grief or joy, speakers often get overwhelmed by emotion during their remarks. It’s fine to share emotion and acknowledge it as part of your remarks. But in most of these situations, the listeners really want to be entertained. They want to laugh and connect to the humanity of the individual. Sharing sentiment is good; but a speech based entirely on emotion rarely works because it leaves the listeners focused on the communicator rather than the honoree.

Avoid Inuendoes.

While there may be a few stories or events that are unique to you and the honoree, if you aren’t comfortable being clear about the event, don’t talk about it. There’s nothing worse than a speech that has vague references or hints about something that a group doesn’t understand. If you have a story that’s inappropriate for the group but important to you, talk about the topic rather than the event and focus on how the honoree handled it or what you learned about them as a result of going through it. 

End with Impact.

Endings are as important as openings in these speeches. Work to connect how the speech begins with how it ends. Listeners like to hear the connection between how you started and how you ended. It adds impact, surprise and validates that you led them to a point.

Prepare & Practice.

Finding time to prepare remarks for an unexpected life moment or a long-planned one is difficult. This is where the pressure is real because listeners expect thoughts to be planned in a way that helps them celebrate an event, mourn a loss or bring closure to a career. 

And when a communicator rambles through thoughts, it frustrates listeners and they seem to miss the point of why they are together. In time-pressed situations, give yourself permission to tell one story and practice delivering it well. It’s less about making profound remarks and all about connecting the listeners to the honoree.

“So, how well did the communication coach follow her own rules?

And since I confessed that the “rules of engagement” were real for me a week ago, you may be  wondering:  So, how well did the communication coach follow her own rules? Pretty well, but it wasn’t easy.

Like most communicators, I had a lifeline to cover and wanted to be sure that I expressed my love and pride in my son a hundred times over. I felt the pressure to say it all as no one, but his Mother, could. Well actually, I guess his Father could cover the same lifeline, so we decided to deliver our toast together. That complicated things!

His father was happy for me to write it, but he wanted editing rights. Fair compromise. As we worked on our point, several stories and experiences hit the edit floor. And, I made us stay true to a point. We focused on two attributes of his personality that everyone in the room had experienced, and we built most of his friends into the examples we gave so that the listeners felt a part of our story.

We added humor in our delivery with back and forth banter and a story that illustrated our two different perspectives as parents. We connected the opening to the close and wrapped up with a final message to his bride.

Did it work? I think so. A lot of laughter, a few tears and a special hug were our proof points. But mostly for me, a good reminder that these short speeches are less about saying the right thing and all about connecting people to each other to celebrate important life moments.

And whether your speech is a life moment, a career moment or just a routine one, it’s our goal to help you connect with listeners. 

Call us when you need us!

Sally Williamson - Speech Writing