Mastering The Eulogy

by drjim on January 26, 2016

A eulogy is a gift both to yourself, and to others

A eulogy is a gift both to yourself, and to others
Image Credit: Quinn Dombrowski

Man, if there is one type of speech that I don’t look forward to, it’s a eulogy. I mean, what an incredibly sad time – someone has just died. Since I’m going to be at the funeral you know that I knew them and so I’m going to be very sad. Now you want me to stand up in front of everyone else who is sad and try to give a speech? That sure seems like it might be asking just a bit too much. However, those other sad people need some comfort in their time of loss. Perhaps my speech can provide them with just part of what they need. Dang it, I guess that I need to do this.

Plan Out Your Eulogy

When you are asked to deliver a difficult speech like a eulogy, the one thing that you really don’t want to do is to try to wing it. You are going to have to take the time to make sure that you fully understand the environment in which you’ll be speaking. This is going to include such things a the manner in which person died, how the audience felt about him or her, and what they think of you. All of these things will play a role in how you shape your speech.

One of the key aspects of your speech will have to do with how you choose to organize it. This is going to require that you make a series of decisions. The first of these will be to determine the purpose of your eulogy – why are you giving it? In order to achieve your purpose, you are going to have to very carefully choose the tone of your eulogy. The tone can range from being light to being solemn or anywhere in between.

There are a number of different ways to organize a eulogy. One of the best ways is to pick one period of the person’s life where a lot was accomplished. Use this period to find a focus for your eulogy and tell stories about how important this time was to them. You’ll need to keep in mind that what is going to make your eulogy effective is for you to be perceived by your audience as being sincere. What will contribute to this is when you pace your eulogy correctly and make it just long enough to clearly communicate your main points.

It’s All About Content, Not Delivery

The good news for you is that one of the things that makes a eulogy so different from the other speeches that you are called on to give is that what is going to matter the most is going to be the content of your speech, not so much how you deliver it. Your audience expects you to be upset by the death and so they will be very understanding if you have any difficulties standing up before them and speaking.

The purpose of your eulogy is going to be to provide an evocative remembrance of the person who has passed on – you want to bring them back to life for the short time that you are giving your speech. What you are going to want to talk about is what characteristics of the person will be most missed by the audience. Was it their kindness? Was it their sense of humor? What you are not going to want to do is to list out a chronology of their life – everyone present already knows that.

The good news with this kind of difficult speech is that the audience is not there to judge you. Rather, you are there to help them with the healing process. You are going to want to keep your eulogy short and to the point. You want to make your points, but you do not want to come across as being trite. What you are going to have to do while delivering this speech is simply be yourself. This is what your audience both wants and expects from you.

What All Of This Means For You

There are a lot of speeches that are tough to give. However, a eulogy just might be one of the hardest. The reason is that you are feeling sad and your audience is feeling sad. All of the traditional ways that we use to get our audience to rally behind us just won’t work in this unique environment.

You don’t just stand up and come up with a good eulogy on the spot. Instead, you need to take time and plan out what you want to say. You need to decide what the purpose of your speech is going to be. Next you need to pick a tone. When you deliver the speech you’ll need to be sincere – this is how you’ll connect with your audience. Don’t list out the deceased life, instead pick out specific events and provide color as you relate them to your audience. Don’t worry about how you give your speech. The audience won’t be judging you, they just want to hear your great content.

Let’s face it, the person who has died will never hear your speech. However, everyone who was a part of their life will probably be at the funeral and they will hear what you have to say. During your eulogy you have a chance to once again bring the deceased back to life even if it is only for a short time. Take your time and craft a good speech so that you can allow your words to help with the healing process.

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Public Speaking Skills™

Question For You: How long do you think a well done eulogy should be?

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Note: What we talked about are advanced speaking skills. If you are just starting out I highly recommend joining Toastmasters in order to get the benefits of public speaking. Look for a Toastmasters club to join in your home town by visiting the web site www.Toastmasters.org. Toastmasters is dedicated to helping their members to understand the importance of public speaking by developing listening skills and getting presentation tips. Toastmasters is how I got started speaking and it can help you also!

What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

So there I was last week working with one of my speaking clients. He had just gotten done giving a speech and he had hurried back to me to get some feedback on how he had done. I told him quite truthfully that he had done a very good job. But. It was that “but” that caught his attention. There had been something that was just a little bit off that had caught my attention during his speech. I racked my brain trying to determine what it was. All of sudden I had it, he had spoken like a robot!

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Joseph Pollhein February 3, 2016 at 2:40 pm

Outstanding advice! I have spoken in front of people my entire adult life and the most difficult was having to give the eulogy at my father’s funeral, this past July. Man, that was tough! Doing what you outlined here was so helpful in making it meaningful and allowing me to get through it while being in incredible pain myself. Organizing is the way to go and rehearsing it aloud so you know just where you are liable to break down, recognize it and prepare for it. I really do think it helped my family and friends remember his life.

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drjim February 17, 2016 at 11:31 am

Joseph: You bring up a very good point, giving a eulogy is a difficult job under the best of circumstances but when we’re directly affected it can have a huge impact on us as we try to give the speech. Thanks for sharing your story…

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Ray Branas February 4, 2016 at 10:51 am

Hello,

Your site is not sending an e-mail to verify subscription sign-up. Thanks.

Ray Branas

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drjim February 17, 2016 at 3:17 pm

Ray,

Good news — I checked and you’ve successfully signed up for the newsletter. You’ll be getting it this week…

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Mike February 9, 2016 at 10:36 am

Great post.

As an occasional public speaker who has also delivered a eulogy, I believe there are similarities between eulogizing and speaking impromptu: being prepared is a key success factor in both.

But with most funerals occurring within less than a week of departure, preparation time can be hard to come by. What preparation time exists competes with other must-do tasks ranging from difficult logistics to just…mourning.

The night before my father’s funeral, I learned that I was going to be his eulogist.

On one hand, this didn’t leave a lot of time to plan.

On the other hand, I had at least thirty years to plan it. (When he passed at 82, I was 47.)

My father wasn’t a teen suddenly cut-down in the prime of life. After years of declining health, we learned he had less than a year to live. He was in hospice care for five months when he died.

Morbid as it sounds, I started outlining his obituary soon after his terminal diagnosis. When he went into hospice, I started building on the outline. I didn’t tell my siblings (I’m the youngest of four) about this but I did tap discretely into their memories, particularly for things he did before my arrival.

Why did I do this? Facing the inevitable with my father, I was picturing all the funerals I’d attended to that point. In nearly all the funerals where death wasn’t sudden, the survivors’ ability to mourn in a celebratory way was undermined by their lack of preparation to…celebrate. They were distracted by things like picking coffins, flowers, readings, hymns, and writing obituaries.

I didn’t want to be that “deer in the headlights” guy at my father’s funeral. I wanted to help family and friends celebrate Dad’s life as best I could.

Drafting his obituary ahead of time helped me do that. It wasn’t easy. But it helped me put Dad’s life into context without time pressure in an otherwise stressful time. It clarified my view of his life.

Soon after Dad died, the four of us rallied and started dividing funeral tasks. My brother — who took my Dad in for hospice and was in many other ways his shadow — took on the eulogy. He’s a great speaker and his closeness with Dad made my brother a natural choice to eulogize him.

I had an obituary in my hip-pocket which they four of us fine-tuned over cocktails. That freed me to do other tasks that needed doing.

I was so relieved that I wasn’t going to be in the pulpit at the funeral Mass speaking to all those family and friends.

What I didn’t anticipate was my grief-stricken brother, the night before the funeral and after a late dinner, saying “I can’t do it. Someone else needs to handle Dad’s eulogy.”

All eyes turned to me. Luckily, I had notes from the obituary on a laptop. I powered-up and together we drafted a Eulogy that mourners cited for it’s simplicity, insight, and humor.

That drafting session also helped us to bond and center ourselves for the day ahead.

The older the deceased, the more time potential eulogists have to plan. If the departed suffers from a terminal illness, that can add to eulogy preparation time.

Is it a little morbid to write someone’s eulogy before they die?

Perhaps.

But I agree with Dr. Anderson: good eulogies — like good impromptu talks — don’t happen on the spot. The more prepared you are to deliver a eulogy, the better the eulogy will be. The departed may not hear your eulogy but think about it: would you want your survivors to be debilitated by your departure or celebrating your life?

I pick the latter.

Getting a jump on the eulogy (and the obituary) can be very liberating and life-giving to oneself. Unless it’s sudden death, you can help the eulogy be better by thinking it through without the pressure of the actual departure and the grim tasks that come immediately afterward.

Also…while eulogies are part of a fundamentally sad thing, they don’t need to be sad. In fact, many faith systems call us to view funerals as celebrations of life. “Don’t be sad because it’s over, be glad because it happened,” may be a tough sell but eulogists shouldn’t be afraid to mark a celebratory tone in their tributes to the departed.

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drjim February 17, 2016 at 11:29 am

Mike: Wow — what an incredible story. You make a number of very good points — the best eulogy is the one that we’ve had time to prepare, but fate does not always provide us with that opportunity. Your story shows how we can all use what time is made available to us to do the best job possible…

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