It’s not everyone who has ‘Mustang Sally’ performed live at their memorial service. But then Audrey Parker was not everyone. And she would have hated the description memorial service.
Audrey chose the day and time of her death. She had to do it months earlier than she had planned. But she worried that the progression of her terminal cancer would deprive her of the capacity to die on her terms.
But this article is not about the right to die with dignity. And it’s not really about Audrey. It’s about what any one of us who has to plan or speak at a memorial service could learn from what Audrey Parker and her friends did to plan her celebration of life (the term Audrey preferred).
Since our business is presentation skills, let’s focus mostly on the speeches. If you are asked to speak at a celebration of life – or any event that honours another person – think carefully about what you want to achieve.
Don’t rush to assemble a timeline of the individual’s life. Aim for something more meaningful than a list of dates, events and accomplishments. People are so much more interesting than their jobs or their hobbies.
Don’t go for the big picture, the over-view. Seek instead to isolate the telling details that illuminate personality and character traits.
Don’t stick labels on people. It doesn’t tell us much if a woman is described as generous, or a man is said to be good with animals. Find out what made that woman so generous; what that man did to earn the description ‘good with animals’.
It’s the little things, the details, that often give the biggest insight into a person.
Any speech benefits from stories. And that’s especially true of eulogies. Just pick them with care. Make sure they serve the intended purpose of illuminating a life. And keep them appropriate to the occasion.
PAINT A PICTURE
Different people will have had different interactions with the individual whose life is being celebrated. If you were lucky enough to have been particularly close to the individual, paint a picture for others of what that was like.
At Audrey’s celebration, one speaker talked about kicking off her shoes and jumping on to the ‘bed of truth’ where Audrey greeted visitors in her last weeks. Anything could be discussed there. Life, love, friendship, death. The only rule – you had to tell and face the truth.
Use your words, if you can, to paint a picture that transports the audience to a place and a moment worthy of memory.
TALK IT OUT
Don’t write your tribute in silence. Talk it out. Speak it on to the page. Remember, you are having a conversation with the audience – not reading an essay or reciting a list of accomplishments.
Don’t try to be grand. Use words that slip comfortably from your mouth. Short words. Everyday words. Words that you regularly use with people you care about.
EDIT YOUR SCRIPT
Be ruthless in trimming your speech. Don’t settle for your first draft – or even your second draft. The essence of good writing is editing and re-writing.
Strip out information that isn’t essential to your theme. Eliminate every word that isn’t working hard to communicate your message.
Often, and out loud. Look for the places where you will need to pause, for emphasis or perhaps to let your audience react. Listen for sentences that don’t flow smoothly. Look for words that you might stumble over. Change them.
As you rehearse, slow down. Take your time. Let the audience savour your words and enjoy your insights. Don’t race through your speech as though you are in a hurry to finish.
INVOLVE THE AUDIENCE
A speech doesn’t have to be a one-way process. Look for opportunities to engage the audience.
One speaker at Audrey Parker’s celebration invited people in the audience to stand up if they’d ever received fashion advice from Audrey. Some stood. Had anyone received make-up advice? More stood. Who got life advice from Audrey? A few more. A couple more questions, and just about the whole audience was on its feet. Laughing. Enjoying the moment.
HAVE AN EMCEE
Have an emcee, someone to direct everything. People will be grieving. The last thing they need is to be confused as to what’s happening. Respect them and be sensitive. Every word and gesture counts.
The emcee should set the tone for the rest of the occasion. Will it be a real party atmosphere… or more thoughtful… or a combination of both? So much depends on the deceased’s personality and wishes. But the mourners should be clear on what to expect.
At Audrey’s event the emcee told us how the celebration would unfold. She said it would be held together with selections of poetry read before each speaker. It was a poignant way to introduce each speaker and to reflect on the loved one.
The whole event, from the location to the refreshments, should reflect the personality of the person whose life is being celebrated.
You want people to say “So-and-so would have loved this” or “This is so much like so-and-so”.
At the end of Audrey’s celebration, guests were offered a glass of champagne and a strawberry dipped in chocolate.
Audrey would have loved it.
This blog is dedicated to Audrey Parker, with whom I had the pleasure of working at the CBC. Audrey was consumed with stage 4 cancer. Audrey died on November 1st in Halifax NS by invoking #MAiD – Medical Assistance in Dying. She ended her life months before she wanted because of a flaw in Canada’s Federal Law. Many supporters have already written to their Member of Parliament asking them to support #AudsAmendment and abolish late stage consent for those already Assessed and Approved for MAiD. Audrey planned her death, and she planned her celebration of life – down to the last detail. The celebration at Pier 21 in Halifax – just like her life – was brilliant.
Halina St James takes the worry out of presentations with her Present Like a Pro video training course. It’s available now from the Podium Coaching online store, together with her popular TalkitOut: From Fears to Cheers e-book and workbook.