It's always instructive for a speaking coach when the shoe is on the other foot and she needs to ask for help with a speech. When a reader who also is a speaker coach wrote to ask "How do I help a dying friend with a speech about her life and illness?", she added that she was willing to cast a wide net and see whether The Eloquent Woman community had any tips or ideas to help her. "My sadness and our attachment are blocking my ability to think clearly about how to help her prepare - let alone write the script. I'll find a way to ensure my feelings don't overshadow our prep for this gig - I want it to be her triumph."
That willingness to ask for help has yielded many offers. I'm happy to say that our fellow speaker coaches, in particular, came up with a wide range of ideas, examples and options. Since many of them are available on video, I've included them here along with the generous thoughts and ideas these coaches shared.
"Let her dear friend shine"
Janice Tomich shared this short clip from Virginia Greene's presentation at an ovarian cancer awareness event held in her honor in Vancouver over a year ago. The event presentation is combined with an interview with Greene that was used as a public service ad. I think this comes as close as any example to the situation our fellow coach and reader is facing. Tomich wrote, "Virginia Greene was a force to behold in our community who sadly passed away not long after the event. I watched and listened to her speak many times and she was a no-holds-barred spitfire of a woman who also had a lovely big heart. Interestingly, in looking over the clip, she appeared very robust, but I remember thinking at the time she was a shadow of herself."
She added, "The woman who is requesting help in how best to serve her friend has answered her own question--not to let her own feelings get in the way. Simply let her dear friend shine...her friend will guide her. As her coach and friend she just needs to be there for support."
I'll add that this example offers some practical considerations for a speaker who is terminally ill. It's fine to speak from a seated position on stage, and to have water and a box of tissues handy for the speaker. It's extraordinary enough that she is willing to speak at this stage--no need to make it into an endurance test. In this case, there appear to be large-screen monitors on stage behind her, and those might be useful if the speaker needs to stay seated, but is addressing a large room. I'd ask her, however, whether she minds having her face projected large to the room.
The partnership between vulnerability and conviction
Speaker coach Jill Foster wrote, "Is the fundraiser raising monies to find a cure for her particular illness? I'm working with that assumption here. The partnership between vulnerability and conviction comes to mind. As in: even in our most fragile or precarious moments, we have the chance to stand up to the larger battle in some way. There are no guarantees that cures will come in time for our unique purposes. But the chance to research a cure for those yet to be diagnosed is still within our reach if resolve stays on course by the greater team, researchers, volunteers, advocates. The cause still deserves attention. She can build off that truth openly and let it be context to the greater need to hold steadfast even in the face of loss....sprinkled with a few Seinfeld jokes if at all possible. But now I'm deflecting my own emotion. Blessings to her and her voice."
Tackling sensitive subjects in interview format
Kate Peters recommended to the public radio series Story Corps, in which people interview one another about their lives in their own words. She found this example from René Foreman, who survived cancer of the esophagus and now speaks with an electrolarynx, interviewed by her daughter Michelle. Foreman says,
Tackling the talk as a 'last lecture'
The late Randy Pausch is famous in the United States for "The Last Lecture," a tour de force of a talk that played off of the conceit in academe, where professors give a lecture as if it were their last one, summing up what they know and believe--but in this case, Pausch was dying when he gave this lecture. Speaker coach Nancy Duarte wrote that this one is her favorite, and it was the first one I thought of to suggest to our fellow coach--but because she's not based in the U.S., this was a new example to her. Since the friend who will be giving the speech is a physician, the concept of a lecture might make the speech easier to pull off. A caution: Pausch's energetic delivery--at one point, he drops to the floor and does push-ups--may not be as helpful an example for someone who's not feeling as well as he did when he gave this talk. His motivation was to leave a record for his young children, something that summed up his life, work and philosophy, and that may be the motivation this speaker needs.
Dying doesn't mean you have to be trite.
I shared this clip from Sex and the City in which Samantha, the public relations rep who's fighting breast cancer is asked to speak at a fundraiser. But it goes wrong in many ways. The PR pro in her has written the type of speech a disconnected speechwriter would write, full of platitudes and trite observations about breast cancer ("If you want to see the face of breast cancer, look around you. It's the woman next to you at the drycleaner..."). But Samantha-the-patient is sweating profusely, a side effect of the drugs she's taking, and uncomfortable under the wig she's wearing because she lost her hair and still wants to look stylish. Finally, she pulls off the wig, mid-speech--and so do all the other women like her in the audience, making her point better than that speech ever could. From this, I take a couple of lessons and ideas. One is that your audience at a fundraiser might well include people like you, who are ill or dying, so don't assume that everyone at a fundraiser is there just to give money. The other is that when faced with these big moments in life and death, we often fall back on platitudes. But your own particular details and observations will always be more compelling. Just tell us what it feels like, what you regret, what you wish for, in your own way...even if that means showing us something ignoble.
If you can't say it out loud, flash cards are an option
This video also came immediately to mind. Ben Breedlove, a young YouTube blogger who gave relationship advice to his peers via online video, made this two-part video using flash cards to explain his heart condition and the different times in his young life when he cheated death. Breedlove died shortly after making this video, on Christmas Day 2011. It's a quiet and poignant, at times funny, message that turned out to be his last "speech."
The irony of death is not lost on the dying
I include this, the opening from the play Wit, as something our coach can use with her friend to acknowledge the ironies that come with terminal illness--the play is about a professor of poetry who has ovarian cancer and has to move from being a researcher to being the subject of research herself. "It is not my intention to give away the plot, but I think I die at the end," she says. If your friend chooses to address these ironies in her speech, that also can be an effective approach--it's black humor, but a type that points out how ill-prepared we all are for what lies ahead.
I'm so grateful to all the coaches who responded to create this collection of options for helping someone who's dying prepare a significant speech...it's the Internet equivalent of bringing over a casserole during a challenging time, and I'm honored that this blog has been the delivery system for all these great ideas about how to handle a true speaking challenge.
Looking for famous speeches by women? Check out The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Women's Speeches, with a wide variety of women speakers, types of speeches and topics to inspire your next speech. Each one comes with lessons for speakers, plus video or audio and a transcript, where available.