General Guidelines to Special Occasion Speeches

Keep It Short

A person delivering a high school graduation speechWith careful planning and a certain amount of practice, you can certainly deliver a ceremonial speech that will make a memorable impact. These guidelines might help make the planning and rehearsal process a little easier for you. First, if it’s possible, keep the speech short (Perlman, 1997). More important than your speech is the occasion that you’re commemorating; you don’t want to overshadow the event that others have gathered to celebrate. For instance, if you are introducing a keynote speaker or presenting an award, avoid going into a “shopping list” of all the honoree’s accomplishments. In some cases they might be too numerous to list. Also consider how familiar your audience is with the honoree or recipient; he or she might be so well known that it might not be the best use of the audience’s time to recite a litany of the recipient’s accomplishments. Even longer speeches (e.g., commencement or keynote) shouldn’t be too long as audience members will not appreciate having to hear an address that seems to go on for a long time. In general, keep the current occasion in mind and focus primarily on the award or recognition that motivated the occasion.

Acknowledge the Obvious

Another thing to keep in mind is to “finesse the obvious” (Perlman, 1997). One might take this advice to mean to not to insult the intelligence of the audience. In some cases, the audience will be very familiar with the main speaker or recipient—who might be a well-known alumnus, actor, or politician; however, it would be insulting not to acknowledge what makes such a person noteworthy. Therefore, you might say something like, “As we all know . . .” or “It goes without saying that . . .” in order to point out the apparent when acknowledging well-known achievements that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

Stay Positive

Regardless of the occasion or speech, stay positive, even if it is to commemorate a sad occasion or remember the loss of an individual. Perlman (1997) suggests taking every opportunity to compliment the speaker. Humorous anecdotes are generally okay if they’re positive. This guideline also applies to roasts. Even if you are able to insert a few embarrassing anecdotes, the best roasts start and end on a positive note.

A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope of life.  ~ William Arthur Ward
Table 17.1 Common Types of Verbal Humor
Anecdote: Interesting stories told to help the speaker make a point
Aside:   A statement added as an after-thought, appearing as though the speaker said something that reminded him or her of the aside
Banter:  Good-natured teasing done back-and-forth with another person, sometimes with an audience member
Blendword: The combination of two words to make a new word: e.g. "murse" for "man" and "purse"
Blunder: Witty way of making a mistake or verbal faux pas
Conundrum:  A word puzzle that has a pun for an answer: e.g. cows wearing bells because their horns do not work
Freudian Slip: A humorous statement that appears to come spontaneously, but really reflects the speaker's subconscious
Hyperbole:  Excessive exaggeration
Irony: Words or statements used to reflect the complete opposite of their original meaning
Joke:  A short anecdote that has a funny twist at the end
Parody:  A humorous version of another writing or speech
Recovery:  The appearance of a blunder that the speaker quickly corrects, in an attempt to save himself or herself
Repartee:  Clever or witty retorts, often in the form of insults
Satire: Humor that is critical or makes fun of something
Situational Humor: Humor that comes from the speaker's own personal experiences
Understatement: Intentionally down-sizing something to make it appear smaller or less severe

Use Humor Carefully

The topic of humor itself warrants careful discussion. Humor can find its way into almost any special occasion speech, and it’s a good way to keep the audience interested in your speech— when used effectively (Hamilton, 2002). Humor is more than just telling jokes—it is really about supplementing your message as well as really driving your point home, so to speak. Humor can be appealing to both speaker and audience because it creates a sense of immediacy and psychological closeness. It also facilitates a common bond between speaker and audience, which helps the audience identify even more with the topic and content of the speech.

If you decide to use humor, you should make this decision carefully. While everyone has the potential to be funny and to use humor in an effective way, some occasions lend themselves to humor more than others. Furthermore, some speakers may doubt their abilities to pull off humor in certain situations or with specific audiences. If you’re asking yourself, “Should I use humor?” you should consider whether the situation lends itself to some humor or laughter, if you might undermine your own credibility, or if you even have the comfort level of the timing to pull off the humor attempt (Audrieth, 1998). People who naturally the see the humor in situations and can look at life in a humorous light will likely be able to use humor effectively in a public speech. This ability can prove to be a tremendous asset to a public speaker. However, it takes a good deal more than just some natural ability to be effective. As Audrieth advises, “If deep, deep down, you know that you are a klutz when it comes to delivering the punch line, if you can't seem to get jokes right, then consider carefully your decision to use humor.”

The face is the mirror of the mind, and eyes without speaking confess the secrets of the heart.  ~ St. Jerome
When learning to use humor, speakers should understand the importance of nonverbal delivery (Hamilton, 2002). For one thing, do not give off the impression that you expect laughter or smiling in response to any particular remark. If you deliver a clever line and stand there with an expectant smile, you are going to feel and look foolish if no one responds. Furthermore, some audience members may find it less arrogant or more endearing if you can deliver a punch line without looking like you expect a response. Nonverbal delivery also involves a sense of comic timing. Being able to deliver funny lines without having to adjust your overall delivery is a skill that is highly valued. Timing also means not having to step in and out of a humorous line. In other words, try not to show a difference in tone between the funny and not-so-funny segments of your speech. When incorporating these strategies, remember that you will get better with practice. Even the best humorists practice their speeches to polish their delivery.

Of course, nonverbal humor should not stand alone. An after-dinner speaker should have a good understanding and command of various verbal humor forms (Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, 2007) and plays on words. The idea here is that the verbal and nonverbal cues supplement each other to convey the most appropriate humor, and using humor as a verbal strategy can convey what visual humor usually cannot. For instance, it may be difficult or impossible to convey irony or contradiction through nonverbal cues alone. Using language to point out ironies and contradictory situations in life can remind listeners of what makes us human (Eisenberg, Goodall, & Tretheway, 2007), as well as make a serious point in a subtle way.

Additional forms of verbal strategies include puns, hyperboles, anecdotes, and others that can tell a story or use language to convey humor images. Some of the more popular forms can be found in Table 17.1.

I'm not funny. What I am is brave.  ~ Lucille Ball
A group of people with an award

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