A commemorative speech comes from the heart, so it feels unnatural to force it into a format. Unfortunately, without a format, there’s chaos, or what I call a “really, really bad speech.” What does this speech sound like? More importantly, how can we develop a commemorative speech that will honor the individual or group while inspire the audience?
Never Say ‘Never’ or ‘Always’
When you are asked to talk about someone in glowing terms, the task seems a bit daunting. How do you express how much this person means to you or to the audience? How do you make this person seem special?
The answer usually comes in the form of meaningless platitudes strung together with awkward pauses and nervous smiles. The empty compliments somehow are designed to show real emotion. To prove this, superlatives like “always” and “never” appear, giving the individual saint-like qualities.
But, as I said, they are empty. Let me show you why. Let’s first commemorate Uncle Bob, then switch it up to Cousin Kari. Read each speech, and notice something very strange (and a little sad).
Let’s start with Uncle Bob:
“Uncle Bob is a great guy. What can I say? He’s always there for me. He’s the kind of guy that would give the shirt off of his back for you. We’re always laughing and joking and stuff. He’s got a really big heart; he’s always doing things to help people. He never has a bad thing to say about anyone, and in conclusion, I think Uncle Bob is the most loving, most generous person I know.”
Sorry if that doesn’t bring tears to my eyes. Let’s now commemorate Cousin Kari and see why this speech just falls flat:
“Cousin Kari is a great lady. What can I say? She’s always there for me. She’s the kind of person that would give the shirt off of her back for you. We’re always laughing and joking and stuff. She’s got a really big heart; she’s always doing things to help people. She never has a bad thing to say about anyone, and in conclusion, I think Cousin Kari is the most loving, most generous person I know.”
Uh… that was nearly identical. And, that’s what I’m talking about. These speeches are virtually meaningless because they can apply to almost anyone. Just take out “Uncle Bob” or “Cousin Kari” and add anyone’s name, and you have a speech that is about as uninspiring as they come. Adding “always” and “never” doesn’t make it any better. In fact, if someone is always laughing, they are probably insane.
So, what can we do?
Qualities and Memories
Rather than worry about formatting, take a moment to think about what exactly you admire in other people. That will vary from person to person or group to group, but ultimately, the things you admire about people are qualities that define their character.
So, in this example, Uncle Bob or Cousin Kari seem to be loyal (“always there for me”), giving, fun-loving, loving, generous, and kind. That’s quite a few qualities, and you probably only need to focus on one or two.
But, for each of these qualities, think of a memory of that person that you share with them that exemplifies that quality. Don’t spread it thin by claiming they are “always” doing generous things. Think of a time that this person showed true generosity. What happened exactly? Why was this moment or memory so important to you (why do you remember it so clearly)?
A Moment in Time
You see, we aren’t inspired by people who are able to “always” do things. We are inspired by the quality of their character, especially when we can see it in action. So, rather than claim that someone is good, show us that goodness in his or her actions. Paint a picture. Take us back to that moment in time:
“Uncle Bob may not have been perfect, but he was very generous to those he loved. I think of the time when I was in eighth grade, and I wanted to make the basketball team more than anything. The problem was, I didn’t really know the fundamentals, so my chances were looking slim. But, Uncle Bob, who was quite the star in high school, spent the entire summer working with me. He showed me how to dribble and shoot and pass. By the time tryouts came, I felt ready. I made the team thanks to Uncle Bob, who was so generous with his time.”
Okay, maybe tears aren’t flowing here, either, but at least we have a real memory tied to a quality. Instead of Uncle Bob being the “most generous” person on the planet (how does one even get that distinction?), we get to see uncle Bob doing something generous. Giving his time to teach you how to play basketball is a very generous act. No, he won’t win the Nobel Prize, but he made a difference in your life, and that is meaningful.
Make It Meaningful
For a commemorative speech, that’s all it really comes down to: making it meaningful. The format isn’t such a big deal. If you took the example above and only used that as your entire speech, you’d be better off than someone who strings together the platitudes for a few agonizing minutes.
Of course, to make it meaningful, you need to spell out what that quality signifies. In other words, why are you discussing this? Why are you commemorating Uncle Bob? Why did you choose that quality? How does it fit within the context of the occasion?
“I wanted to thank Uncle Bob for being so generous with his time. It made a big difference in my life at a time when I needed it most. It’s a debt I can’t directly repay, but a lesson I can take with me and instill in others. That’s why we are dedicating this gymnasium to my uncle…”
You get the idea. Now, we know that this story of generosity has led to the dedication of a building that will help other kids learn to play basketball. That tugs at the heart strings a little more.
Remember, it’s not a competition to see how many good or great qualities you can list. It’s not about turning someone into a saint. It’s about celebrating that individual or group on a personal level by sharing what you admire about them by sharing the specific memories you have that exemplify the qualities you admire. That comes from the heart, and will inspire others… always.