What Eulogies Can Teach Us about Speeches

Christopher Witt —  May 22, 2013

Last week I attended a funeral for my nephew, a sweet kid who died tragically and way before his time. Contrary to my expectations, I found the funeral and the rites surrounding it a moving and powerful source of comfort.

Two friends of my nephew shared reminiscences and a priest gave the eulogy. They did a fine job, which got me to thinking about eulogies and what they can teach us about speaking in general.

Here are five elements or characteristics of a eulogy that apply to speeches in general.

  1. Intention
    When giving a eulogy, what matters most is your intention. Your aim is, or should be, to offer comfort. How you comfort those who grieve will differ, of course, depending on the person who has died, the circumstances, the people left behind, and your own gifts, relationship, abilities. But as long as you sincerely intend to provide comfort, you’re on the right track. Your intention also matters in every other speech you give. Your aim will differ from speech to speech, but you always need to be clear about what it is. And you audience needs to know what it is. Why are you speaking to them? Why do you care? Why should they care?
  2. Stories
    You can’t give a eulogy without telling stories. You just can’t. You are, in essence, telling the story of the person’s life or, at least, telling a story of the person’ life and imbuing it with meaning. Likewise, I don’t see how you can give any kind of speech without telling a story, at least one. (See How to Tell a Story.)
  3. Emotions
    At a funeral people’s emotions, which may span the whole gamut, are right up front and central. And it’s easy for the eulogist to connect in a powerful way with the audience. It’s not so easy to do that in other speeches, especially in the corporate arena where people are more guarded. But you still have to engage people’s emotions if you want to affect them. (As a verb, affect means, “have an effect on; make a difference to.” As a noun, affect means, “emotion or desire, esp. as influencing behavior or action.”)
  4. Community
    At a funeral, you’re not just speaking to individuals. You’re speaking to a community, to people who share a common bond, to family, friends, colleagues. In other speeches, you will have a greater impact if you think of gathering the individuals who are assembled into an assembly, a community of people who have something in common — a shared concern, a joint venture, similar values. A good speaker addresses each person as a unique individual and, at the same time, forges a sense of commonality among the audience as a whole.
  5. Humility
    If you’ve ever spoken at a funeral, you know how daunting of a task it can be. How can you possibly do justice to the person, those who mourn, and the occasion? You can’t. And that’s okay. You do what you can, as best you can. And you do your best to keep your ego out of the way. You’re there to comfort others — that’s your intention, right? — not to call attention to yourself. The same is true of giving a speech. When you let your ego get in the way, you’ll trip yourself up. But if you humbly do the best you can, you’ll do better than you expect.

What do you think? What lessons from eulogies can you apply to speeches in general?

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.