I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this lament:  I have a speech/presentation/tribute /introduction/thank you/eulogy/pitch/essay/personal statement) to write, and I JUST DON’T KNOW WHERE TO START!

We’re all in the same boat.  Remember Newton’s first law? You’re going to stay “at rest” or “in motion” unless acted upon by an external force. So to kick start the process, and get yourself in motion rather than stagnating at rest, I suggest interviewing yourself.

If you had the luxury of hiring a speechwriter to write this piece for you, what would the professional ask you?

First, some logistics; the where, when and who.  They’re important, because they will affect how you craft what you’re going to say.

  1. What’s the venue? Where will this presentation be delivered?  If you are speaking, is it in a well-lit conference room or hall with a sound system, or are you addressing a crowd outdoors at a picnic with the sun in your eyes? Good to keep in mind in deciding how simple or complex your sentences should be.
  2. If your project is being  composed and written rather than delivered, is it being read by one person (who has several hundred similar pieces to evaluate in a short time frame) by a board, or is it being published and subsequently available to the public? In other words, does it need to be formal or more casual, and do you need to put all your effort into making it stand out, or are you, for this effort, the only game in town?
  3. Who is the audience? What’s the size (hundreds of people who don’t know you, a couple of dozen you know intimately, or a mix of both?) What’s the demographic? (mostly business, mostly social, mostly family, mostly young, mostly old, or again, a mix of all of these.) Determining this will affect the style of your final product.
  4. Where do you fall in the line-up of speakers/presenters? Are you the one and only… the star of the show? (if so, who are you representing?) Are you the last speaker? (if so, are you expected to be the one who sums up, draws conclusions, and pulls disparate threads together?) Or are you the first speaker? (are you expected to give an introduction to or preview of the program to come? ) Are you somewhere in the middle of the roster? (if so, how to distinguish your message from the others on the program?)

Now, for the content; the what and the why.

  1. What’s your point? Many times, particularly in a speech designed for a social setting, speakers have trouble formulating an effective toast or tribute because they forget this essential question.  You may be speaking about a best friend, family member, or a product, but you should have in mind one major point. I often ask people, “When you walk away from the podium, what do you want people to remember the most?”  Your sister’s generous nature?  Your father’s kindness?  Your product’s cost-effectiveness?  Make sure you state your point, and make sure you repeat it.
  2. Why does it matter? Your point matters to you. Your job is to convince your audience it matters to them too.  If you’ve done that, you’ve accomplished your mission, OR you’ve accomplished the mission of the person or organization that asked you to speak (and represent them!)
  3. How can you best illustrate your main point or theme? Anecdotes, not statistics, are what engage your audience.  They make the subject relatable.
  4. If you’re speaking about a person, try getting at the heart of the matter by asking yourself what you’d most miss if this person wasn’t in your life, or conversely, what you consider his or her greatest attribute. If you’re speaking about a product, a program, or an institution, ask why it will save time, money, energy or be good for the environment.  That’s what your audience will want to know.
  5. Where do you want to end up? Stephen Covey, of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People fame, reminded us to always “Begin with the end in mind.”  If you are lauding an individual who just donated a million dollars to a home for troubled teens, begin by telling that person’s story.  How did they get there?  What inspired them?  Did they start out as one of those teens they’re now trying to help? There’s usually a compelling personal narrative that drives such instincts, and mining it will push your audience’s emotional and intellectual buttons.

Do you have standard questions you ask yourself when you are about to tackle a communication project?  If not, should you be drawing some up for yourself?  And are you willing to share them with us?

This post originally appeared, in slightly different form, on the Write Touch blog as “Interview Yourself!”

It’s not a secret:  the best conversationalists are rarely the ones with their mouths open.

Your wittiest friends likely have great powers of observation, and those people you most admire because they always seem to know the perfect thing to say probably really said very little in those sparkling conversations you are recalling so vividly in your mind.

Celeste Headlee recently delivered a lively and straightforward TED talk offering tips for having a great conversation.  I liked her reminders because they draw on her background as an interviewer, and the skills she’s naturally developed in that area and plumbed for her talk are the sort that are invaluable for anyone taking on a writing project, from a three-minute speech or presentation to a full-length novel or memoir.  Check it out here:

Many of her tips revolve around the art of listening well—in fact, this is the skill she herself deems most important. And of course, she’s right.  We learn nothing when we are speaking, or interrupting, or mindlessly parroting back the exact words we think we just heard.  Active listening involves not just hearing, but seeing, and interpreting as well.  Excellent listeners tend to…

  1. Clarify what they hear the other person say, often by paraphrasing in their own words, after a response like, “let me be sure I understood you correctly.…”
  2. Interpret what they hear, and respond with an explanation of the implications of the information they’ve just gathered.
  3. Avoid the outdated advice of the 1970’s “active listening” model, in which people simply repeat back exactly what they’ve just heard, since this often causes the listener to miss the true point of the speaker.
  4. Validate what they hear. They receive the input with respect and enthusiasm, even if they don’t necessarily agree with it, maintaining the speaker’s dignity by demonstrating that they are engaged and attentive to what’s being said.
  5. Resist the temptation to interrupt. It’s human nature to want to put yourself and your ideas into the equation, by relating your own similar experiences. Don’t do it.  It’s not as important as you think, and will stop the flow of the speaker’s train of thought. Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, is convinced that, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
  6. Master body language cues—both given and received! Empathetic listeners will often mimic a speaker’s body language to demonstrate that they’ve tuned in to the spoken message by furrowing a brow, lowering their eyes, or tilting their head in concert with the speaker. They also give the speaker direct eye contact during the majority of the conversation, and lean forward to show they are engaged and interested.  They tend to turn their bodies toward the speaker, and nod their heads, as the message unfolds. Interestingly, women apparently nod their heads whether or not they agree with the speaker’s message, so some men may assume that a woman agrees with them when she actually doesn’t if she overdoes the nodding!
  7. Ask open-ended questions. You don’t want to pose questions that can be simply answered by a yes or no if your goal is to encourage deeper communication. Questions that require some interpretation, such as “what do you think was meant by that?” or “How did that affect your thinking?” are great for probing deeper. Your objective should always be to get the speaker to talk as much as possible.

The art of conversation lies in listening.” Malcolm Forbes said that.  I’ll bet Celeste Headlee would agree.  I know I do.

I recently received a  panicked phone call from a potential client that went something like this:

“Hey, I need some help.  The wife of a colleague of mine asked me to delivery a eulogy at his funeral.  But see, I can’t think of anything I can say about this guy that isn’t….well, anything appropriate  for mixed company, you know?  So I told her no.  But now I’m wondering if maybe that was the wrong thing to do.  What do you think?”

I gave the man my opinion, which was that the family that had asked him to perform this task had given him an honor, likely after careful consideration, and that the request  was not something to be dismissed lightly.

I was a bit taken aback when my caller later informed me that the fellow was not quite dead yet, so there was no rush to prepare the material–in fact, they’d had lunch just last week….!

The point is, that request was made because the family was entrusting him to honor his colleague’s memory, and they chose him for a reason. So the gracious thing to do is accept, despite any misgivings about not having the right words to say or thoughts to share.  Or your fears about public speaking .

Preparing and delivering a  eulogy doesn’t have to be a biography, it doesn’t have to be a resume, it doesn’t necessarily have to be sombre, and it certainly doesn’t have to be long;  it simply should touch the audience, help them to share in some memories, and to celebrate what was good in the deceased’s life.   And often that means  sharing what the person meant to you.

You’ve probably already guessed where I”m going with my advice:  tell a story! Illustrate a quality or trait or experience of that person by sharing a story about him or her,  ideally, one in which you are involved. Since most people in the audience were familiar, at least peripherally, with the deceased, you will have their rapt attention if you can tell them something about the person–a humorous anecdote, trait, interest or good deed–that they don’t already know.

Here is Tom Hanks, conversationally and affectionately relating a story at the memorial for Michael Clarke Duncan:

And if you can’t think of a firsthand story to relate, here are some ideas that may help :

  • talk to a close family member or friend..anyone who was important to the deceased
  • for a close family member, pull out old photo albums, walk around their house or garden, go through some old letters or emails you may possess
  • make some notes about special moments you had together or feelings about the person that  come to mind
  • if it’s not a family member, think about how and when and where you and that person become close
  • think about what you or others admired most about this person
  • think about what you will miss most

Once you have made some notes and have some stories and memories to share, decide on what quality it is about the person that you will focus on or illustrate the most.   You may not be the only speaker and you can’t cover everything;  what is the point you especially want to people to remember? Perhaps, like Tom Hanks, you can illustrate a character trait from youth that stands in charming counterpoint to the kind of adult the person you are remembering eventually became.

My caller was concerned that he could not come up with any memories that were not a little off-colour.  Similarly, people often agonize when they need to eulogize a person who was notoriously difficult, or troubled. But your job as a eulogist is to celebrate a life, and to highlight the best qualities or talents of that person .  Now is not the time to sit in judgement, and remember, too, that those listening are not there to judge you.  If the person was difficult, it’s likely those in the audience already know it and don’t need you to remind them.

If poetry is your thing or lyrical or metaphorical language comes naturally to you, by all means, incorporate some into your piece. But if not, a warm, conversational,  tone should put both you and the listeners at ease, and help keep boredom at bay.

So, if asked to speak at a funeral or memorial service, take a deep breath and then

  • Gather your memories, and write them down
  • Compose a story (or a couple) that you will tell, conversationally–one that illustrates your relationship or the qualities of your subject that you wish to highlight
  • Remember that you’ve got an entirely sympathetic audience, so relax and let them support you as you speak by looking out directly at your audience, and at individuals you know will empathize with your words. (Remember too that they will understand if you become emotional.)
  • Keep it brief:  one elegant paragraph, one memory is enough if that’s all you’ve got! Look what Tom Hanks did with one remembered story!