Friday, December 23, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Caroline Kennedy's eulogy for Edward Kennedy

(Editor's note: Writer Becky Ham took a look at this wonderful eulogy for The Eloquent Woman. The blog is on hiatus next week until Friday, December 31, when we share the 10 most-read posts for 2011.)

Delivering a eulogy is a tough task for even the most polished speaker, so how to judge a eulogy offered by a woman who has been upbraided famously for her poor public speaking?

Caroline Kennedy acknowledges that public speaking is "unbelievably stressful" for her. During her short-lived U.S. Senate campaign in 2008, the media counted her "ums" and "you knows;" questioned her preparation; and generally gave poor reviews to her speaking style. In a family known for its eloquence, her speeches are rushed and emotionless compared to the greatest hits of her father and famous uncles.

But this post is about famous speeches, not perfect speakers. Kennedy rose to the challenge when she delivered the last eulogy of the day at her uncle Edward Kennedy's memorial service in 2009. Her remembrance wasn't delivered crisply or filled with lovely language. Instead, it was the right speech for her audience, her style of speaking and the needs of the occasion.

Many of us will have to deliver a eulogy at some point, and it's a perennial topic of concern on The Eloquent Woman. Our readers have offered excellent tips to speakers in this situation, and Kennedy provides a great example to those looking for inspiration and information on how to succeed at a fraught but important public speech.
  • It's OK to make them laugh. Not every story about a loved one has to be uplifting or solemn, even if he or she was a historic figure like a Kennedy. Caroline Kennedy's eulogy contains an anecdote about seeing a brighter-than-the-rest star in the sky after Edward Kennedy's death--a well-worn metaphor that could have been nothing more than trite. But Kennedy gave it a humorous twist by admitting that "I knew it was Jupiter, but it was acting a lot like Teddy." There are laughs throughout the speech, most of them gentle but true to her subject's outsize personality.
  • Don't forget the details. About halfway through the speech, Kennedy tells a very personal story about one of Teddy's infamous American history vacations for the youngest in the Kennedy clan. This tale is told with so many tiny details--from the sticky, 98-degree heat to the stench of low tide to the roar of planes taking off above the children's tents staked in the dirt--that it resonates as a treasured memory that only she could share.
  • Let your emotion show. Eulogy speakers often worry that they will be so emotional that they won't be able to speak well, or even make it through their whole speech. Keeping it brief is one way to approach this, if it's a concern. But speakers should also acknowledge that emotion can't and shouldn't be banished completely. Listen to the obvious tremor in Kennedy's voice at the beginning and end of the eulogy. That's the sound of someone holding back tears at the thought of a person who will be missed dearly--and that's entirely appropriate for the occasion.
Here's the full video of the speech. Have you delivered a eulogy? Let us know what you think, and share some of your tips for delivering a eulogy in the comments below.

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