Speech Smarts

How About a Little Dash of Death?

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How many times have you heard that people fear public speaking more than death?  You chuckle when you see Seinfeld saying that the person giving the eulogy would prefer to be in the coffin.  The funny feeling you have at a funeral comes as you, and everyone else, is reminded of their mortality.  To say a few words over a grave is a grave undertaking.  No matter how dashing the life that has passed, it is an emotionally excruciating speech to give. Like all presentations, you can prepare but you will never be truly prepared until you are standing there.  Giving a eulogy is like evaluating a speech with a gaping hole in your and your audience’s heart.    An effective eulogy summarizes and shares the strengths, acknowledges and absolves the weaknesses, and makes the moment meaningful and memorable.

Death is like a mirror in which the true
meaning of life is reflected.
– Sogyal Rinpoche

Coming to terms with your own mortality gives your words more vitality.   Speaking about death affirms your life or confirms your fears.    What is inevitable and real should inspire your actions, not feed your fears. Accept the inevitable. It is in the eternity of death that we find the immediacy and intimacy of the living present. Death has the final word, but it speaks in an eternal silence. Put your horror and your hurt into words, and say it out loud.  When you are courageous enough to stand in the pain, you stand for everyone’s pain.  Let your words reflect the meaningfulness of the moment, and help your audience to reflect on what was memorable about the life.

While I thought that I was learning how to live,
I have been learning how to die.

– Leonardo da Vinci

Life is an unending series of lessons.  Some lessons are easy to understand and master while others are incomprehensible and intimidating. Death is the final exam where everyone passes. Your eulogy is a last  report card.  The departed has surely excelled in some courses, done not so well in others, and probably let a few subjects slide. It is all too easy to see the weaknesses in others while begrudging its impact upon you. Don’t try and tell their life story as you would have lived it.   Lovingly acknowledging flaws and transgressions in others is easier when you are willing to see them in yourself.  Forgive yourself and them for what was said in ignorance, and what was never said out of fear.  The part of life that death has claimed is a body and a voice.  What lives on is your thoughts and feeling of memories and moments. A eulogy is your chance to sweeten the memories and soften the transgressions. Offering absolution helps the audience forgive themselves and teaches them to continue to learn this life’s lessons.  The trouble with this teacher is that it kills all its students.

Live as if you were to die tomorrow.
Learn as if you were to live forever.

– Mohandas Gandhi

Learning is an unending search for, and discovery of, what is valuable. Death gives life its ultimate value.  As you review the life you are honoring, seek out what they valued.  How they spent their time, and what they invested their energy into, shows where they strived to succeed.   Showcasing their achievements depends on you creating a meaningful connection between the precious beginning and the ultimate end. What did they learn and what can you continue to learn from this life. The milestones of age and marks of accomplishment, in the end, are distilled down to a couple of dates separated by a dash on a grave marker.

People aren’t really afraid of death or of public speaking.  They fear what they imagine might happen next. Inevitably, you will discover that all your weaknesses are just the shadows of your strengths.  You may even laugh as well as cry in the moment you realize this.  A birthday, a dash, and a death day and that sums it all up.  It’s funny how significant a little dash is regardless of whether you are inside, or beside, the coffin.


About the Author:

David Nemitz has designed and delivered over 10,000 sales presentations, professional development programs and executive coaching sessions for corporations and governmental organizations such as the US State Department, The French Consulate, and American Express. When he is not helping others define and refine their strengths, you can find him watching the sun set over The Magic City or strolling through The City of Light where he lives with his wife Ninette.