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!

Here is a re-issue of my most-read post ever on the blog, as promised last week!

In my last post, I listed some advice for nervous speakers that I characterized as unhelpful.  Unhelpful, at least, for occasional speakers, those who might be called upon once in a while to get up in public and find they’re terrified of making fools of themselves.

And I promised in this post to provide what I considered some more useful tips.  Those tips don’t have as much to do with your message…whatever it is….as your attitude.

In sales, trainees are counselled to “make a friend.”  What is going to make the person you’re speaking to (or pitching to) like you, relate to you?  They’re much more likely to process what you’re saying, and ultimately agree with it, if they feel you are similar to them, that you understand them, know where they’re coming from.  Public speaking and sales have a lot in common; in both, you’re trying to sell yourself.  You’re trying to charm your listeners with your personality, and ultimately, that’s how you’re going to gain control of your audience.  So you can:

  1. Use self-deprecating humour. Tell a story in which the joke was on you, or you learned a lesson.
  2. Practise, for heaven’s sake! All good speakers are prepared, and the more prepared you are, the more confident you’re likely to feel.  Some people like to speak in front of a mirror, and others record themselves, so they can hear where they are hesitant or perhaps speaking too quickly.  Experiment, and find what works best for you.
  3. Don’t expect perfection from yourself. Give yourself permission to be nervous, and to make mistakes. Remember that your value as a person has nothing to do with your ability to speak in public. Simply recover gracefully, and carry on.
  4. You can even…..make a mistake intentionally, and then correct it with an apology that shows you know everyone makes mistakes, and it’s okay to do so.  If that idea gives you chills, try this:  memorize the first couple of lines of your speech.  Knowing that you have your opening down cold often will jump start you, and from there, you will just naturally roll through the rest of your (well-practised) points.
  5. Admit that you’re nervous, and make it work for you. If you admit it to yourself, just recognize that that rush of adrenaline equals energy, and you can transform that energy into enthusiasm and charisma. If you admit it to your audience, they will identify with you, and begin rooting for you.  They will be pre-disposed to accept your message, because everyone identifies with the underdog, and you’ll relax because you know they’re not expecting a letter-perfect delivery.  And that’s when you’re more likely to give them one.
  6. Speak to one person at a time. Some people find it helpful, when looking out over a crowded room, to focus on one person and direct their remarks to them. If you happen to know that one person, even better, but if not, you can find a friendly face and focus solely on him or her.
  7. It’s an old chestnut but true: posture counts.  Stand up straight, shoulders back, smile and don’t forget to breathe.  Your body will fool your own brain into feeling more confident.

Mark Twain said it well:  There are two types of speakers.  Those who get nervous and those who are liars.  So take comfort in the fact that you are in good company!

This week and next, I am republishing my two most blog posts ever!  It’s a two-parter on help for nervous public speakers.  Part 2 will follow next week, so watch for it if you missed it the first time around!

Apparently, the prospect of public speaking ranks right up there, second only to death, on the average person’s list of “things I am afraid of!”

It makes sense, then, that anyone looking to conquer that fear can find all kinds of advice on how to do so.  There are loads of self-help books, on-line articles, courses and tips to access should a nervous speaker be so inclined.  As with any other subject these days, there’s probably an overload of info to wade through before you get to something of value, something that works for you.

Here’s the thing, I’ve discovered.  A lot of that advice is written for people who are either forced or wish to do A LOT of speaking in public.  Perhaps their job requires it.  Perhaps their school or course requires it.  Perhaps their aspirations or beliefs thrust speaking in public upon them.

But what about the occasion public speaker……those people who are asked to give a wedding toast, deliver a eulogy for a loved one, say a few words at a retirement or anniversary event,  or maybe make a pitch to raise funds for a cause that is important to them? Public speaking is not their life’s work….they just don’t want to seem like a goof in front of a roomful of people!

Telling those people to imagine that each member of their audience is a head of lettuce is not going to help those folks, I’m guessing.  Nor is telling them not to use notes.  In fact, I’m sure that would instill even more fear.

Here’s more unhelpful advice, “imho”:

  • Talk only about things you are an expert on (not always possible, unfortunately!)
  • Remember everyone in the audience is on your side. (really? If the audience is made up of family and friends, the most important people in the world to you, you may rightly feel that those are the people you LEAST want to appear to be an idiot in front of!)
  • Never write out or memorize your talks (Oh, sure! Fine for professionals, but there are some important qualifiers to discuss here!)
  • People want you to be spontaneous, so preparation isn’t necessary in a social setting. (oh, dear! What’s wrong with this logic? Let me count the ways….and for heaven sake, don’t add alcohol to this bit of wisdom!)
  • Here’s a doozy: “Close your eyes and imagine yourself suspended from the ceiling by a thin thread. Just listen to your breathing and tell yourself there is no rush. Slow your breathing until you can count to six seconds of in-breath and six seconds of out-breath. Now you’ll be totally relaxed and confident!” (Are you kidding me? My heart would be racing, I’d be gasping for air, fending off a panic attack and hoping I hadn’t asphyxiated myself!)

What tricks have you tried over the years to allay your fears about speaking in public?  What works?  And have you received bad advice?  What hasn’t worked?  Let us all in on your experiences, and I’ll tally up some of my best advice for dealing with nerves in my next post.