It Gives Me Great Pleasure...
How to Write Ceremonial Speeches
It's your big moment. The spotlight shines on you as you step to the lectern. Whether you are introducing someone to an audience, dedicating something or accepting an award, all eyes are fixed on you and all ears are ready to hear your magic words. How do you prepare for a moment like this?
Writing good ceremonial speeches is tough, partly because your goals are uncertain.
The audience expects you to say: "It's a pleasure to introduce ... ," "I dedicate ... " or "I accept ... " But still, what is your speech supposed to accomplish? And how do you link it to the audience's concerns? And hold their interests? Here are some ways that can help you give creative ceremonial speeches:
Your introduction should:
Keep it short. Speak for one to three minutes, depending on how well your audience already knows the speaker. Resist the temptation to list all of the speaker's accomplishments.
Finesse the obvious. If important biographical details are already familiar to most of the audience, preface them with "As we all know ... " or some similar expression.
Be relentlessly positive. Never miss a chance to sincerely compliment the speaker. Make sure your introduction contains nothing that may be derogatory, condescending or uncomplimentary. Humorous anecdotes are fine as long as they reflect positively on the speaker.
Use a quote. Look for a gem of a quote about your speaker; use it as a springboard for the rest of your introduction. "One year and 11 days ago, the man who is our guest speaker this afternoon, Bob Jones, became Chief Executive Officer of XYZ Corp. The New York Times called him 'one of the most versatile and multi-talented executives to reach the company's top office.' It's not difficult to see why the paper came to that conclusion."
From general to specific. Begin with the speaker's organization, cause or topic. Tell the audience what it is and why it's important. Then move into your discussion of the speaker.
Birthdays and birth-mates. Check Chase's Calendar of Events (published annually by McGraw-Hill) or go on the Internet to readily see who has the same birthday as your speaker. You may find that the speaker has something else in common with his or her "birth-mate."
Conference theme. If your speaker is part of a program or conference, begin with some comments on the theme of the conference, then tie the speaker's remarks to it.
Ultimate impact. Begin with the ultimate impact of the speaker's organization, cause or key concern. What would society be like if the organization realized its mission? Why (if it's not obvious) would that be a good thing? Then talk about the speaker who's going to help make it all happen.
Business connection. Is the speaker's business tied in some way to that of your organization or company? Is it a longtime client? Supplier? Partner in success? What has the relationship meant to you?
"And he was so right!" Did any of your speaker's philosophies, positions or policies turn out to be correct - or even prophetic? Which one? And how?
Speaker/introducer connection. Perhaps you and the speaker have something in common (hobbies, career progress/events, travel, birthplace, business/political philosophy). What does that say about both of you? Why is it of interest to the audience?
After your opening, you can organize the rest in one of two ways:
1 Enumerate the positives. Make each of the speaker's virtues the topic sentence of a paragraph. Then fill the rest of the paragraph with biographical or anecdotal material that demonstrates the validity of the topic sentence. For example:
[Characteristic] "Ross Perot is a triumphant entrepreneur in the best of the American tradition ... [Illustrations] from his humble beginnings in Texas, delivering newspapers on horseback ... to the presidency of his class at the U.S. Naval Academy ... to an exceptional sales career at IBM ... to the founding of his own company, EDS."
The more important the characteristic, the more time you should spend on it.
2 Biography, then personality. First give the highlights of your speaker's life and career, then talk about him or her as a person. Make a clear transition between the two. "Well, so much for what our speaker is. Now what can I tell you about who he is?" Put the personal part last, as if to say, "This is what's really important."
The ending is key. It must build to a climax. It should summarize the speaker's strengths, virtues and accomplishments and ideally, raise the listeners' sense of anticipation to the point where they just can't wait for the speech to begin.
"What it all comes down to is that John Sawhill represents that all-too-rare combination of thinker, doer and leader, and this - plus all of his expertise and experience in energy and the environment - makes him practically a natural resource unto himself! Ladies and gentlemen ... the President and CEO of The Nature Conservancy ... Dr. John C. Sawhill."
Perhaps there's a quote that reveals how important those strengths and accomplishments are.
"There's an old proverb that says, 'If you wish to know what a man is, place him in authority.' Well, as Bob Jones has risen from one level to the next, we've seen exactly what he is. He is a superb business manager. And he is an enthusiastic, confident leader who understands the dynamics of a tightly competitive, global industry - and knows how to be successful in it."
Stretch out that final sentence with the speaker's full name and full title, and if appropriate, a personal side: "Please join me in welcoming ... the President and Chief Operating Officer of XYZ Corp ... and a man I'm proud to call my colleague and friend ... Robert L. Jones."
The last sentence of your introduction should contain a clear applause sign for example, "Please join me in welcoming ... " or "It's a pleasure to welcome ...." For variations, listen to the way entertainers introduce people. These are the formulas that your audience expects to hear.
This category includes welcoming remarks; dedications of buildings, monuments and other facilities; and groundbreakings, ribbon-cuttings, unveilings, anniversaries, commemorations and other milestones (such as the millionth product to come off an assembly line).
Be specific about what you're celebrating. "So today, we dedicate this marker to Walter Chrysler ... to his vision of building 'one carriage in as nearly perfect a manner as possible' ... and the millions of outstanding Chryslers and, more important, to the people of Chrysler who have made that vision a reality."
Global view. Explain how what you're dedicating or commemorating fits in with or fulfills some larger plan - or accomplishes some ultimate goal.
Talk symbolically. What does the thing you're celebrating stand for? What is its larger meaning? "This facility symbolizes the synergy of traditional manufacturing and modem systems engineering ... the spirit of innovation that runs deep in both of our organizations ... and the progress that we've made and will continue to make together."
New facility, same people. If you're dedicating a new facility staffed by current employees, focus on them. Credit them for achievements in the old facility - or for what they've accomplished so far in the new one. Talk about what has (or has not) changed. This very effective approach enables you to show familiarity - and thus to bond - with your audience, but it must be executed with care.
You're being honored. The award citation may be downright lavish in its praise, so show modesty, emotion and appreciation for the organization.
Show modesty. You can quote someone on modesty or humility: "At moments like this, remember a piece of advice from Golda Meir: 'Don't be so humble,' she said. 'You're not that great.' Or find someone else to share the glory with, whoever did the real nuts-and-bolts work or whoever helped make you worthy of the award. "I accept, with pleasure and gratitude ... not just for myself, but also on behalf of all the true leaders in my company and throughout American business and industry - in recognition of all that they have done to maintain the conscience of our corporations and to promote human dignity and social justice."
Talk about the cause. If the award represents excellence or achievement in or advancement of a cause, offer perspective on that cause. How is it faring? Where should it go from here?
Interpret the event; praise the values. What are we really doing here? Why is the award important and what values does it reflect? If possible, link those values to current events, to demonstrate their undying relevance. "What we're doing here today is more than an awards ceremony, as enjoyable as that is ... and more than a fund-raising event. By singling out Good Scouts, we send a message that 'this is the kind of society we want to have' - a society that respects individual achievement and takes pride in the values associated with Scouting itself."
Historical precedent. Look at the history of the organization or its cause. Have others, perhaps in the early days, had the feelings, thoughts and ideas that you and the audience are now sharing? Try to create a connection between past and present.
End by thanking the organization again. Show positive emotion such as hope for the continuing success of the organization and its causes. "Let me close by thanking you once again for this award. I accept it with the hope that someday brotherhood and sisterhood will need no publicity ... that someday a 'humanitarian award' will be just as superfluous as an award for getting up each morning."
All effective ceremonial speeches have one thing in common: They interpret the event.
The traditional marriage ceremony begins with "we are gathered together to unite this man and this woman in holy matrimony." It comes right to the point. Similarly, whether you're there to introduce, dedicate or accept, your ceremonial speech should leave no doubt as to why you and your audience have gathered. It should tell the listeners what thoughts and feelings are appropriate to such a meeting. It should leave them with an understanding of the larger meaning of the ceremony. If you can do that, your ceremonial speech will transcend platitudes and have real meaning. Your listeners' lives will be different because they have heard your magic words.
Alan Parlman is a Toastmaster in southern California.