15.1 – Understanding Special Occasion Speeches
Often, the speaking opportunities life brings our way have nothing to do with specifically informing or persuading an audience; instead, we are commonly asked to speak during special occasions in our lives. Whether you are standing up to give a speech at an awards ceremony or a toast at a wedding, knowing how to deliver speeches in a variety of different contexts is the nature of special occasion speaking.
Like informative or persuasive speeches, special occasion speeches should communicate a clear message, but the manner of speaking used is typically different. The word “special” is somewhat subjective in that some speaking occasions truly are special occasions (e.g., a toast at a wedding, an acceptance speech at an awards banquet, a eulogy for a loved one), but they can also be given at more mundane events, such as the hundreds of public relations speeches that big companies give every day. The goal of a special occasion speech is ultimately to stir an audience’s emotions and make them feel a certain way in response to the situation or occasion.
To help us think through how to be effective in delivering special occasion speeches, let’s look at four key ingredients: preparation, adaptation to the occasion, adaptation to the audience, and mindfulness about time.
First, and foremost, the biggest mistake you can make when standing to deliver a special occasion speech is to underprepare or simply not prepare at all. We’ve stressed the need for preparation throughout this text, so just because you’re giving a wedding toast or a eulogy doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think through the speech before you stand up and speak out. If the situation is impromptu, even jotting some basic notes on a napkin is better than not having any plan for what you are going to say.
Adapt to the Occasion
Not all content is appropriate for all occasions. If you are asked to deliver a speech commemorating the first anniversary of a tragedy, then obviously using humour wouldn’t be appropriate. But some decisions about adapting to the occasion are less obvious. Consider the following examples:
- You are the maid of honour giving a toast at the wedding of your younger sister.
- You are receiving a Most Valuable Player award in your favourite sport.
- You are a sales representative speaking to a group of clients after a mistake has been discovered.
- You are a cancer survivor speaking at a high school student assembly.
- You are giving a victory speech after winning an election (or a concession speech after losing).
How might you adapt your message and speaking style to successfully convey your message to these various audiences?
Remember that being a competent speaker is about being both personally effective and socially appropriate. Different occasions will call for different levels of social appropriateness. One of the biggest mistakes entertaining speakers can make is to deliver one generic speech to different groups without adapting the speech to the specific occasion. In fact, professional speakers always make sure that their speeches are tailored for different occasions by getting information about the occasion from their hosts. When we tailor speeches for special occasions, people are more likely to remember those speeches than if we give a generic speech.
Adapt to Your Audience
Once again, we cannot stress the importance of audience adaptation enough in this text. Different audiences will respond differently to speech material, so the more you know about your audience, the more likely you’ll succeed in your speech.
Be Mindful of the Time
The last major consideration for delivering special occasion speeches successfully is to be mindful of your time. Different speech situations have their own conventions and rules with regard to time. Acceptance speeches and toasts, for example, should be relatively short (typically under two minutes). A speech of introduction should be extremely brief—just long enough to tell the audience what they need to know about the person being introduced in a style that prepares them to appreciate that person’s remarks. In contrast, commencement speeches, eulogies, and speeches to commemorate events can run 10-20 minutes in length, depending on the context.
Also recognize that audiences on different occasions will expect speeches of various lengths. For example, although graduation commencement speakers generally speak for 10-20 minutes, the closer that speaker heads toward 20 minutes, the more fidgety the audience becomes. To hold the audience’s attention, a commencement speaker would do well to make the closing minutes of the speech the most engaging and inspiring portion of the speech. If you’re not sure about the expected time frame for a speech, ask the person who has invited you to speak.
15.2 – Types of Special Occasion Speeches
Speeches of Introduction
A speech of introduction, which is a mini-speech given by the host of a ceremony that introduces another speaker and their speech. Just like any other speech, a speech of introduction should be a complete speech and have a clear introduction, body, and conclusion—and you should try to do it all in under two minutes.
For an introduction, think of a hook that will make your audience interested in the upcoming speaker. Did you read a news article related to the speaker’s topic? Have you been impressed by a presentation you’ve heard the speaker give in the past? You need to find something that can grab the audience’s attention and make them excited about hearing the main speaker.
Speeches of Presentation
The second type of special occasion speech is the speech of presentation. A speech of presentation is a brief speech given to accompany a prize or honour. Speeches of presentation can be as simple as saying, “This year’s recipient of the Schechter Public Speaking Prize is Justin Trudeau,” or could last up to five minutes as the speaker explains why the honouree was chosen for the award.
When preparing a speech of presentation, it’s always important to ask how long the speech should be. Once you know the time limit, then you can set out to create the speech itself.
Speeches of Acceptance
The complement to a speech of presentation is the speech of acceptance. The speech of acceptance is a speech given by the recipient of a prize or honour.
There are three typical components of a speech of acceptance: 1) thank the givers of the award or honour, 2) thank those who helped you achieve your goal, and 3) put the award or honour into perspective.
However, there’s a downside to this model; it’s overused and boring. Give your award meaning and focus on the audience, not yourself (as tempting as that may be while you are literally in the spotlight receiving an award).
You’ll note that the most boring speeches at the Oscars include the words, “I’d like to thank the academy.” And then the speaker thanks the producer, the director, the principal actors, the costumer designer, the score composer, their mom and dad, their wife and kids, other family members, their dog, their distant cousins, 19 other people who worked on the film, their high school acting teacher, their college acting teacher, one more person who made a difference in their lives, the audience for listening, the sponsors of the Oscars, and whoever poured them their last drink (which was probably one too many). That speech is terrible.
While you may want to give credit to those who helped you achieve the award or honour, it’s not a list. If you’re about to name more than three people, that’s probably too many. If they really deserved that much credit, their name would probably also be on the award. You can thank them personally later.
Your job is to put the award in perspective. Tell the people listening to your speech why the work you did to achieve the award is meaningful. The award isn’t the focus; the achievement or work is. If you know you are up for an award, the odds of your winning are high. In order to avoid blubbering through an acceptance speech, have one ready.
Speeches of Dedication
A speech of dedication is delivered when a new store opens, a building is named after someone, a plaque is placed on a wall, a new library is completed, and so on. These speeches are designed to highlight the importance of the project and possibly those to whom the project has been dedicated.
When preparing a speech of dedication, start by explaining how you are involved in the dedication. If the person to whom the dedication is being made is a relative, tell the audience about your relationship and your relative’s accomplishments. Second, you want to explain what is being dedicated. If the dedication is a new building or a pre-existing building, you want to explain the importance of the structure. You should then briefly explain who was involved in the project (as above, it shouldn’t be a long list).
Most importantly, explain the significance of the person or place that is being recognized. If the dedication is for a new store, talk about how the store will bring in new jobs and new shopping opportunities. If the dedication is for a new wing of a hospital, talk about how patients will be served and the advances in medicine the new wing will provide the community.
At one time or another, almost everyone is going to be asked to deliver a toast to congratulate, appreciate, or remember somebody. First, toasts can be delivered for the purpose of congratulating someone for an honour, a new job, or getting married. You can also toast someone to show your appreciation for something they have done. Lastly, we toast people to remember them and what they have accomplished.
When preparing a toast, the first goal is always to keep your remarks brief. Toasts are generally given during the middle of some kind of festivities (e.g., wedding, retirement party, farewell party), and you don’t want your toast to take away from those festivities for too long. Second, the goal of a toast is to focus attention on the person or persons being toasted—not on the speaker.
As such, while you are speaking, you need to focus your attention toward the people being toasted, both by physically looking at them and by keeping your message about them. You should also avoid any inside jokes between you and the people being toasted because toasts are public and should be accessible for everyone who hears them. To conclude a toast, simply say something like, “Please join me in recognizing Gina for her achievement” and lift your glass. When you lift your glass, this will signal to others to do the same and then you can all take a drink, which is the end of your speech.
A roast is a very interesting and peculiar speech because it is designed to both praise and, with good nature and affection, comically insult a person being honoured. Because of this combination of purposes, the roast is a challenging type of speeches to write, given the difficult task of simultaneously praising and playfully insulting the person. Generally, roasts are given at the conclusion of a banquet in honour of someone’s life achievements or service. The television station Comedy Central has been conducting roasts of various celebrities for a few years and, if you’ve ever watched one, you know that the “roasters” make some harsh comments about the “roastees,” even though they are friends.
During a roast, the roaster will stand behind a lectern while the roastee is seated on display for the audience to see, thus allowing the audience to take in their reactions. Since half the fun of a good roast is watching the roastee’s reactions during the roast, they must be clearly visible to the audience.
How does one prepare for a roast? First, you want to really think about the person who is being roasted. Do they have any strange habits or amusing stories in their past that you can discuss? When you think through these questions, you want to make sure that you cross anything off your list that is truly private information or will really hurt the person. The goal of a roast is to poke fun at them, not massacre them. It’s a tickle, not an assault.
Second, when selecting which aspects to poke fun at, you need to make sure that the items you choose are widely known by your audience. Roasts work when the majority of people in the audience can relate to the jokes being made. If you have an inside joke with the roastee, bringing it up during roast may be great fun for the two of you, but it will leave your audience unimpressed. Lastly, end on a positive note. While the jokes are definitely the fun part of a roast, you should leave the roastee and the audience knowing that you truly do care about and appreciate the person.
A eulogy is a speech given in honour of someone who has died. When the time comes to deliver a eulogy, you must know what you’re doing and adequately prepare your remarks. This is an extremely sensitive time; you need to be responsible and prepared.
When preparing a eulogy, first you need to know as much information about the deceased as possible. The more information you have about the person, the more personal you can make the eulogy. Although eulogies are delivered on the serious and sad occasion of a funeral or memorial service for the deceased, look for at least one point to be lighter or humourous. In some cultures, in fact, the friends and family attending the funeral expect the eulogy to be highly entertaining and amusing. Try to finish with something from the life of the deceased that can inspire everybody joining the service.
Knowing the deceased and the audience is vital when deciding on the type and amount of humour to use in a eulogy (if humour is to be used at all). However, a funny story about Uncle Joe’s love for his old-but-not-beautiful car or Aunt Mary’s love of tacky sweaters might be appropriate. Ultimately, the goal of the humour or lighter aspects of a eulogy is to relieve the tension that is created by the serious nature of the occasion and to bring people together with fond memories.
Be aware that even experienced public speakers become emotional and have difficulty giving eulogies. Even though you may have been fine practicing at home and feel good about giving it, the emotional impact of speaking about a deceased loved one in front of others can be surprisingly powerful.
Speeches for Commencements
A speech of commencement (or, as it is more commonly known, a “commencement speech”) is designed to recognize and celebrate the achievements of a graduating class or other group of people. These typically take place at graduation ceremonies. Nearly every one of us has sat through commencement speeches at some point in our lives. And if you’re like us, you’ve heard good ones and bad ones. Numerous celebrities and politicians have been asked to deliver commencement speeches at colleges and universities.
If you’re ever asked to deliver a commencement speech, there are some key points to think through when deciding your speech’s content.
- If there is a specific theme for the graduation, make sure that your commencement speech addresses that theme. If there is no specific theme, come up with one for your speech.
- Talk about your life and how graduates can learn from your experiences to avoid pitfalls or take advantages of life. How can your life inspire the graduates in their future endeavours?
- Make the speech humourous. Commencement speeches should be entertaining and make an audience laugh.
- Be brief! Nothing is more painful than a commencement speaker who drones on and on.
- Remember, while you may be the speaker, you’ve been asked to impart wisdom and advice for the people graduating and moving on with their lives, so keep it focused on them.
- Place the commencement speech into the broader context of the graduates’ lives. Show the graduates how the advice and wisdom you are offering can be utilized to make their own lives better.
Make sure that you have fun when delivering a commencement speech. Remember, a commencement speech is a huge honour and responsibility, so take the time to really think through and prepare your speech.
A motivational speech is designed not only to make an audience experience emotional arousal (fear, sadness, joy, excitement), but also to motivate the audience to do something with that emotional arousal. Whereas a traditional persuasive speech may want listeners to purchase a product or agree with an idea, a motivational speech helps to inspire people in a broader fashion, often without a clearly articulated end result in mind. As such, motivational speaking is a highly specialized form of persuasive speaking commonly delivered in schools, businesses, and religious houses of worship.
15.3 – Special Occasion Language
More than any other category of speech, the special occasion speech is arguably one where the majority of your preparation time will be specifically allocated towards the words you choose. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have used good language in your other speeches, but the emphasis shifts in a special occasion speech.
You need to use good language, but not fancy language. Using big words doesn’t make you sound smarter (especially if you misuse them). You need to take the words you are already comfortable and familiar with and put them in the best possible order. Consider the following example from the then-president of the Ohio State University, Gordon Gee, giving a commencement address at Florida State University in 1997:
As you look back on your years at Florida State I hope you remember many good things that have happened. These experiences are, for the most part, events of the mind. The memories, ladies and gentlemen, however, are treasures of the heart.
Notice three points about his use of language: first, he doesn’t try to use any fancy words, which he certainly could if he wanted to. Every word in this portion of his speech is one that all of us knew by the time we left elementary school. Using a five-syllable word when a two-syllable word will work often means a speaker is trying too hard to sound smart. And given that the use of those big words often comes off sounding awkward or inappropriate, you’re better off just sticking with what you know.
Second, notice how he uses those basic words to evoke emotion and wonderment. Putting the words you know into the best possible order, when done well, will make your speech sound extremely eloquent and emotional. Third, he uses parallelism in this brief snippet. The use of “events of the mind” and “treasures of the heart” to compare what is truly important about the college experience is powerful. Indeed, Gee’s commencement address is full of various rhetorical devices, with the twelve-minute speech also containing alliteration, assonance, and antithesis.
15.4 – Special Occasion Delivery
Just as the language for special occasion speaking is slightly different, so too are the ways in which you will want to deliver your speech. First and foremost, since you will be spending so much time crafting the perfect language to use and putting your words in the right order, you must say exactly what you have written; otherwise, what was the point? To that end, your delivery for a special occasion speech will skew slightly more in favour of manuscript-style speaking. While establishing eye contact with your audience and not sounding like you are reading is important, you also need to get the words right.
You will need to practice your special occasion speech as much as or even more than you did for your other speeches. You need to know what you are going to say and feel comfortable knowing what is coming next. This is not to say you should have your speech memorized, but you need to be able to take your eyes off the page in order to establish and maintain a rapport with your audience. This is a vital element in special occasion speaking because of the emotional component at the core of the message. Knowing your speech will also allow you to counteract the flow of adrenaline into your system, something particularly important given that special occasion speeches tend to be very emotional, not just for the audience, but for you, as well.
Basically, knowing your speech well allows you to incorporate the emotion that a special occasion speech is meant to convey, something that is hard to do when you read the entirety of your speech. In this way your audience will sense the pride you feel for a graduating class during a commencement speech, the sorrow you feel for the deceased during a eulogy, or the gratitude you have when accepting an award.
Special occasion speaking is the most varied type of speaking to cover; however, there are some general rules to keep in mind regardless of what type you are engaged in. Remember that using good, evocative language is key and that you need to deliver your speech in a way that both conveys the proper emotion for the occasion and allows you to give the speech as you wrote it.
This chapter was adapted from Exploring Public Speaking, 4th Edition by Barbara Tucker and Matthew LeHew, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.