Chapter Eighteen – Special Occasion Speeches

Sometimes, the speaking opportunities life brings our way have nothing to do with informing or persuading an audience; instead, we are asked to speak during special occasions in our lives. Whether you are standing up to give a speech at an awards ceremony or create a tribute, knowing how to create an effective aesthetic experience in a variety of different contexts is the nature of ceremonial (or special occasion) speaking.

The goal of a ceremonial speech is to captivate an audience and create a felt sense in response to the situation or occasion. The occasion will, of course, inform what kind of experience the speaker is creating, and different occasions have different expectations for speakers based on values that they rely on: inspiring, commemorating, accepting, or unifying.

You’ve likely experienced a ceremonial speech as an audience member—perhaps lots! If you attended a campus orientation, the chancellor or provost may have welcomed you in a formal speech. Attended a wedding? If so, it’s likely you heard a toast. The more special occasion speeches you attend, the more you’ll realize that effective speaking means “giving the people what they want,” so to speak – it means crafting and delivering a speech that reflects the occasion.

On the surface, special occasion speaking may seem detached from advocacy, but remember: when you speak at a special occasion, it’s your job to bring the community together by elevating and advocating for a perspective that’s appropriate to the contextual values. If you’re giving a tribute to someone, for example, you’re advocating for the audience to view them in a particular light – likely a positive one that honors their accomplishments and contributions. You’re speaking about something or someone that you believe in.

In this chapter, we are going to explore what special occasion speeches are, types of speeches, and strategies for effective language and aesthetic delivery.

Types of Special Occasion Speeches

Special occasion speeches cover broad territory and allow for a wider range of topics, events, and approaches to be employed. We won’t cover all types of special occasion speeches, but the information below should assist as you approach speaking at different ceremonial events.

Speeches of Introduction

The first type of special occasion speech is the speech of introduction, which is a mini speech given by the host of a ceremony that introduces another speaker. Few things are worse than an introduction that says, “This is Wyatt Ford. He’s going to talk about stress.” While we did learn the speaker’s name and the topic, the introduction falls flat. Audiences won’t be the least bit excited about listening to Wyatt’s speech.

Just like any other speech, a speech of introduction should be a complete speech and have a clear introduction, body, and conclusion—and you should do it all in under two minutes. This brings up another “few things are worse” scenario: an introductory speaker who rambles on for too long or who doesn’t focus their remarks on the person being introduced.


The Introduction: For an introduction, think of a hook that will make your audience interested in the upcoming speaker. Did you read a news article related to the speaker’s topic? Have you been impressed by a presentation you’ve heard the speaker give in the past? You need to find something that can grab the audience’s attention and make them excited about hearing the main speaker.


The Body: The body of your speech of introduction should be devoted to telling the audience about the speaker’s topic, why the speaker is qualified, and why the audience should listen (notice we now have our three main points). First, tell your audience in general terms about the overarching topic of the speech. Most of the time as an introducer, you’ll only have a speech title and maybe a paragraph of information to help guide this part of your speech. That’s all right. You don’t need to know all the ins and outs of the main speaker’s speech; you just need to know enough to whet the audience’s appetite. Next, you need to tell the audience why the speaker is a credible speaker on the topic. Has the speaker written books or articles on the subject? Has the speaker had special life events that make them qualified? Lastly, you need to briefly explain to the audience why they should care about the upcoming speech. The outline can be adjusted; for example, you can give the biographical information first, but these three areas should be covered.


Conclusion: The final part of a good introduction is the conclusion, which is generally designed to welcome the speaker to the lectern. Many introducers will conclude by saying something like, “I am looking forward to hearing how Wyatt Ford’s advice and wisdom can help all of us today, so please join me in welcoming Dr. Wyatt Ford.” At this point, you as the person introducing the speaker are “handing off” the speaking duties to someone else, so it is not uncommon to end your speech of introduction by clapping as the speaker comes on stage or shaking the speaker’s hand.

Speeches of Presentation

The second type of special occasion speech is the speech of presentation. A speech of presentation is a brief speech given to accompany a prize or honor. Speeches of presentation can be as simple as saying, “This year’s recipient of the Lavache Public Speaking prize is Ryann Curley,” or could last up to five minutes as the speaker explains why the honoree was chosen for the award.

Example Alert: An interesting example of a speech presenting an award is this one by Zoe Saldana for J.J. Abrams.

When preparing a speech of presentation, it’s always important to ask how long the speech should be. Once you know the time limit, then you can set out to create the speech itself.

The following format can assist as you craft speeches of presentation:

  • First, you should explain what the award or honor is and why the presentation is important.
  • Second, you can explain what the recipient has accomplished in order for the award to be bestowed. Did the person win a race? Did the person write an important piece of literature? Did the person mediate conflict? Whatever the recipient has done, you need to clearly highlight their work.
  • Lastly, if the race or competition was conducted in a public forum and numerous people didn’t win, you may want to recognize those people for their efforts as well. While you don’t want to steal the show away from winner (as Kanye West did to Taylor Swift during the 2009 MTV Music Video Awards, for example) you may want to highlight the work of the other competitors or nominees.

Speeches of Acceptance

Acceptance speeches complement a speech of presentation. The speech of acceptance is a speech given by the recipient of a prize or honor. For example, in the above video clip from the 2009 MTV Music Video Awards, Taylor Swift starts by expressing her appreciation, gets interrupted by Kanye West, and ends by saying, “I would like to thank the fans and MTV, thank you.” While obviously not a traditional acceptance speech because of the interruption, she did manage to get in the important parts.

There are three typical components of a speech of acceptance:

  • Thank the givers of the award or honor: You want to thank the people who have given you the award or honor and possibly those who voted for you. We see this done every year during the Oscars, “First, I’d like to thank the Academy and all the Academy voters.”
  • Thank those who helped you achieve your goal: You want to give credit to those who helped you achieve the award or honor. No person accomplishes things in life on their own. We all have family members, friends, and colleagues who support us and help us achieve what we do in life, and a speech of acceptance is a great time to graciously recognize those individuals.
  • Put the award or honor into perspective. Tell the people listening to your speech why the award is meaningful to you. If you know you are up for an award, the odds of your winning are high. In order to avoid blubbering through an acceptance speech, have one ready. A good rule to remember is: Be thankful, be gracious, be short.

After-Dinner Speeches

After-dinner speeches are humorous speeches that make a serious point. These speeches get their name from the fact that they historically follow a meal of some kind. After-dinner speakers are generally asked to speak (or hired to speak) because they have the ability both to speak effectively and to make people laugh. First and foremost, after-dinner speeches are speeches and not stand-up comedy routines. All the basic conventions of public speaking previously discussed in this text apply to after-dinner speeches, but the overarching goal of these speeches is to be entertaining and to create an atmosphere of amusement.

After-dinner speaking is an extremely difficult type of speaking to do well because it is an entertaining speech that depends on the successful delivery of humor. People train for years to develop comic timing, or the verbal and nonverbal delivery used to enhance the comedic value of a message. But after-dinner speaking is difficult, not impossible.

You may be wondering, “What kind of topics are serious that I can joke about?” The answer to that, like the answer to most everything else in the book, is dependent on your audience and the speaking situation, which is to say any topic will work, while at the same time you need to be very careful about how you choose your topic.

First, use all that you have learned about informative or persuasive speeches to prepare a real informative or persuasive speech roughly two-thirds the length of what the final speech will become. That is, if you’re going to be giving a ten-minute speech, then your “real” informative or persuasive speech should be six or seven minutes in length.

Next, go back through the speech and look for opportunities to insert humorous remarks. The table below lists various forms of verbal humor that are often used in the textual portion of a speech.

Forms of Verbal Humor

Type of Humor Example
Acronym/Abbreviation CIA—Certified Idiots Anonymous
LAPD—Lunatics And Punishment Dispensers
Humorous Advertisement or News Headline “Tiger Woods Plays with Own Balls, Nike Says”
“A-Rod Goes Deep, Wang Hurt”
“Federal Agents Raid Gun Shop, Find Weapons”
Aside They are otherwise known as oxymorons, which are not people who don’t know how to use acne medication.
Colostomy, wasn’t he one of the Greek Gods?
Definition “A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining and wants it back the minute it begins to rain.” Mark Twain
Spoiled rotten, or what happens to kids after spending just ten minutes with their grandparents.
Oxymoron Scheduled emergency
Gourmet spam
Recreational hospital
Pleonasm Frozen ice
Sharp point
Killed dead
Malapropism He’s a vast suppository of information (suppository should be repository).
This is bound to create dysentery in the ranks (dysentery should be dissent).
One-Liner or Quotation Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt. —Abraham Lincoln
A computer once beat me at chess, but it was no match for me at kick boxing. —Emo Philips
Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened. —Winston Churchill
In the first place God made idiots; this was for practice. Then he made school boards. —Mark Twain
Self-Effacing Humor I looked over at my clock and it said 7:30, and I had to be at work by 8:00. I got up, got dressed, and sped to the office. Only then did I realize that it was 7:30 p.m. and not 7:30 a.m.
“Thomas Jefferson once said, ‘One should not worry about chronological age compared to the ability to perform the task.’…Ever since Thomas Jefferson told me that I stopped worrying about my age.” —Ronald Reagan
Word Combination with Unusual Visual Effects That kid was about as useful as a football bat.
He was finer than frog hair.


Each of these is a possible humor device that could be implemented in a speech. Read the following speech delivered by Mark Twain on his seventieth birthday for a good example of an after-dinner speech Seventieth Birthday Speech.

Once you’ve looked through your speech, examining places for verbal humor, think about any physical humor or props that would enhance your speech. Physical humor is great if you can pull it off without being self-conscious. One of the biggest mistakes any humorist makes is to become too aware of what their body is doing because it’s then harder to be free and funny. As for props, after-dinner speakers have been known to use everything from oversize inflatable baseball bats to rubber clown noses. The goal for a funny prop is that it adds to the humor of the speech without distracting from its message.

Last, and probably most important, try the humor out on real, live people. This is important for three reasons.

First, the success of humor depends heavily on delivery, and especially timing in delivery. You will need practice to polish your delivery so that your humor comes across. If you can’t make it through one of your jokes without cracking up, you will need to either incorporate the self-crackup into your delivery or forgo using that joke.

Second, just because you find something unbelievably funny in your head doesn’t mean that it will make anyone else laugh. Often, humor that we have written down on paper just doesn’t translate when orally presented. You may have a humorous story that you love reading on paper, but find that it just seems to drone on once you start telling it out loud. Furthermore, remember there is a difference between written and verbal language, and this also translates to how humor is interpreted.

Third, you need to make sure the humor you choose will be appropriate for a specific audience. What one audience finds funny another may find offensive. Humor is the double-edged sword of public speaking. On one side, it is an amazing and powerful speaking tool, but on the other side, few things will alienate an audience more than offensive humor. If you’re ever uncertain about whether a piece of humor will offend your audience, don’t use it.

The following are some other tips for using humor from people who have professionally given after-dinner speeches and learned the hard way what to do and what to avoid:

  • Personalize or localize humor when possible.
  • Be clear about which words need emphasis with verbal humor.
  • Be sure the punch line is at the end. Don’t let on where the joke is going.
  • Don’t announce, “This is funny.” or “I’m not very good at telling jokes, but…”
  • Don’t try to use humor that you don’t know well.
  • Don’t use humor that you personally don’t find funny.
  • Don’t apologize if others don’t laugh.
  • Don’t try to explain the humor if it fails—just move on.
  • Don’t drag it out! Remember, brevity is the soul of wit.
  • Know when to stop joking and be serious.
  • Be natural and have fun!

Keynote Address

keynote address is a speech focused on a key theme or idea—generally defined by the event or occasion— with the purpose of unification. Speakers are commonly selected to give a keynote if they have expertise or experience in the theme or idea being presented.

Because the keynote likely takes place at a larger event, convention, institution, etc., it’s important to pay attention to circumstances and make sure that your information elevates the ideas from that event. For example, if you’re speaking at a convention, who’s there? What’s the convention theme? Who else is speaking? This information will help you tailor your content to fit the occasion and audience (we talk more about this in the last sections of this chapter).



Motivational Speaking

A motivational speech is a type of keynote address which is designed not only to make an audience experience emotional arousal (fear, sadness, joy, excitement) but also to motivate the audience to do something with that emotional arousal. Whereas a traditional persuasive speech may want listeners to purchase product X or agree with ideology Y, a motivational speech helps to inspire people in a broader fashion, often without a clearly articulated end result in mind. As such, motivational speaking is a highly specialized form of persuasive speaking commonly delivered in schools, businesses, religious, and club or group contexts. The Toastmasters International Guide to Successful Speaking lists four types of motivational speeches: hero, survivor, religious, and success.

Powerful. Photo by Binti Malu.

The hero speech is a motivational speech given by someone who is considered a hero in society (e.g., military speakers, political figures, and professional athletes). Just type “motivational speech” into YouTube and you’ll find many motivational speeches given by individuals who can be considered heroes or role models. The following clip presents a speech by Jimmy Valvano:

Jimmy Valvano’s 1993 ESPY Speech

In this speech, Jimmy V talks about overcoming obstacles and enjoying life to its fullest. The V Foundation for Cancer Research was founded by ESPN and legendary basketball coach Jim Valvano with one goal in mind: to achieve victory over cancer. Since its start in 1993, the V Foundation has awarded over $250 million in cancer research grants nationwide and has grown to become one of the premier supporters of cutting-edge cancer research funds.  Jimmy V died 58 days after this ceremony.

The survivor speech is a speech given by someone who has survived a personal tragedy or who has faced and overcome serious adversity. In the following clip, cancer survivor Becky M. Olsen discusses her life as a cancer survivor.

Becky M. Olson Speech

Becky Olsen goes all over the country talking with and motivating cancer survivors to beat the odds.

The religious speech is fairly self-explanatory; it is designed to incorporate religious ideals into a motivational package to inspire an audience into thinking about or changing aspects of their religious lives. One highly sought-after religious speaker in the United States is Joel Osteen, head minister at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. The following speech highlights his speaking strengths:

Choose To Be Happy

The final type of motivational speech is the success speech, which is given by someone who has succeeded in some aspect of life and is giving back by telling others how they too can be successful. In the following clip the then CEO of Xerox, Anne Mulcahy, speaks before a group of students at Dartmouth College discussing the spirit of entrepreneurship.

Leadership Lessons Learned on the Firing Line

In this speech, Mulcahy shares the leadership lessons she had learned as the CEO of Xerox.

Commemorative Speeches

Commemorative speeches encompass a broad range of occasions, and their purpose is to commemorate an extraordinary person, place, thing, or idea. Commemorative speeches allow you to pay tribute publicly by honoring, remember, or memorializing. For example, commemorative speeches include:

  • Paying tribute to a local art teacher;
  • Toasting your boss at the company’s retirement party;
  • Honoring the founder at a national convention.

When you commemorate, your focus is highlighting the thing being commemorated through a dedication, toast, eulogy, or a commencement address. While we won’t list every type of commemorative speech, if you’re honoring or paying tribute, you’re likely delivering a commemorative address.

We’ll talk through some specific commemorative speeches below but remember that the focus of commemorative speeches is the person, place, thing, or idea, so stay focused on connecting the audience to the specific occasion.

Speeches of Dedication

speech of dedication is delivered when a new store opens, a building is named after someone, a plaque is placed on a wall, a new library is completed, and so on. These speeches are designed to highlight the importance of the project and possibly those to whom the project has been dedicated. Maybe your great-aunt has passed away and opted to donate funds to your university, so the college has decided to rename one of the residence halls after them. In this case, you may be asked to speak at the dedication.

When preparing a speech of dedication:

  • Start by explaining how you are involved in the dedication. If the person to whom the dedication is being made is a relative, tell the audience that the building is being named after your great-aunt who bestowed a gift to their alma mater.
  • Second, you want to explain what is being dedicated, why, and who was involved in the project. If the project is a new structure, talk about the people who built the structure or designed it. If the project is a preexisting structure, talk about the people who put together and decided on the dedication.
  • Lastly, explain why the project is important for the community in which it is located. If the dedication is for a new store, talk about how the store will bring in new jobs and new shopping opportunities. If the dedication is for a new wing of a hospital, talk about how patients will be served and the advances in medicine the new wing will provide the community.


At one time or another, almost everyone is going to be asked to deliver a toast. A toast is a speech designed to congratulate, appreciate, or remember. Toasts can be delivered for the purpose of congratulating someone for an honor, a new job, or getting married. You can also toast someone to show your appreciation for something that they have done. Lastly, we toast people to remember them and what they have accomplished.

When preparing a toast, the first goal is always to keep your remarks brief. Toasts are generally given during the middle of some kind of festivities (e.g., wedding, retirement party, farewell party), and you don’t want your toast to take away from those festivities for too long. Second, the goal of a toast is to focus attention on the person or persons being toasted—not on the speaker. Finally, if you’re being asked to toast, it likely means you have a noteworthy personal or professional relationship with the person or people involved, so make it personal!

Toasts are certainly common, but that doesn’t mean they don’t require effort and preparation. A frequent trap is that people often think of toasts as corny. As a result, they don’t prepare seriously but rather stand up to speak with the idea that they can “wing it” by acting silly and telling a few jokes. Instead of being entertaining, the speech falls flat.

Finally, while you are speaking, you need to focus your attention on the people being toasted, both by physically looking at them and by keeping your message about them. You should also avoid any inside jokes between you and the people being toasted because toasts are public and should be accessible for everyone who hears them. To conclude a toast, simply say something like, “Please join me in recognizing Gina for her achievement” and lift your glass. When you lift your glass, this will signal to others to do the same and then you can all take a drink, which is the end of your speech.


Toast. Photo by cottonbro.


The roast speech is a very interesting and peculiar speech because it is designed to both praise and good-naturedly insult a person being honored. Generally, roasts are given at the conclusion of a banquet in honor of someone’s life achievements. The television station Comedy Central has been conducting roasts of various celebrities for a few years.

In this clip, watch as Stephen Colbert, television host of The Colbert Report, roasts President George W. Bush.

Colbert Roasts Bush

Let’s pick this short clip apart. You’ll notice that the humor doesn’t pull any punches. The goal of the roast is to both praise and insult in a good-natured manner. You’ll also see that the roaster, in this case Stephen Colbert, is standing behind a lectern while the roastee, President George W. Bush, is clearly on display for the audience to see, and periodically you’ll see the camera pan to President Bush to take in his reactions. Half the fun of a good roast is watching the roastee’s reactions during the roast, so it’s important to have the roastee clearly visible by the audience.

How does one prepare for a roast? First, you want to really think about the person who is being roasted. Do they have any strange habits or amusing stories in their past that you can discuss? When you think through these things you want to make sure that you cross anything off your list that is truly private information or will really hurt the person. The goal of a roast is to poke at them, not massacre them. Second, when selecting which aspects to poke fun at, you need to make sure that the items you choose are widely known by your audience. Roasts work when the majority of people in the audience can relate to the jokes being made. If you have an inside joke with the roastee, bringing it up during roast may be great fun for the two of you, but it will leave your audience unimpressed. Lastly, end on a positive note. While the jokes are definitely the fun part of a roast, you should leave the roastee knowing that you truly do care about and appreciate the person.

Speeches to Eulogize and Memorialize

eulogy is a speech given in honor of someone who has passed away. (Don’t confuse “eulogy” with “elegy,” a poem or song of mourning.) Closely related, speeches that memorialize are longer speeches that celebrate and honor the person or group of individuals on a significant date – Veterans Day, for example.

Unless you are a minister, priest, rabbi, imam, or other form of religious leader, you’ll probably not deliver too many eulogies in your lifetime. However, when the time comes to deliver a eulogy, it’s good to know what you’re doing and to adequately prepare your remarks. Watch the following clip of then-Senator Barack Obama delivering a eulogy at the funeral of civil rights activist Rosa Parks in November of 2005.

Barack Obama at Rosa Parks Funeral

In this eulogy, Senator Obama delivers the eulogy by recalling Rosa Parks importance and her legacy in American history.

If you are ever asked to give a eulogy, that means you were probably close to the deceased and are experiencing shock, sadness, and disbelief at your loved one’s passing. The last thing that you will want to do (or be in a mental state to do) is figure out how to structure your eulogy. To that end, here are three parts of a eulogy (i.e. main points) you can use to write one without worrying about being original with structure or organizational patterns.

When preparing, gather and brainstorm meaningful information about the person. The more information you have about the person, the more personal you can make the eulogy. Second, although eulogies and speeches that memorialize are delivered on the serious and sad occasion of a funeral or service, it is very helpful to look for at least one point to be lighter or humorous. In some cultures, in fact, the friends and family attending the funeral will expect the eulogy to be highly entertaining and amusing.

Knowing the deceased and the audience is vital when deciding on the type and amount of humor to use in a eulogy. A story that everyone can appreciate is often recommended. Ultimately, the goal of the humor or lighter aspects of a eulogy is to relieve the tension that is created by the serious nature of the occasion.


The first thing you want to do when remembering someone who has passed away is remind the audience what made that person so special. So, you will want to praise their accomplishments. This can include notable achievements (being an award winner; helping with charities), personal qualities (“they were always willing to listen to your problems and help in any way they could”), or anecdotes and stories (being a great parent; how they drove to college to visit you when you were homesick). While you can rely on your own information if you were close to the deceased, it is always a good idea to ask friends and relatives of the deceased for their memories, as these may add important facets that may not have occurred to you. Of course, if you were not very close to the deceased, you will need to ask friends and family for information.


The second thing you want to do in a eulogy is to lament the loss. To lament means to express grief or sorrow, which is what everyone at a funeral has gathered to do. You will want to acknowledge that everyone is sad and that the deceased’s passing will be difficult to get through. Here you might mention all the things that will no longer happen as a result of the death. “Now that Grandpa is gone, there won’t be any more Sunday dinners where he cooks chicken on the grill or bakes his famous macaroni and cheese.”  While eulogies are delivered on the serious and sad occasion of a funeral or memorial service for the deceased, it can be helpful to look for at least one lighter or humorous point. In some cultures, in fact, the friends and family attending the funeral will expect the eulogy to be highly entertaining and amusing. While eulogies are not roasts, one goal of the humor or lighter aspects of a eulogy is to relieve the tension that is created by the serious nature of the occasion.


The final step (or main point) in a eulogy is to console the audience, or to offer comfort in a time of grief. What you must remember (and many people often forget) is that a eulogy is not a speech for the person who has died; it is a speech for the people who are still living to try to help them deal with the loss. You will want to end your eulogy on a positive note. Tell the audience about who this person was and what the person stood for in life. The more personal you can make a eulogy, the more touching it will be for the deceased’s friends and families. The eulogy should remind the audience to celebrate the person’s life as well as mourn their death.

Using the Praise-Lament-Console format for eulogies gives you a simple system where you can fill in the sections with 1) why was the person good, 2) why you will miss them, and 3) how you and the audience will get through this loss. It sometimes also helps to think of the three points in terms of Past-Present-Future: you will praise the deceased for what they did when they were alive (the past), lament the loss you are feeling now (the present), and console your audience by letting them know that things will be all right (the future).

Commencement Address

speech of commencement (or, as it is more commonly known, a “commencement speech”) is designed to recognize and celebrate the achievements of a graduating class or other group of people. These typically take place at graduation ceremonies. Nearly all of us have sat through commencement speeches at some point in our lives. And if you’re like us, you’ve heard good ones and bad ones.

Example Alert: Numerous celebrities and politicians have been asked to deliver commencement speeches at colleges and universities. Famed Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling gave a now-famous and well-thought-out commencement speech at Harvard University in 2008. Rowling’s speech has the perfect balance of humor and inspiration, which are two of the main ingredients of a great commencement speech.

If you’re ever asked to deliver a commencement speech, there are some key points to think through when deciding on your speech’s content:

  • If there is a specific theme for the graduation, make sure that your commencement speech addresses that theme. If there is no specific theme, come up with one for your speech. Some common commencement speech themes are commitment, competitiveness, confidence, decision making, discipline, ethics, failure (and overcoming failure), faith, generosity, integrity, involvement, leadership, learning, persistence, responsibility, and self-respect. Think of a theme as something that ties the content of your speech together. For example, one of our authors was the commencement speaker at her undergraduate institution, and she used the “yellow brick road” as a metaphor for progress.
  • Talk about your life and how graduates can learn from your experiences to avoid pitfalls or take advantages of life. Place the commencement speech into the broader context of the graduates’ lives. Show the graduates how the advice and wisdom you are offering can be utilized to make their own lives better. How can your life inspire the graduates in their future endeavors?
  • Make the speech humorous. Commencement speeches should be entertaining and make an audience laugh (but be appropriate, of course!).
  • Be brief! Nothing is more painful than a commencement speaker who drones on and on. Remember, the graduates are there to get their diplomas; their families are there to watch the graduates walk across the stage.
  • Remember, while you may be the speaker, you’ve been asked to impart wisdom and advice for the people graduating and moving on with their lives, so keep it focused on them.

Overall, it’s important to make sure that you have fun when delivering a commencement speech. Remember, it’s a huge honor and responsibility to be asked to deliver a commencement speech, so take the time to really think through and prepare your speech.


Speeches of Farewell

A speech of farewell allows speakers to say good-bye to one part of their lives as they move on to the next part. Maybe you’ve accepted a new job and are leaving your current job, or you’re graduating from college and entering the work force. Whatever the case may be, periods of transition are often marked by speeches of farewell. Watch the following clip of Derek Jeter’s 2008 speech saying farewell to Yankee Stadium, built in 1923, before the New York Yankees moved to the new stadium that opened in 2009.

Derek Jeter’s farewell to the Yankees

In this speech, Derek Jeter is not only saying good-bye to Yankee Stadium but also thanking the fans for their continued support.

When preparing a speech of farewell, the goal should be to thank the people in your current position and let them know how much you appreciate them as you make the move to your next position in life. In Derek Jeter’s speech, he starts by talking about the history of the 1923 Yankee Stadium and then thanks the fans for their support. Second, you want to express to your audience how much the experience has meant to you. A farewell speech is a time to commemorate and think about the good times you’ve had. As such, you should avoid negativity during this speech. Lastly, you want to make sure that you end on a high note. Derek Jeter concludes his speech by saying, “On behalf of this entire organization, we just want to take this moment to salute you, the greatest fans in the world!” at which point Jeter and the other players take off their ball caps and hold them up toward the audience.


The Nature of Special Occasion Speeches

To help us think through how to be effective in delivering these types of speeches, let’s look at four key ingredients: preparation, adaptation to the occasion, adaptation to the audience, and mindfulness about the time.

Be Prepared

Notes. Photo by Steve Johnson.

First, and foremost, the biggest mistake you can make when standing to deliver an entertaining speech is to underprepare or simply not prepare at all. We’ve stressed the need for preparation throughout this text, so just because you’re giving a wedding toast or a eulogy doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think through the speech before you stand up and speak out. If the situation is impromptu, even jotting some basic notes on a napkin is better than not having any plan for what you are going to say. Remember, when you get anxious, as it inevitably happens in front of an audience, your brain doesn’t function as well as when you are having a relaxed conversation with friends. You often forget information. By writing down some simple notes, you’ll be less likely to deliver a bad speech.


Be Adaptive to the Occasion

Not all content is appropriate for all occasions. If you are asked to deliver a speech commemorating the first anniversary of a school shooting, then obviously using humor and telling jokes wouldn’t be appropriate. But some decisions about adapting to the occasion are less obvious. Consider the following examples:

  • You are the maid of honor giving a toast at the wedding of your younger sister.
  • You are receiving a Most Valuable Player award in your favorite sport.
  • You are a sales representative speaking to a group of clients after a mistake has been discovered.
  • You are a cancer survivor speaking at a high school student assembly.

How might you adapt your message and speaking style to successfully entertain these various audiences?

Remember that being a competent speaker is about being both personally effective and socially appropriate. Different occasions will call for different levels of social appropriateness. One of the biggest mistakes entertaining speakers can make is to deliver one generic speech to different groups without adapting the speech to the specific occasion. In fact, professional speakers always make sure that their speeches are tailored for different occasions by getting information about the occasion from their hosts. When we tailor speeches for special occasions, people are more likely to remember those speeches than if we give a generic speech.


Beach wedding. Photo by Miriam Salgado.

Be Adaptive to Your Audience

Once again, we cannot stress the importance of audience adaptation enough in this text. Different audiences will respond differently to speech material, so the more you know about your audience the more likely you’ll succeed in your speech. One of our coauthors was once at a conference for teachers of public speaking. The keynote speaker stood and delivered a speech on the importance of public speaking. While the speaker was good and funny, the speech really fell flat. The keynote speaker basically told the public speaking teachers that they should take public speaking courses because public speaking is important. Right speech, wrong audience!

Be Mindful of the Time

The last major consideration for delivering entertaining speeches successfully is to be mindful of your time. Different entertaining speech situations have their own conventions and rules with regard to time. Acceptance speeches and toasts, for example, should be relatively short (typically under five minutes). A speech of introduction should be extremely brief—just long enough to tell the audience what they need to know about the person being introduced in a style that prepares them to appreciate that person’s remarks. In contrast, commencement speeches and speeches to commemorate events can run ten to twenty minutes in length.

It’s also important to recognize that audiences on different occasions will expect speeches of various lengths. For example, although it’s true that graduation commencement speakers generally speak for ten to twenty minutes, the closer that speaker heads toward twenty minutes the more fidgety the audience becomes. To hold the audience’s attention and fulfill the goal of entertaining, a commencement speaker would do well to make the closing minutes of the speech the most engaging and inspiring portion of the speech. If you’re not sure about the expected time frame for a speech, either ask the person who has invited you to speak or do some quick research to see what the average speech times in the given context tend to be.

Shorter Lengths

Gray Area

Longer Lengths

Speeches of Introduction


Commencement Speeches

Speeches of Preparation


Keynote Address

Acceptance Speeches

Commemorative Speeches



It’s important to consider all elements of the aesthetic experience for the audience when preparing for a special occasion speech. In fact, audiences often expect to leave with the feels after special occasion speeches, so attention to language and aesthetic delivery are key.

Special Occasion Language

Special occasion speaking is so firmly rooted in the use of good language that it makes sense to address it here. More than any other category of speech, the special occasion speech is arguably one where the majority of your preparation time will be specifically allocated towards the words you choose, and you should spend ample time crafting emotional and evocative phrases that convey the sentiment your speech is meant to impart. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have used good language in your informative and persuasive speeches, but that the emphasis shifts slightly in a special occasion speech.

Paying attention to your language doesn’t mean “I should use big words!” Do not touch a thesaurus! Good language isn’t about trying to impress us with fancy words. It’s about taking the words you are already comfortable and familiar with and putting them in the best possible order.

Consider the following example from the then-president of the Ohio State University, Gordon Gee, giving a commencement address at Florida State University in 1997:

As you look back on your years at Florida State I hope you remember many good things that have happened. These experiences are, for the most part, events of the mind. The memories, ladies and gentlemen, however, are treasures of the heart.

Notice three things about his use of language: first, he doesn’t try to use any fancy words, which he certainly could if he wanted to. Every word in this portion of his speech is one that all of us knew by the time we left elementary school, so again, don’t mistake big words for good language. Using a five-syllable word when a two-syllable word will work just as well often means a speaker is trying too hard to sound smart. And given that the use of those big words often comes off sounding awkward or inappropriate, you’re better off just sticking with what you know.

Second, notice how he uses those basic words to evoke emotion and wonderment – “treasures of the heart.” Putting the words you know into the best possible order, when done well, will make your speech sound extremely eloquent and emotional.

Third, he uses parallelism in this brief snippet. The use of “events of the mind” and “treasures of the heart” to compare what is truly important about the college experience is powerful. Indeed, Gee’s commencement is full of various rhetorical devices, with the twelve-minute speech, including alliteration.

As you know, your language is part of the aesthetic experience for the audience, so it’s a must-have for special occasion speeches. Refer to Chapter 12 on Vivid Language to further understand the importance of language devices in special occsion speeches.

Verbal and Nonverbal Delivery

Just as the language for special occasion speaking is slightly different, so too are the ways in which you will want to deliver your speech. First and foremost, since you will be spending so much time crafting the perfect language to use and putting your words in the right order, it is imperative that you say exactly what you have written; otherwise, what was the point? To that end, your delivery for a special occasion speech may skew slightly more in favor of manuscript speaking. While it is still vital to establish eye contact with your audience and to not sound like you are reading, it is also important to get the words exactly right.

So, you guessed it, rehearse! You need to know what you are going to say and feel comfortable knowing what is coming next. This is not to say you should have your speech memorized, but you need to be able to take your eyes off the page in order to establish and maintain a rapport with your audience. Rapport is a vital element in special occasion speaking because of the emotional component at the core of these speeches. Knowing your speech will also allow you to counteract the flow of adrenaline into your system, something particularly important given that special occasion speeches tend to be very emotional, not just for the audience, but for you as well.

One note: humor is often used in special occasion speeches, and when you’re funny, people laugh! It can be difficult to account for laughter in your rehearsal, but try to predict where you may need to pause. If you speak over laughter, your audience will miss what you’ve said and may find it difficult to follow moving forward.

Basically, knowing your speech well allows you to incorporate the emotion that a special occasion speech is meant to convey, something that is hard to do when you read the entirety of your speech. In this way your audience will sense the pride you feel for a graduating class during a commencement speech, the sorrow you feel for the deceased during a eulogy, or the gratitude you have when accepting an award.


Special occasion speaking is the most varied type of speaking to cover; however, there are some general rules to keep in mind regardless of what type you are engaged in. Remember that using vivid, evocative language is key, and that it is important that you deliver your speech in a way that both conveys the proper emotion for the occasion and allows you to give the speech exactly as you wrote it.






  1. Slutsky, J., & Aun, M. (1997). The Toastmasters International® guide to successful speaking: Overcoming your fears, winning over your audience, building your business & career. Chicago, IL: Dearborn Financial Publishing.




Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Principles of Public Speaking Copyright © 2022 by Katie Gruber is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book