Approaches

15 Ceremonial Speaking

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the purpose and goals of special occasion speeches;
  • Identify the types of special occasion speeches;
  • Understand the proper techniques for creating an aesthetic experience when delivering a special occasion speech.

Sometimes, the speaking opportunities life brings our way have nothing to do with informing or persuading an audience; instead, we are asked to speak during special occasions in our lives. Whether you are standing up to give a speech at an awards ceremony or create a tribute, knowing how to create an effective aesthetic experience in a variety of different contexts is the nature of ceremonial (or special occasion) speaking.

The goal of a ceremonial speech is to captivate an audience and create a felt sense in response to the situation or occasion. The occasion will, of course, inform what kind of experience the speaker is creating, and different occasions have different expectations for speakers based on values that they rely on: inspiring, commemorating, accepting, or unifying.

You’ve likely experienced a ceremonial speech as an audience member—perhaps lots! If you attended a campus orientation, the chancellor or provost may have welcomed you in a formal speech. Attend a wedding? If so, toasts likely occurred. The more special occasion speeches you audience, the more you’ll realize that effective speaking means “giving the people what they want,” so to speak – it means crafting and delivering a speech that reflects the occasion.

On face, special occasion speaking may seem detached from advocacy, but remember: when you speak at a special occasion, it’s your job to bring the community together by elevating and advocating for a perspective that’s appropriate to the contextual values. If you’re giving a tribute to someone, for example, you’re advocating for the audience to view them in a particular light – likely a positive one that honors their accomplishments and contributions. You’re speaking about something or someone that you believe in.

In this chapter, we are going to explore what special occasion speeches are, types of speeches, and strategies for effective language and aesthetic delivery.

Types of Special Occasion Speeches

Special occasion speeches cover broad territory and allow for a wider range of topics, events, and approaches to be employed. We won’t cover all types of special occasion speeches, but the information below should assist as you approach speaking at different ceremonial events.

Speeches of Introduction

The first type of special occasion speech is the speech of introduction, which is a mini-speech given by the host of a ceremony that introduces another speaker. Few things are worse than an introduction that says, “This is Wyatt Ford. He’s going to talk about stress.” While we did learn the speaker’s name and the topic, the introduction falls flat. Audiences won’t be the least bit excited about listening to Wyatt’s 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 do it all in under two minutes.

The Introduction: 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.

Transition

The Body: The body of your speech of introduction should be devoted to telling the audience about the speaker’s topic, why the speaker is qualified, and why the audience should listen (notice we now have our three main points). First, tell your audience in general terms about the overarching topic of the speech. Most of the time as an introducer, you’ll only have a speech title and maybe a paragraph of information to help guide this part of your speech. That’s all right. You don’t need to know all the ins and outs of the main speaker’s speech; you just need to know enough to whet the audience’s appetite. Next, you need to tell the audience why the speaker is a credible speaker on the topic. Has the speaker written books or articles on the subject? Has the speaker had special life events that make them qualified? Lastly, you need to briefly explain to the audience why they should care about the upcoming speech. The outline can be adjusted; for example, you can give the biographical information first, but these three areas should be covered.

Transition

Conclusion: The final part of a good introduction is the conclusion, which is generally designed to welcome the speaker to the lectern. Many introducers will conclude by saying something like, “I am looking forward to hearing how Wyatt Ford’s advice and wisdom can help all of us today, so please join me in welcoming Dr. Wyatt Ford.” At this point, you as the person introducing the speaker are “handing off” the speaking duties to someone else, so it is not uncommon to end your speech of introduction by clapping as the speaker comes on stage or shaking the speaker’s hand.

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 honor. Speeches of presentation can be as simple as saying, “This year’s recipient of the Lavache Public Speaking prize is Ryann Curley,” or could last up to five minutes as the speaker explains why the honoree was chosen for the award.

Example Alert: An interesting example of a speech presenting an award is this one by Zoe Saldana for J.J. Abrams.

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.

The following format can assist as you craft speeches of presentation:

  • First, you should explain what the award or honor is and why the presentation is important.
  • Second, you can explain what the recipient has accomplished in order for the award to be bestowed. Did the person win a race? Did the person write an important piece of literature? Did the person mediate conflict? Whatever the recipient has done, you need to clearly highlight their work.
  • Lastly, if the race or competition was conducted in a public forum and numerous people didn’t win, you may want to recognize those people for their efforts as well. While you don’t want to steal the show away from winner, you may want to highlight the work of the other competitors or nominees.

Speeches of Acceptance

Acceptance speeches complement a speech of presentation. The speech of acceptance is a speech given by the recipient of a prize or honor.

There are three typical components of a speech of acceptance:

  • Thank the givers of the award or honor: You want to thank the people who have given you the award or honor and possibly those who voted for you. We see this done every year during the Oscars, “First, I’d like to thank the Academy and all the Academy voters.”
  • Thank those who helped you achieve your goal: You want to give credit to those who helped you achieve the award or honor. No person accomplishes things in life on their own. We all have family members, friends, and colleagues who support us and help us achieve what we do in life, and a speech of acceptance is a great time to graciously recognize those individuals.
  • Put the award or honor into perspective. Tell the people listening to your speech why the award is meaningful to you. 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. A good rule to remember is: Be thankful, be gracious, be short.

After-Dinner Speeches

After-dinner speeches are humorous speeches that make a serious point. These speeches get their name from the fact that they historically follow a meal of some kind. After-dinner speakers are generally asked to speak (or hired to speak) because they have the ability both to speak effectively and to make people laugh. First and foremost, after-dinner speeches are speeches and not stand-up comedy routines. All the basic conventions of public speaking previously discussed in this text apply to after-dinner speeches, but the overarching goal of these speeches is to be entertaining and to create an atmosphere of amusement.

After-dinner speaking is an extremely difficult type of speaking to do well because it is an entertaining speech that depends on the successful delivery of humor. People train for years to develop comic timing, or the verbal and nonverbal delivery used to enhance the comedic value of a message. But after-dinner speaking is difficult, not impossible.

You may be wondering, “What kind of topics are serious that I can joke about?” The answer to that, like the answer to most everything else in the book, is dependent on your audience and the speaking situation, which is to say any topic will work, while at the same time you need to be very careful about how you choose your topic.

Be careful not to focus too much on comedy and forget to leave the audience with a serious message. When you’re considering content, ask, “what do I want to leave the audience with? How can I tie that message together?” Once you have a core idea, begin working outward and find comedic entrances.

Keynote Address

A keynote address is a speech focused on a key theme or idea—generally defined by the event or occasion— with the purpose of unification. Speakers are commonly selected to give a keynote if they have expertise or experience in the theme or idea being presented.

Because the keynote likely takes place at a larger event, convention, institution, etc., it’s important to pay attention to circumstances and make sure that your information elevates the ideas from that event. For example, if you’re speaking at a convention, who’s there? What’s the convention theme? Who else is speaking? This information will help you tailor your content to fit the occasion and audience (we talk more about this in the last sections of this chapter).

Commemorative Speeches

Commemorative speeches encompass a broad range of occasions, and their purpose is to commemorate an extraordinary person, place, thing, or idea. Commemorative speeches allow you to pay tribute publicly by honoring, remember, or memorializing. For example, commemorative speeches include:

  • Paying tribute to a local art teacher;
  • Toasting your boss at the company’s retirement party;
  • Honoring the founder at a national convention.

When you commemorate, your focus is highlighting the thing being commemorated through a dedication, toast, eulogy, or a commencement address. While we won’t list every type of commemorative speech, if you’re honoring or paying tribute, you’re likely delivering a commemorative address.

We’ll talk through some specific commemorative speeches below, but remember that the focus of commemorative speeches is the person, place, thing, or idea, so stay focused on connecting the audience to the specific occasion.

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. Maybe your great-aunt has passed away and opted to donate funds to your university, so the college has decided to rename one of the residence halls after them. In this case, you may be asked to speak at the dedication.

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 that the building is being named after your great-aunt who bestowed a gift to their alma mater.
  • Second, you want to explain what is being dedicated, why, and who was involved in the project.
  • Lastly, explain why the project is important for the community in which it is located. 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 to the community.

Toasts

At one time or another, almost everyone is going to be asked to deliver a toast. A toast is a speech designed to congratulate, appreciate, or remember. Toasts can be delivered for the purpose of congratulating someone for an honor, a new job, or getting married. You can also toast someone to show your appreciation for something that 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. Finally, if you’re being asked to toast, it likely means you have a noteworthy personal or professional relationship with the person or people involved, so make it personal!

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.

Speeches to Eulogize and Memorialize

A eulogy is a speech given in honor of someone who has passed away. Closely related, speeches that memorialize are longer speeches that celebrate and honor the person or group of individuals on a significant date – Veterans Day, for example.

When preparing, gather and brainstorm meaningful information about the person. The more information you have about the person, the more personal you can make the eulogy. Second, although eulogies and speeches that memorialize are delivered on the serious and sad occasion of a funeral or service, it is very helpful to look for at least one point to be lighter or humorous. In some cultures, in fact, the friends and family attending the funeral will expect the eulogy to be highly entertaining and amusing.

Knowing the deceased and the audience is vital when deciding on the type and amount of humor to use in a eulogy. A story that everyone can appreciate is often recommended. Ultimately, the goal of the humor or lighter aspects of a eulogy is to relieve the tension that is created by the serious nature of the occasion.

If you are ever asked to give a eulogy, that means you were probably close to the deceased and are experiencing shock, sadness, and disbelief at your loved one’s passing. The last thing that you will want to do (or be in a mental state to do) is figure out how to structure your eulogy. To that end, here are three parts of a eulogy (i.e. main points) you can use to write one without worrying about being original with structure or organizational patterns.

Praise

The first thing you want to do when remembering someone who has passed away is remind the audience what made that person so special. So you will want to praise their accomplishments. This can include notable achievements (being an award winner; helping with charities), personal qualities (“they were always willing to listen to your problems and help in any way they could”), or anecdotes and stories (being a great parent; how they drove to college to visit you when you were homesick).

Lament

The second thing you want to do in a eulogy is to lament the loss. To lament means to express grief or sorrow, which is what everyone at a funeral has gathered to do. You will want to acknowledge that everyone is sad and that the deceased’s passing will be difficult to get through. Here you might mention all the things that will no longer happen as a result of the death. “Now that Grandpa is gone, there won’t be any more Sunday dinners where he cooks chicken on the grill or bakes his famous macaroni and cheese.”

Console

The final step (or main point) in a eulogy is to console the audience, or to offer comfort in a time of grief. What you must remember (and many people often forget) is that a eulogy is not a speech for the person who has died; it is a speech for the people who are still living to try to help them deal with the loss. You will want to end your eulogy on a positive note.

Using the Praise-Lament-Console format for eulogies gives you a simple system where you can fill in the sections with 1) why was the person good, 2) why you will miss them, and 3) how you and the audience will get through this loss. It sometimes also helps to think of the three points in terms of Past-Present-Future: you will praise the deceased for what they did when they were alive (the past), lament the loss you are feeling now (the present), and console your audience by letting them know that things will be all right (the future).

Commencement Address

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 all of us have sat through commencement speeches at some point in our lives. And if you’re like us, you’ve heard good ones and bad ones.

Example Alert: Numerous celebrities and politicians have been asked to deliver commencement speeches at colleges and universities. A famous and well-thought-out commencement speech was given by famed Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling at Harvard University in 2008. Rowling’s speech has the perfect balance of humor and inspiration, which are two of the main ingredients of a great commencement speech.

If you’re ever asked to deliver a commencement speech, there are some key points to think through when deciding on 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. Think of a theme as something that ties the content of your speech together. For example, one of our authors was the commencement speaker at her undergraduate institution, and she used the “yellow brick road” as a metaphor for progress.
  • Talk about your life and how graduates can learn from your experiences to avoid pitfalls or take advantages of life. 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. How can your life inspire the graduates in their future endeavors?
  • Make the speech humorous. Commencement speeches should be entertaining and make an audience laugh (but be appropriate, of course!).
  • Be brief! Nothing is more painful than a commencement speaker who drones on and on. Remember, the graduates are there to get their diplomas; their families are there to watch the graduates walk across the stage.
  • 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.

Overall, it’s important to make sure that you have fun when delivering a commencement speech. Remember, it’s a huge honor and responsibility to be asked to deliver a commencement speech, so take the time to really think through and prepare your speech.

Summary

It is not unrealistic to think that you will be called upon at various points in your life to give one or more of these speeches. Knowing the types and basic structures will help when those moments arise.

To help us think through how to be effective in delivering special occasion speeches, let’s look at preparation and aesthetics.

Preparing for Special Occasion Speaking

First, and foremost, the biggest mistake you can make when standing to deliver a special occasion speech is to underprepared or simply not prepare at all. We’ve stressed the need for preparation throughout this text, and just because you’re giving a toast or a eulogy doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t think through the speech before you stand up and speak out. If the situation is impromptu, jotting some basic notes on a napkin is better than not having any plan for what you are going to say.

To guarantee effective and efficient preparation, make sure you’re comfortable and understand the expectations of the occasion, audience, and be mindful of time. Now that you have a better understanding of the types of special occasion speaking, use the following suggestions as you prepare.

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 school shooting, then obviously using humor and telling jokes wouldn’t be appropriate. But some decisions about adapting to the occasion are less obvious. Consider the following examples:

•You are the maid of honor giving a toast at the wedding of your younger sister.

•You are introducing a long-time community activity.

•You are delivering the commencement address at your university.

How might you adapt your message to account for these occasions? After reading through types of special occasion speeches, you should have a better idea of how expectations may change depending on the occasion.

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.

Like we mentioned above, special occasions often unify the community or audience, and in order for that to be effective, you must be reflexive about a) who your audience is and b) any audiences you may be representing.

One of our coauthors was once at a conference for teachers of public speaking. The keynote speaker stood and delivered a speech on the importance of public speaking. While the speaker was good and funny, the speech really fell flat. The keynote speaker basically told the public speaking teachers that they should take public speaking courses because public speaking is important. Right speech, wrong audience!

Be Mindful of the Time

The last major consideration when preparing for special occasion speeches successfully is to be mindful of your time. Different speech situations have their own conventions and rules with regard to time.

Shorter Lengths

Gray Area

Longer Lengths

Speeches of Introduction

Eulogies

Commencement Speeches

Speeches of Preparation

After-Dinner

Keynote Address

Acceptance Speeches

Commemorative Speeches

Toasts

Audiences on different occasions will expect speeches of various lengths. For example, although it’s true that graduation commencement speakers generally speak for ten to twenty minutes, the closer that speaker heads toward twenty 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, either ask the person who has invited you to speak or do some quick research to see what the average speech times in the given context tend to be.

Aesthetics

It’s important to consider all elements of the aesthetic experience for the audience when preparing for a special occasion speech. In fact, audiences often expect to leave with the feels after special occasion speeches, so attention to language and aesthetic delivery are key.

Special Occasion Language

Special occasion speaking is so firmly rooted in the use of good language that it makes sense to address it here. 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, and you should spend ample time crafting emotional and evocative phrases that convey the sentiment your speech is meant to impart. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have used good language in your informative and persuasive speeches, but that the emphasis shifts slightly in a special occasion speech.

Paying attention to your language doesn’t mean “I should use big words!” Do not touch a thesaurus! Good language isn’t about trying to impress us with fancy words. It’s about taking the words you are already comfortable and familiar with and putting 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 things 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, so again, don’t mistake big words for good language. Using a five-syllable word when a two-syllable word will work just as well 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 – “treasures of the heart.” 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 is full of various rhetorical devices, with the twelve-minute speech, including alliteration.

As you know, your language is part of the aesthetic experience for the audience, so it’s a must-have for special occasion speeches.

Verbal and Nonverbal 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, it is imperative that you say exactly what you have written; otherwise, what was the point? To that end, your delivery for a special occasion speech may skew slightly more in favor of manuscript speaking. While it is still vital to establish eye contact with your audience and to not sound like you are reading, it is also important to get the words exactly right.

So, you guessed it, rehearse! 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. Raprot is a vital element in special occasion speaking because of the emotional component at the core of these speeches. 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.

One note: humor is often used in special occasion speeches, and when you’re funny, people laugh! It can be difficult to account for laughter in your rehearsal, but try to predict where you may need to pause. If you speak over laughter, your audience will miss what you’ve said and may find it difficult to follow moving forward.

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.

Conclusion

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 it is important that you deliver your speech in a way that both conveys the proper emotion for the occasion and allows you to give the speech exactly as you wrote it.