3 lessons from giving my father’s eulogy

Does the very thought of speaking in public fill you with terror?

First of all – don’t beat yourself up about it, you are certainly not alone. National research repeatedly places public speaking as our number one fear, even ahead of death and flying.

And secondly – stick with us, because we promise we can help you make a huge difference to your confidence and your delivery with just a few techniques.

Now, I will confess up front that speaking in public isn’t usually a scary big deal for me. I was reading in my school assembly at the age of six (so tiny that I had to stand on a chair that was in turn standing on a table, and neither the speaking nor the safety risk seemed to bother me).

And since then I’ve been lucky enough to hone my craft by speaking at conferences, pitches, workshops, special occasions, and even the odd turn of after-dinner speaking.

And I’ve coached hundreds of leaders to stand up and present brilliantly, too.

Of course, I get a healthy flutter of butterflies, but rarely the stomach-churning fear that others describe to me.

Until last week.

Last week I wrote and delivered the eulogy at my father’s funeral. And I tell you that not for sympathy, but to set the context for the techniques we gift to you in this blog. 

Because these aren’t just proven techniques we have taught countless times. These are techniques we have used – and internalised – ourselves in the hardest of speaking scenarios.

Of course, giving a eulogy is not a straight comparison with, say, a sales pitch or a conference keynote. It’s a different kind of emotion. But the underlying fears are perfectly comparable:

I am terrified about doing this.

So much is riding on this.

All eyes (and ears) will be on me.

What if I trip up or lose my place/voice/confidence?

Here are the three simple things I did last week to hold on to my power – and all three will help you hold on to your power too, whenever you need to boost your confidence.

1. Get to know your words backwards and inside out

In the privacy of my own home I read my father’s eulogy out loud, time after time. In fact, even though I am usually a deadline-junkie on every kind of personality profiling, I knew I couldn’t go to the wire with this…precisely because I knew I had to allow enough time to read it over and over.

In this particular context, I had to take the sting out of the words. I had to become so familiar with certain phrases that their sadness and poignancy no longer took me by surprise and squeezed all the air out of my lungs. 

In a professional setting, it’s unlikely that such emotion will be running high, of course. But even so there will be words and phrases that tongue-twist. Perhaps a pronunciation that trips you up. Or simply an opportunity for inflexion and emphasis that you won’t want to forget under the glare of the spotlight.

And even if you’re working from a spine of bullet points rather than a full script, the more you practice the more your words will imprint themselves on your memory. It will polish your pace, smooth out the links between each bullet point, and nail your timing (vital when the rest of the event agenda depends on speakers keeping to time).

So even if you’re usually a just-wing-it kind of person (and believe me, I hear you), practice lots. And then practice some more.

2. Visualise – and see your power

Visualisation is such a huge deal, and it’s too big a topic to encapsulate in one simple blog or teach-in.

But we really recommend doing both an internal and an external visualisation to help you master your confidence and your presentation, which is exactly what I did last week.

Internally – I imagined that with every breath in, I was inhaling steel in air form. And then I visualised that magical air solidifying, and giving me a core of steel running right through me. This core gave me strength; it grounded me, and it kept me upright.

Externally – usually, this is about using all your tactile senses to visualise yourself in the room presenting to your audience. This programmes your brain so that when you stand up to present, it recognises the situation and triggers a successful outcome. (More on that from us another time, I think.) But when you need a confidence boost more than anything, visualising just the basic practicalities will make a world of difference. 

For my situation last week, I just needed to know where I would stand to speak, especially in relation to where the coffin was. So I went online to find interior photographs of the chapel, and I mentally prepared by picturing it ‘in real time’. This might sound really basic – but I can’t tell you what a difference it made. 

And the same is true in a professional setting. Only recently I was coaching a client ahead of her keynote at a global industry conference. I suggested she ask the organisers for more detail about the setting – the room, the stage, the seating. It turned out she would be speaking ‘in the round’, which creates a different intimacy with the audience, and requires a different presentation approach. My lovely client admitted that it would have thrown her completely, on the day, had she not visualised and prepared for that.

3. Take a mini toolkit to the stage

It’s hard to over-estimate the impact of being well prepared, mentally and practically. But even so, it’s important to have a couple of techniques at your fingertips to help you in the moment. Here are just two:

First, breathe deeply. I know this advice sounds a bit trite, especially when you’re feeling the physical symptoms of nervousness. But the simple fact is this: that dry mouth, fluttering heart-rate and snarling tummy are all happening because your nervousness has engaged your fight-or-flight response. One of the ways your body prepares you for action is by inflaming the vagus nerve, which is what’s creating all those physical changes. But when you breathe deeply, right down into the diaphragm, the vagus nerve is soothed and those physical side-effects subside – strengthening both your voice and your confidence.

And second, give yourself permission to be human. It’s really that simple. If you falter or trip, just take a moment. Pause and gather yourself; perhaps look up and smile. No one will judge you, or even remember, so breathe and continue like you own it – which you do.

We hope these simple techniques interest you; we know for sure they will help you. And even though we are standing up to speak in public far less than usual right now, because of Covid restrictions, now is absolutely the time to work on our speaking skill and confidence. 

After all, doing something less can actually erode our skills and confidence. Make sure you emerge from lockdowns and distancing as strong as possible – standing right there in the middle of your power.

Please share this with anyone it might help. And let us know (use the ‘follow’ button on our blog page) if you’d like our blogs and teach-ins sent directly to you, so you never miss a thing.

Until next time,

Lucy & Emma xx 

Leave a Reply