I often get asked whether there is a secret recipe for special occasion speeches. For a speech to make a positive impact, there are certain ingredients required. Blending these elements together in just the right way can mean the difference between a speech to remember and a speech you wish to forget. Here are the top ten elements every special occasion speech should have:
1. Structure. Each and every toast should have an introduction, a middle and a closing. This seems fairly straightforward, but think about how many times you have sat through a speech that was disorganized or rambling. Your introduction can be as simple as saying who you are and your relationship to the guest of honor. It should communicate how you feel about being part of the celebration (e.g., pleased, honored, joyous) and set up what you are going to address in your talk. The middle part should include more substantive material— personal stories and anecdotes that paint a picture of the guest of honor. The closing should be a meaningful way to wrap up the speech. Whether it’s a word of congratulations or something a bit more creative is up to you.
2. Solid transitions. Part of structuring your speech includes thinking about how you are going to transition from one idea to another. Set up each new idea or story you are sharing instead of just reciting a laundry list of memories. If there is a way to group the ideas by theme this will help you better organize your thoughts. Since this is a talk and not a presentation, try to avoid words like “first, next and last,” or verbalizing your outline (e.g., a, b and c).
3. Humor. Infuse your speech with appropriate humor. There is nothing like funny stories, jokes and laughter to loosen the crowd and make you feel more at ease. Just remember that humor should not cause the guest of honor embarrassment or reveal a secret that most people don’t already know. Keep it light and above all, keep it tasteful.
4. Sentimentality. The speeches that most often hit the mark are the ones that come from the heart. You can’t go wrong with using heartfelt sentiment to communicate how you feel about the guest of honor. The only possible exception is if you are not an overly expressive person, you may not want to lay it on too thickly. But as a general rule of thumb, addressing the guest of honor’s character with descriptive words and examples will find their way from your heart to theirs.
5. Personality. Don’t forget that the speech should reflect your personality. If you are typically funny or witty, make sure that your speech is too. If you are a person of few words, make your speech short and to the point. Put simply, it should sound like you.
6. Connection with audience. When you are selecting your material for the speech, think carefully about how this information will resonate with the audience. Don’t pick obscure stories or inside information to share with the guests. Instead, highlight information that everyone in the room, regardless of age, gender or length of relationship with the guest of honor, will appreciate. Stand tall, with your shoulders back and away from your ears, to assume a position of confidence. Make eye contact and smile.
7. Stories and anecdotes. The personal stories and memories you share in the speech make up the critical middle part of your speech. This is where you can paint a picture of what you want to communicate about the guest of honor. Funny and heartwarming stories that exemplify a person’s character or set up a theme you want to introduce will help your speech come alive. When deciding which stories to include, keep this rule in mind: if you would not share it with your own grandmother, leave it out.
8. Theme or tagline. When it is time to structure your speech, it’s important to think about the one or two key themes you want to weave into the speech. This could be the guest of honor’s love of art of cooking and using personal anecdotes to tie back into the theme. Nowadays, it seems like everything has a tagline or hashtag, and your speech is no different. Think about how you want people to feel as a result of your speech and how people would describe it in a short phrase. This catchphrase can be verbally communicated as part of your speech, or just serve as a silent framework for you.
9. Polish. Your speech should be akin to a polished conversation. You should write the speech down, rehearse it and feel comfortable with the words on the page. This doesn’t mean you need to use flowery prose and inspirational quotes unless you routinely talk that way. Remember that your speech will be spoken, even if there are written words in front of you. Jargon and idiomatic expressions are perfectly acceptable. But stick to your script. Too much adlibbing can derail your speech. Provided you have had ample time to prepare the speech, speaking completely “off the cuff” is unacceptable.
10. Time limit. Great special occasion speeches have a time limit. No exceptions. You can allot three to five minutes for your speech. Anything longer and you will lose people’s attention. Say what you want to say and gracefully let everyone return to the party.