A tribute to a special person

If you need to make a tribute to a special person -- whether it's a speech or a written document -- you'll need to capture what makes that person unforgettable in just a few words.  No small task, but here are some suggestions to help.

The most common tributes you have heard are probably award or distinguished service presentations. Alas, many are seriously in need of editing as a speaker prattles on endlessly, listing way too much minutiae to hold the audience's attention.

Such talks differ from toasts in that the tribute speech is longer and more elaborate. And they differ from roasts because roasts are supposed to be humorous and poke fun at the honored person.  By contrast, a tribute speech is usually more serious, heartfelt in tone and personal.

The most common tributes you have heard are probably award or distinguished service presentations. Alas, many are seriously in need of editing as a speaker prattles on endlessly, listing way too much minutiae to hold the audience's attention.

Another common error in such talks is spending too much time flattering one or two important people in the audience when the focus is supposed to be on the honoree. 

So, a word to the wise:  edit with your audience in mind because it's difficult to hold their attention.

Key questions in planning your tribute

When you are making an honorary speech, you should include material that is both general and specific:  

  • general in telling what a person means to others or to an organization; 
  • specific in sharing unique experiences you have shared or lessons you have learned with the person in the spotlight.

Consider these questions as you prepare your talk:

  • Who is my audience and what is their relationship to the honoree?
  • In general terms, what has the honoree done for these people or this place?
  • What one instance or situation describes what this person has done for others?
  • What does the audience not know about this person?
  • What is one instance or situation that only you know about describes this person’s character?
  • If you had to describe this person to a stranger, what would you say?
  • When, if ever, did this person do something that made you laugh?
  • What quote or well-known saying applies to this person?

If you can answer those eight questions, you have the outline for a classic speech.

If you want a truly special tribute, consider asking a lyrics writer to compose a song tailored to the person and the occasion.

Practice your remarks with your audience in mind

Now that you've got the general topics, it's time to polish before you stand and deliver.

Let your own personality show.  Be energetic and lively but also be comfortable with your own style. You don't want to be rigid.  And you're probably not an actor or million-dollar speaker; you're a friend who knows this person well enough to say something meaningful on the special occasion.

Pay attention to the flow. Shift the topics around to lead your listeners from one point to the next in a way that is comfortable for you.

Plan your opening line carefully.  You only have a few seconds to make your listeners want to pay attention to what you have to say. If someone introduces you, it's okay to say a brief Thank you. (But don't let yourself get carried away with wordiness.)  Then follow with an interesting statement or fact about the person that might not be generally known. Or, start with a story of something the person did that shows what makes them special.

To see some examples of effective opening sentences, check out the honorary degree citations given by Boston University during commencement of 2018.

Tell one or two stories. 

For tips on storytelling, check out the Public Words blog by Nick Morgan which features a number of posts on how to tell a story.

Get a zinger of a closing.

You might tie back to your opening story or observation. Or you could repeat some phrase that you used to tie your speech together.  Or end with some all-encompassing summary of how great the honored person really is.

If you need specific ideas, check out this advice on the Six Minutes blog.

Practice. Your speech will be authentic when you know your material so well that your delivery is like a conversation -- not a rehearsed presentation. If you are using a script (but DON"T READ IT), underline your points of emphasis and put in an elipsis (. . .) in places you need to pause for effect. Those marks will help you delivery your comments with more impact.

Follow these tips and your tribute will be memorable and well suited to your special occasion.