There’s a good reason that many people are terrified of public speaking. Communicating your thoughts in front of people is hard. It ranks high on a list of the most common fears.
It’s even harder when you’re trying to speak at a funeral. You’re not trying to give an informative presentation in front of your colleagues. Or present a research paper.
You’re trying to speak during what might be one of the most emotional and difficult times in your life. The stakes can seem so much higher. It’s hard to do justice to someone's memory, and not break down in front of an entire room of people. (Our post-loss checklist can help you through all of the tasks you might be facing after you lose a loved one, from writing a speech to seeking grief support.)
There’s plenty of articles about improving your public speaking skills. But what do you do when your public speaking debut occurs at a funeral?
COVID-19 tip: If you're speaking at a virtual funeral using a service like GatheringUs, you can still share your thoughts or eulogy with your online guests. Coordinate with your planning team, make sure you have the right microphones and audio equipment, and send online guests digital funeral programs with the full speaking schedule.
1. Read the Situation
What circumstances did the deceased die under? How old were they? For instance, one of the most comforting facets of a grandparent’s death is that they lived a full life.
They experienced many things and had many loved ones. In the case of the sick and elderly, it may be comforting for those left behind to know they aren’t suffering anymore. In this case, a few humorous anecdotes might be appropriate.
But what if the situation is on the other end of the scale? The untimely death of a loved one can be difficult to bear. It’s hard to find a comforting angle in this situation.
Their life and future were taken away from them. There’s not much for loved ones to find solace in. In this case, humorous anecdotes may come off as inappropriate.
2. Don’t Just Read Aloud
“My grandmother, Jane Doe, was born in Italy in 1936. She married John Doe in 1961. They had two children.”
That kind of recitation is enough to make anyone’s eyes glaze over. It sounds like a page out of a history textbook. Reading straight from the page, even if the facts are true, is a sure way to bore your audience.
Writing down the facts is important. You don’t want to forget or misrepresent anything. But allow your story to flow naturally.
Do this by looking up from the page, making eye contact, and memorizing important details. These are all great ways to engage with your audience.
3. Practice Your Delivery
The idea of practicing in front of a mirror seems silly. Everyone knows this public speaking tip, but almost no one does it. But this practice can be especially crucial when preparing to deliver a eulogy.
The true challenge with sharing a eulogy is emotion. Family and friends are all gathered to get closure and memorialize the deceased. No one is there to judge your public speaking talents. And everyone will be struggling with their emotions.
Are you worried about not being able to get through your speech without breaking down? A few tears are expected, but a full breakdown can make it impossible to finish your speech.
That’s where practice comes in. If you burst into tears the first time you try to read your eulogy, practice a few more times. No one expects you to be a robot, but you want to be able to deliver your speech in full, too.
Even if you’re feeling confident, don't completely abandon your script. You don't want to forget important facts. There's a tried-and-true format for a eulogy, and abandoning it will make you hard to follow. Try to strike a balance between using your script as a crutch, and not using it at all.
4. Focus on the Positives
What if you had a difficult relationship with the deceased? In that case, it can feel excruciating, or even impossible, to stand up and deliver a glowing eulogy. If you had a difficult relationship, and can't deliver a truthful eulogy, it may be best to bow out.
Choosing someone else, or forgoing a eulogy altogether, might be the more honest route. Make sure you share your reasoning with the service organizers. They may feel that an honest eulogy, even if it isn’t “pretty,” still honors the deceased.
What if your relationship wasn't difficult, but complicated? Try to shift the spotlight to their positive traits. For instance, they may have been difficult and rude. But what if they always offered to host family gatherings?
Don't focus on how miserable it was to attend those gatherings. Focus on their generosity for offering to host in the first place. If you’re worried your writing will come off too negative, share it with someone who knew the deceased. Let them tell you if they think it is inappropriate or needs to be reworked.
5. Keep Your Humor Appropriate
Jokes that reflect poorly on the deceased are never a good idea. They make you look tasteless, and have the potential to offend family members. Have someone proofread your eulogy to make sure your humor lands well.
You don't have to include humor. It depends on the situation and the personality of the deceased. If they didn't have a sense of humor, and wouldn't appreciate fun anecdotes at their funeral, don't use them.
If they loved a good joke and their death wasn't tragic, consider including some jokes.
6. Short and Sweet
Have you ever had the misfortune of being part of the audience when a speaker wouldn’t wrap it up? Your eyes glaze over, you yawn, and you wish it was over. You don’t want this to be the case for your eulogy. But different public speaking engagements come with different expectations.
Most eulogies run between three and five minutes. When you practice your speech aloud, you’ll realize that you can fit quite a few words into this time slot. To help make sure your eulogy isn’t too long, do a dress rehearsal. Time yourself as you read at a slow and steady rate.
Most people rush when public speaking, so practice reading slowly. It’ll help you get used to the feeling.
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7. Introduce Yourself
Great eulogies follow a pattern. They’re simple and easy for the audience to engage with. But keep in mind, people need to know who you are. Start your eulogy by introducing yourself and stating your relationship with the deceased.
For instance, you could say: “I’m Skye Grant, and Rosemary Lorraine Ward was my great-grandmother.”
Funerals can be packed events, and many people might not know you. They may know the deceased from somewhere you don’t. And even if you were introduced, it’s still difficult to put names to faces during such an emotional time. Introducing yourself before you start allows people to focus on what you’re saying.
8. Write a Biography
Remember the mind-numbing biographical example we gave above? Yours doesn’t have to be like that. Especially for older people, a biography fills people in on the facts and details of their life.
But you’re not writing a speech to make sure that everyone can pass a pop quiz. You’re trying to tell a story. Weave childhood details and anecdotes in with the bones of the story. Remember to include date and place of birth, siblings, where they grew up, and so forth.
For most relatives, you won't be able to Google this information. Ask other relatives to see if they remember certain details. If that's not an option, ask permission to go through the deceased’s mementos. You may find old diplomas, discharges from the military, or hometown mementos.
9. Follow It Up
Focus the second half of your eulogy on positive takeaways. Doing so puts an emphasis on the legacy of the deceased. Show how the world was a better place because they were in it.
Try to include an anecdote that illustrates their positive impact. If they taught you about honesty and hard work share what they taught you.
Consider closing with that anecdote. It will leave a more lasting impression. And it can remind mourners of something they loved about the deceased.
10. Make Eye Contact
During emotional moments, it may be tempting to not make eye contact with your audience. You may want to look down at your notes, and not at the audience. You might do this so you can make it through your eulogy without breaking down.
But it can make your eulogy seem impersonal. It also forces your words to work twice as hard to connect with your audience, which may result in boredom.
Even if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your emotions, try to make eye contact with people. Share your grief with those who are mourning with you. It will be hard but will help remind you that you aren’t grieving alone.
11. Think Ahead
What will you need up at the podium, besides your notes? Think ahead to items that you might want in the heat of the moment. Good standbys are a packet of tissues and a glass of water.
Tissues will help with any emotional moments you experience while delivering your speech. And a glass of water is a good way to allow you to pause and collect yourself. If you’re nervous about the speech, staying hydrated is also a good idea.
12. Don’t Rush
Have you ever heard a public speaker bumble and charge through their words? It’s hard for the audience to follow meaningless babble, so they tune out. Slow down.
You can practice this while you rehearse your speech. You’ll be speaking slower than you would in normal conversation since a eulogy isn’t a two-way dialogue. Take the time to connect with your audience in a meaningful way.
Delivering Your Eulogy
Writing a eulogy may be one of the most difficult things you will ever do. Delivering it in front of a crowd of loved ones, while struggling to keep your composure, is tough. Remember that it’s worth it. By stepping up to meet this challenge, you’re memorializing a loved one in the way that they deserve.
It’s one of the only meaningful gifts that you can give someone after they are gone. By following the tips above, you can deliver a heartfelt eulogy like a gifted public speaker. If you do that, you’ll have given a gift to those left behind as well.
Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, you have more than just the eulogy to think about. Handling their unfinished business can be overwhelming without a way to organize your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.