Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my younger brother. He died in November 2011 at age 39 after a long battle with ill health. Despite surprising the medical profession on several occasions with his miracle recoveries, one day he just ran out of miracles. I miss him a lot and wish he was still alive. But I am extremely grateful for the time that he was part of my life, especially growing up together and as close friends in our early twenties.
And there’s another thing that I’m incredibly grateful for. At that difficult time, I was able to write and deliver a well-crafted, succinct and heartfelt tribute to him for his funeral because I had taken the time to develop my public speaking skills.
Despite my early career working as an actor and presenter and latterly as a trainer and facilitator, I was not ‘naturally good’ at public speaking so in May 2011 I joined Toastmasters International, an organisation that offers training in communication and leadership development.
At the time it never even crossed my mind that just six months later I would be delivering the most important and most difficult speech of my life to this point. But after several months of attending fortnightly meetings where I listened to, and delivered, numerous speeches and evaluations I had learned so many valuable skills and public speaking techniques that my brother’s eulogy almost wrote itself.
Here are some of the techniques I was able to apply:
Alliteration is a rhetorical device that I hadn’t given much thought to since my school days, but using the same sound or letter at the beginning of each word is a great way to make your material more interesting and easy to understand.
When thinking about my brother, three words came to my mind – warmth, wisdom and wit. Not only were they a great example of alliteration, but they perfectly described some of the qualities I associated with my brother. These three words ended up being the overall ‘theme’ for the funeral.
The rule of three
The three words were also perfect for utilising the rule of three which has been used for centuries in everything from fairy tales to advertising because the combination of pattern and brevity helps to make the message memorable. Here are some examples you might be familiar with:
- Friends, Romans, Countrymen
- Father, Son and Holy Spirit
- Stop, Look and Listen
- The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
- Sex, Lies and Videotape
- Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
- Government of the people, by the people, for the people
- I came, I saw, I conquered
- The Three Little Pigs
- Goldilocks and the Three Bears
When thinking about a person’s life, how on earth do you capture everything about them in a short speech? It’s virtually impossible! Rather than using a potentially long and boring chronological structure, the rule of three also helped me to organise my speech. By choosing three qualities I was able to focus on including only material that supported these three attributes. I used a simple speech structure – opening, body and conclusion – and expanded on each of the three points in the body of the talk.
Incorporating stories allowed me to provide examples of my brother’s warmth, wisdom and wit which added some humour, illustrated my points and enabled family and friends to remember or visualise him in a way that connected with them emotionally.
When delivering the eulogy I was behind a lectern but I was able to use body language and facial expressions to enhance my speech as I shared the stories about my brother and our lives together. As it was a difficult time emotionally I decided not to put any pressure on myself by trying to remember what I was going to say. However, I did spend time familiarising myself with the content, partly to desensitise myself so that I was able to deliver it without crying (I wanted to do a great job in my tribute!) and partly so that I was able to take my eyes from the page and make eye contact with the people listening.
Despite being reasonably confident in front of an audience due to my acting background, learning how to write an effective speech and having the opportunity to practice speaking in public at fortnightly meetings developed my confidence in a whole new way. Knowing that I had the basics in place meant that I was able to trust myself to write and deliver an effective tribute on this important occasion.
When I first joined Toastmasters I never dreamed that 6 months later I would be making the most important and most difficult speech of my life to date. But I am so grateful that in a short space of time I was able to develop valuable knowledge and skills that enabled me to write and deliver a clear, succinct and moving tribute.
I hope you never find yourself in a situation where you are required to give a eulogy for a loved one. But how much worse would it be if you really wanted to deliver a tribute and weren’t able to because you were too scared or didn’t feel you had the skills to do it justice?
The ability to confidently speak in public is a valuable life skill. If you’ve been thinking about developing your skills in this area, I urge you to take action and join a public speaking group such as Toastmasters International, participate in a presenting skills training course or invest in some 1-1 coaching. In my case, it not only helped me to deliver my most difficult speech ever, but it led me to refining my skills even further, discovering a new talent and passion and embarking on a whole new journey as a specialist public speaking coach and trainer!
For many people, delivering their first speech is the hardest. I can assure you that the sooner you get started, the sooner you'll become a confident and competent public speaker. And that will be extremely valuable when you find yourself needing to communicate an important message.
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(If you’re wondering about the picture of the frog, it is because my brother loved to write and illustrate children’s stories featuring frogs!)