Afraid of “Blanking Out” When Speaking Publicly? Three Tips for Recovery and the Silver Linings They Bring

Nervous Woman Holding Microphone

In my thirty years of representing and coaching public speakers at all levels I’ve seen few actually “blank out.”  Five, to be precise.  That’s five people out of approximately five thousand.  It’s rare and therefore highly unlikely you will “blank out” at the podium.  Think about it.  You’re asked to give a talk, deliver a speech, present on a panel, teach a class or facilitate a workshop because you are an expert on the subject matter.  And you’re anxious about messing up so you prepare your content meticulously and practice your delivery not until you get it right, but until you can’t get it wrong.  You own it.  Yet, you fear “blanking out.”  Take comfort in knowing that the pause you come to in your delivery before the audience is just you temporarily losing your train of thought.  And for that, I recommend three remedies that not only work to reroute you back to your message, but arm you with confidence, boost your rapport with your audience and enhance your reputation as an expert who is sophisticated yet approachable,  humble and larger than any one glitch.

Humor works well with formal addresses before audiences of over one hundred. Recently I saw Theresa Caputo – the Long Island Medium – live before an audience of 3000.  Before she began channeling, she gave a twenty-minute speech to orient the audience and introduce herself.  At one point, she paused and exclaimed, “I forgot what I was going say.”  And then she immediately followed that up with a smile and in a bellowing voice declared, “You think it’s tough talking to dead people; try giving a speech to thousands of the living!”  The audience roared with applause and by the time it ebbed she was back on track and, it seemed, more beloved for her humility and humorous handling of her own faux pas.  Tip #1  Prepare a humorous comment in advance of your talk – just in case.


Asking the audience for help is thrice nice.  In hours-long classes, small workshops and all-day seminars in which I take questions as they arise, I sometimes lose my place.  Simply asking the audience, “Where were we?” – while scratching my head and saying “Yikes!” for emphasis – invites students and program participants to contribute and help me out.  That not only gets me back to my prepared remarks but also reignites a feel-good synergy between us.  People like to be helpful and when someone can help a speaker gone silent, it engenders compassion and dispels the awkwardness we experience when a speaker struggles alone in the spotlight.  As a practical matter, it also prompts the group to revisit their notes and that review of the material is reinforcing of my message.  All in all, it’s a win-win-win.  Tip #2  Practice asking sincerely for the assistance you need to get back on track – just in case.


Quoting someone of renown goes a long way in reminding ourselves and the audience that speaking before a group is a stressful endeavor for any human being – even the highly educated, empirically successful and very experienced.  When preparing to address mature audiences, I practice saying with a wide smile “I am thinking now of Roscoe Drummond who said, ‘The mind is a wonderful thing.  It starts working the minute your born and never stops until you get up to speak in public.’  Take a deep breath with me, will you, as I retrieve my mind from its coffee break!”  Be mindful of those who paved the way in this medium – from Aristotle to Mark Twain to Tony Robbins –  their perspectives on stumbles put ours in very good company.  Tip #3  Borrow the eloquence, wit and stature of one who resonates with your audience and call them in as a life line by quoting them.  Have handy that apt quotation – just in case.


Remember, prepared speakers can’t hide their preparation.  Audiences sense it and know when a presenter has selected content with care and skill and when a speaker has practiced for a smooth delivery – even if a hiccup sneaks in.  And, at the end of the day, you are boldly doing what 80% of people report is their number one fear in life.  That brings you support and respect.  Rather than magnify an “imperfection” in your delivery by melting down or apologizing or leaving the stage, let it work for you and for your audience.  Graciously and skillfully turn it into an opportunity for a show of humor, humility or the words of the titans who have generously shared both with us.

Lisa Bernard has prepared and represented people from all walks of life to speak publicly at meetings, on panels and as keynoters since 1988. She herself has addressed audiences as large as 2000 and designed and delivered over 500 workshops, seminars and college courses on oral communication.  She is President of Lisa Bernard’s SecuritySpeak, LLC, a speakers bureau that makes available experts on national, global and cyber-security for distinguished lectures worldwide.  You can reach her at and follow her firm at


I Love Lucy’s Feminism “In Deed” and Beyond Words


Last week in my “Sell Me Something Workshop” I brought in American grand dame Lucille Ball in the TV, advertisement and comedic classic: VITAMEATAVEGAMIN.   We learned from what Lucy (McGuillicuddy Ricardo) did masterfully in her “sales pitch” and from what she bungled for “not knowing her product.”  This episode is so cherished that a gentleman walking down the corridor couldn’t help but come in and join us.  He was belly laughing, as was I.  Lucy’s authenticity – her gestures and her expressions – speaks right to your heart.  And, from the business, entertainment and media perspectives, Lucy’s impact on TV and comediennes thereafter is nothing short of stunning.  Take,  for example,  this Queens native’s favorite, The Nanny, brought to life by Fran Drescher.

But above all, I am thinking now about Lucy’s subtle and sophisticated contribution to us women in the workforce and in the business world more broadly.  In this episode are men’s inflammatory references to “the girl” and her husband Ricky’s sexist frowning on her career and her use of her maiden name professionally.  He even scolds her – publicly no less – for defying his wishes.  Yet, in the scenes – and behind them – is a woman who is undeterred and unflappable.  In velvet gloves, high heels and a pill-box hat was a trailblazer who produced, starred-in and made iconic a TV phenomenon – and brought along a crew of colleagues.  Both the character she played – and the woman she was – forged forward in professional life and as a wonderful wife, mother, friend, colleague and business partner.  She did it all.

As a younger woman, I missed the satire for the comedy.  Now, as a gal on the other side of life’s heavy lifting – childrearing and career- building – I am reminded that progress and feminism take many forms.   Now, I see the satire through the clarity of the rear view mirror.  Now, I have fallen in love with Lucy all over again – not blindly, but panoramically.

Lisa Bernard has prepared and represented people from all walks of life to speak publicly at meetings, on panels, in their places of worship and as keynoters. She herself has addressed audiences as large as 2000 and designed and delivered over 500 workshops, seminars and college-level courses on oral communication.  She has slowed down fast-talkers, turned “uhmers” into smooth-speakers and moderated accents from Brooklyn to Beijing – all to develop confident communicators.  Lisa has a Masters Degree in International Affairs from Columbia University and today manages Lisa Bernard’s SecuritySpeak, LLC, a consulting firm that makes available experts on national, global and cyber-security for distinguished lectures worldwide.  You can reach her at (203) 293-4741 or and like her firm at

Minding our Ps and Qs: The Legacies of People and their Quotations


I have spent much of June editing an anthology of quotations for use by public speakers.   It is a joy.   I am immersed in the wit and wisdom of those of great renown – from Aristotle to Zig Zigler – each of whom offers us the chance to feel connected to the human journey by relating their timeless sentiments and keen observations about life expressed in fantastically “user-friendly” snippets.   Quotations are their legacies and we avail ourselves of them with impact and pride when we speak for work, in our communities and our places of worship.   And as we remember them, their words resonate with our listeners.   Quotations from the titans of the arts, world affairs, sports, literature and other distinctly human endeavors work like magic; the right one can instantly focus an audience or change the mood in the room.  Over the twenty-five years I’ve worked with orators, the use of quotations has been bankable for making us sound smarter than our experiences and more educated than our degrees.  Their pearls do more than adorn our remarks; they contribute to the precision and reception of our messages.  The sparkle of their eloquence polishes our own.  Quoting those who came before us is a win-win-win exercise.

I am also grateful for the good humor of my family, friends and associates during this project as my enthusiasm occasions me to send them the quotations I deem pertinent to whatever they enjoy, feel or might be doing this summer.  My girlfriend received Marilyn Monroe’s priceless, “I’m selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control and at times hard to handle. But if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.”  My cousin opened an email that shared the Sicilian proverb, Only the spoon knows what’s stirring the pot. And my beau and fellow empty-nester was the recipient of Mr. Roger’s, “Parenting forces us to get to know ourselves better than we ever might have imagined we could.  We’ll discover talents we never dreamed we had … and as time goes on, we’ll probably discover that we have more to give and can give more than we ever imagined.”  On my LinkedIn page I have called for and received my colleagues’ most cherished quotations. Their participation is an exciting and unexpected plus to my already enjoyable work.

But there is another gift this project has brought me.  And that is the realization that what we mere muggles say – here and now – in our lifetimes, in our private lives – has the potential to resonate with future generations and with deeply meaningful consequences.  This summer has been rich for me with my family “quoting me back to me” with appreciation.  Last month, I was in an awkward spot when a friend asked me for help at a time when my own deadlines and commitments were pushing the limits of feasibility.  Yet, I was uncomfortable saying a flat out, “no.”  It was my twenty-one year old daughter who, in sensing my unease, jumped in and said, “Mom, ’no’ is the most important word in an adult’s vocabulary.  The ability to say ‘no’ when we are overburdened is the very reason we can later say ‘yes.’”  She sounded so mature.  And I said as much.  And she replied, “You taught me that.  You say it whenever I am overwhelmed with school and work and need to recharge.”

This week, my brother made me ecstatic when he quoted me from a day of tremendous significance for him some twenty-one years ago.  He had come to my (now late) husband and me to share that he was gay and about to come out to the family.  He expressed concern about how life would go for him and I said (as he quoted me back to me), “Your life will be wonderful because it will be honest.”  In response to my brother’s concerns about how the family would take his news, my husband—without hesitation—said, “If there is anyone who doesn’t support you or brings negative energy, just let them step-aside.“ Twenty one years later my brother is successful in every respect and a genuinely happily married man and sharing with me the maxims that made such a difference to him as he navigated the unchartered waters of the last two, very significant decades.  I am so grateful I said what I said.  I didn’t just think it.  I said it out loud.  I spoke and he heard me.  That is effective communication.  And it made a difference for someone I love.

Given my work on the quotations anthology, the irony is not lost on me that two giants – Dr. Seuss and Bernard Baruch – have both had the following words attributed to them: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”  I will continue my professional due diligence and get to rightful source of that sage phrase, but here, first, I note that my late husband’s expression of that axiom is what made an indelible and pivotal impact on my brother’s personal journey.  That’s a legacy.  That’s the kind us muggles can leave so they remember us, so they quote us, and so they feel confidently connected to the journey larger than their own – while we are here and then when we are gone.

Lisa Bernard is editing an anthology of quotations, proverbs and aphorisms for Cue Card Communications ( and wants to know, “What quotation, adage or proverb speaks to you?” 

Viva Voce! Now Doesn’t that Sound Nicer than “Oral Defense of your Thesis?”

Businesswoman Addressing Delegates At Conference

When my children were toddlers and getting rowdy I would certainly set limits and reprimand bad behavior – but I did it in Italian.   I found that especially in public it sounded so much more pleasant and was in fact much more effective to warn, “Non toccare!” instead of “Don’t touch that!”  And “Sta’zitto” said with emphasis sounded much more polite than, “Be quiet!”   Somehow my kids understood my admonitions more clearly and reacted faster and more favorably to them when stated in Italian.  And it didn’t put them on the defensive.

Turns out, the same thing is so when it comes to degree candidates who find it the time of year to schedule “the oral defense of their theses.”  Yikes!  Just the sound of it makes my stomach hurt and my heart race and I “defended” my thesis thirty five years ago.  Sounds like you’re going to the dentist and need to grab your sword and put on your armor.   And it begs the questions, “Defend it from what?”  “Defend it against whom?”

Doesn’t it sound kinder and gentler to say, “viva voce?”  In Italian this means “in live voice” and in Latin something akin to “with living voice” or even “by word of mouth.”  In fact, viva voce is what most of the world outside the United States calls the oral defense of one’s thesis.  Europeans call it viva for short and it connotes a live and lively exchange in good spirit between the researcher and the attendees.   And this makes sense because it better describes both the process of preparing for, and objectives of, this very special face-to-face meeting between researcher, faculty and community.


Let me be clear that I mean in no way to diminish the significance or implications of this catalytic academic event.  Instead, I offer this fresh perspective to ease the unnecessary stress that seems to accompany the scheduling of and preparation for this occasion.   By thinking “viva” instead of “defense” you can begin to orient yourself to your role as teller of the story of your thesis.   You can begin to prepare excitedly your viva to be the best it can be for what it is.  And simply put, your viva is the sharing of your story as  1) a researcher 2) motivated to explore an unchartered area 3) using a particular approach 4) that produced certain findings.  Yes, it’s a story you tell in four parts.

“Simply” is a useful notion for preparation of your viva insofar as people outside your area of expertise attend and may make use of your findings.  We present our theses findings to a wide audience so those outside our disciplinary expertise can also benefit.  We will see that it is helpful to regard the “other” audience at your at your viva – the lay audience – even before your supervisors and the experts in your field.  Why?  Because for the experts there is the written document, replete with details and composed in the lexicon of the field or discipline.

So let us not make more – or less – of your upcoming viva voce.  Schedule your viva.  Finish writing-up your thesis.  Then we can focus on translating the written work into spoken English that all in attendance can understand and appreciate.  Then we can focus on telling your unique story clearly and comprehensively so adults in and outside your area of expertise can make use of your findings as you earn your place among experts.

Make sense?  Good.  Check-in next month.  I’ll begin sharing my step-by-step guide to preparing a viva from Introduction to Q&A.  Write me if you have any specific questions that can’t wait.


Lisa Bernard has prepared and represented people from all walks of life to speak publicly at meetings, on panels, in their places of worship and as keynoters.  She herself has addressed audiences as large as 2000 and designed and delivered over 500 workshops, seminars and college-level courses on oral communication.  She has slowed down fast-talkers, turned “uhmers” into smooth-speakers and moderated accents from Brooklyn to Beijing – all to develop confident communicators.  Lisa has a Masters Degree in International Affairs from Columbia University and today fuses her first and second careers at Lisa Bernard’s SecuritySpeak, LLC, a consulting firm that makes available experts on national, global and cyber-security for distinguished lectures worldwide.  You can reach her at (203) 293-4741 or and like her firm at

Do U have a Signature “Textyle” 2?


Yesterday morning my daughter called worried that something happened to me.  Why?  I didn’t respond to her early morning text. We routinely exchange morning greetings via text. We’re both early risers and get a lot done at dawn percolating right along with our coffee. So when her screen was blank she noticed. All was, in fact, well. My cell phone was simply charging after being drained of battery after a long day the day before. Her worry was palpable and got me thinking about how much we have each developed patterns in our texting which I call “textyles.”

Some themes are resonant of other channels of communication. Take silence, for example. If we normally speak on the telephone with someone at a particular time of day, say after work or before bed and there is no call, we feel the absence and the silence sends a message. It may be ambiguous but it is a signal. Anger? Danger? Mishap? Same seems true for texting. When we exchange texts with someone at the same time each day and there is a break in routine, we feel the absence and it is conspicuous. We keep checking for that little blinking light. Are they okay? Is our relationship okay?

And like other channels of communication, our interpretations and responses are often person-specific.  When a guy I once dated didn’t text hear from me for a while, my “silence” would prompt him to respond with his signature blend of curiosity and humor. He’d text me something like “Knock-knock.”  In similar circumstances my daughters would likely write, “Everything okay? xox.”  Different approaches but one thing in common: Each of them always uses proper grammar and spelling if it is at all possible. If, in fact, I see my daughter’s text with a typo in the middle of the afternoon and no correction in the next text, I know she’s very busy at work and texting hastily.

One’s textyle is so distinct that it becomes obvious when there is an imposter using someone’s phone. My heart stopped for a nanosecond when a text came in from my daughter’s phone number but it was not her textyle. It read, “Hi there Mom.” Creepy. “Hi there” is not her parlance. Nor would she include the “Mom” specification. Then I recalled that her roommate likes to play practical jokes and suspected she was behind the prank text. I was correct. That alien textyle was my first clue.

Like hearing someone’s voice, the “tone” of a text can suggest attitude as well. I texted my daughter twice this morning each time in a different mood. My first message was spirited and fun and communicated my pride in a job well done. It had a salutation, a photo and a lot of exclamation points: “Hi sweetie, I painted the banister all by myself!!! xox” The next was serious and reflected my business persona: “What’s your student ID number? I need it to send in your tuition check. Xox” Both had my kisses and hug signature but each reflected a different mood. My guess is that if either of my daughters received a text from me without my signature “xox” they’d sense something was off—either with me or between us.

When we first text folks and don’t know their textyles we may be surprised at the difference from their face-to-face, phone or email styles. One of my warmest, most affectionate gal pals stopped me in my tracks the first time she texted me back to confirm a get-together. I was so excited to see her and about our plans that my text included my signature “xox” plus an exclamation point and a ;). She wrote back, “KK.” KK? Uh-oh! Was this subtext? I do catch myself sometimes trying to “read between the lines” of texts. It seems to be about as accurate as translating poetry from one language to another –hardly a science. Of course, when I saw my girlfriend she was smiling, tactile and as receptive as ever and all was indeed well between us and with her. Her “KK” shorthand was just her “work-day textyle.”

I imagine the above applies 2 u 2, 2 some DgrE. Do you ever read between the lines of texts? Does it work 4 u? It B Gr8t 😉 and works 4 me if u write and share. Lol! xox

Lisa Bernard has prepared and represented people from all walks of life to speak publicly at meetings, on panels, in their places of worship and as keynoters. She herself has addressed audiences as large as 2000 and designed and delivered over 500 workshops, seminars and college-level courses on oral communication.  She has slowed down fast-talkers, turned “uhmers” into smooth-speakers and moderated accents from Brooklyn to Beijing – all to develop confident communicators.  Lisa has a Masters Degree in International Affairs from Columbia University and today manages Lisa Bernard’s SecuritySpeak, LLC, a consulting firm that makes available experts on national, global and cyber-security for distinguished lectures worldwide.  You can reach her at (203) 293-4741 or and like her firm at

Get to the Point! How to Make Your Point Clearly and Memorably in any Meeting, Speech, or Interview

For years I have shared with my clients and students that the best way to know what you need to say in your speech is to understand what your audience needs to hear. Switch sides of the podium. Put yourself in your audience members’ seats and consider their perspective. What do you see that they don’t? How can they hear, absorb and digest your message comfortably? Through the years, I have realized that with just a bit of tweaking, you can use my format for reaching an audience for making a point in a meeting as well as in an interview. Let’s begin by reviewing my fail-safe method for making each key point in a presentation.

1. Affirm your point succinctly. Be bold. Make them think, “Gee, I never thought of it that way.” Be confident that your assessment will be new to them as they did not do all the research and reflection on the topic as you did. Nor do they have your angle on the material. Hence, you are going to see something in the subject matter that they do not. Key points naturally “wow” the audience.
2. Clarify or nuance your point. Spell out what you mean.
3. Illustrate your point. Give listeners a simple example to which they can easily relate.
4. Elaborate on the point. Tell them more. From your clarification and illustration they’re getting it and are poised to hear and absorb more.
5. Substantiate your point. There comes a time when a thoughtful listener will wonder, “How do you know this?” A skilled speaker is prepared to support his or her thoughts with data from dependable sources.
6. Reiterate your point. Realize that when folks are listening they do not have the opportunity to reread, review or rewind the message as with a book, DVD or recording. Effective speaking requires the repetition of key points.

Affirmation. Clarification. Illustration. Elaboration. Substantiation. Reiteration.


The following is a sample of the above employed as a sales pitch by a wholesale footwear representative in a meeting with the buyer of women’s shoes in a major department store.

This shoe collection is the magnet of the group.
Clarification: It will naturally pull in pedestrian traffic from the mall. Why? It’s rich in detail. This group is colorful and offers so much to look at and to touch.
Illustration: Buttons, buckles, bows, fabrics and flowers – this collection yells, “Try me on!”
Elaboration: Ladies ready-to-wear is simple this year and in these dreary economic times women are looking to perk up outfits with affordable novelties. My own sister shared that she is buying just a few solid-colored moderately priced dresses for work this season and spending most of her wardrobe budget on fun and flirty accessories. Footwear is first in spring accessories.
Substantiation: It’s like basketball Hall of Famer, John Wooden once said, “It’s the little details that are vital; little things make big things happen.”
Reiteration: Let this stylish collection be a magnet for new customers and one you can call your regulars about as well.


The following is a sample of my fail-safe format applied in the body of a lengthier speech.

Affirmation: While no longer our main means of transport in civilian or military life, horses are still very much present in American society, culture and industry.

Clarification: We may not recognize their influence, acknowledge their contributions, or protest their exploitation, but horses are indeed still among us and imbedded in the fabric of American life in ordinary, profound, and even intimate ways.

Take for example, our common language, American English. Idiomatic English abounds with expressions from our relationship with horses as our partners in settling the American West. Ever describe yourself as “saddled” with responsibility? This derives from the heavy leather saddles we fashioned to hold us and our gear when traveling long distances, ranching and herding cattle while on horseback. Has a colleague try to “curry” favor with you? This derives from the use of the curry, a soft rubber or plastic comb with tiny teeth that loosens the dirt out of a horse’s coat and feels to them like a massage. Surely you’ve been told, “Don’t jerk me around!” If horses could talk they might exclaim that as well if we pull sharply on one rein; the horse will turn but that sudden jerky motion doesn’t fee l very good on its mouth and neck and there is a less aggravating and more productive way to get the horse to come around.

Horses are with us in our daily lives in other more tangible ways as well. The average day in my own life reminds me of this. Soft, water-resistant hair from the horse’s mane is what makes up the make-up brush I use to apply my cosmetics and certainly the paintbrush used to apply the color on the walls in my home and office. When I hear the violins playing in a number of songs on my iPod during my morning run, I am reminded of and grateful for the bows that are strung with the coarse hair of horse tails. As I select an outfit for the day I can’t help but see the Polo ponies that have inspired an entire style of clothing and mark mine as designed by fashion icon Ralph Lauren. At that same moment I chuckle that horses are even on Madison Avenue – not just literally pulling the Hansom Cabs in New York City but in the advertising industry. You see, often as I am dressing for the day I look at my TV screen and see two horses pull a trailer out of the mud in a commercial for Viagra. This gets me thinking about all the horses who are actors in film as well as on television. Hollywood horses have appeared in small roles in movies as diverse as Animal House and The Godfather, worked as extras in Dances with Wolves and other epics and some even star in major motion pictures like Black Velvet, Sea Biscuit and My Friend Flicka.

Substantiation: Over four million Americans are involved through work or ownership with the more than nine million horses in the United States today. Ironically, it is the large industries of horse racing and pharmaceuticals that may offer our most personal connection to equines. Jobs and livelihoods are reliant on the horse racing business through the associated enterprises of breeding, training, insurance and gambling. These account for multi-billion dollar contributions to the economies of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to name a few. But perhaps the most telling example of the intimate connection between equines and the well being of humans is the manufacture and use of PREMARIN, a popular hormone replacement medication available in topical and oral form to post-menopausal women. On the market in the U.S. since 1942, the conjugated estrogens that make up the preparation are collected from pregnant mares’ urine. Today, an estimated two thousand mares in Canada are, for life, stalled and remain pregnant and producing estrogen-concentrated urine as the main ingredient in PREMARIN.

Reiteration :
Because we travel in automobiles these days we don’t have contact with horse grooming equipment, saddles, bits or bridles so we use the lexicon without experiencing the deep horse-human partnership from which it stems. Because horses don’t get invited to Fashion Week or nominated for Academy Awards we don’t celebrate their contributions to the arts, style and entertainment. And because we wager, win or lose money, and fill our prescriptions in a matter of minutes, little if any time is devoted to considering the lifetime of involuntary sacrifice that horses as athletes and industrial recruits make to these ends. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a horse or two contributing each and every day to the quality of modern life you know. They’re still our capable and dependable partners quietly helping move us along in our human journey.


A local journalist asked me the question, “How is it that you went from a career as a Russian-speaking Sovietologist with degrees in Comparative Communist Studies and International Security Affairs to a communications coach?” I giggled watching him eye my diplomas on the wall with a genuinely baffled look on his face. I responded as follows.

Affirmation: It was actually an organic career shift.
Clarification: As a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs I met many experts on foreign affairs—including my professors and noticed they traveled quite a bit to give speeches to audiences of all types. In 1988, I started my first company, a speakers bureau, by offering representation to them. I cultivated a large clientele in academe and did a lot of program development for social science departments using my expertise in Russian and international affairs. My briefings to my speakers were very much a product of listening to my clients—their audiences—describe their needs and expectations.
Illustration: I loved learning from my speakers as they spoke expertly on cutting-edge issues in foreign affairs and to keep them successful, I began analyzing the most effective presentations for common elements. The patterns for success at the microphone were vivid and clear and I shared them accordingly.
Elaboration: Then one day a magazine called me to write an article on public speaking and presentation skills based on my experiences running my speakers bureau. I did and that article produced an invitation for me to give a workshop on effective communication. From there, individuals who attended sought me out privately for coaching. By that point it was 1991 and interest in global affairs was waning with the end of the Cold War. But, my oral communications business was percolating. I read every textbook on communication, closed my agency and devoted myself full-time to what brings you here today.
Substantiation: Speech-writing is my forte because in graduate school I took two to three courses each in economics, history, political science, etc. and we did a lot computer war-gaming. My studies not only gave me the discipline to learn a subject quickly, but the ability to turn out a substantive briefing or report in as little as twenty-four hours. Now I can ghost-write speeches for CEOs and executives on topics from real estate to cyber-security because I can learn the lexicon, get a handle on the issues and organize the message for a lay or expert audience. That’s what I was trained to do as a policy analyst.
Reiteration: In fact, my careers are so related that when I started writing workbooks on communication the series title was “Notes from the Podium,” a play on the title of the Russian novel, Notes from (the) Underground.  It really wasn’t a leap from one career to the next but a nicely paced marathon.


This method of presenting one’s thoughts has served me, my clients and my students well for two decades. It is not only fail-safe insofar as it provides something for every listener, but it is also self-checking. As you organize your thoughts for your next meeting, prepare responses for your next interview or script your next speech, realize that you can check your own words for the necessary ingredients. Did you assert your point boldly? Did you explain it? Did you support your assertion? Did you provide a listener-friendly example? Did you elaborate on it with a memorable vignette or enlightening anecdote? I share this all with you in hopes you will not shy away from making a speech, giving that interview or participating confidently and effectively in your next meeting.

The Final Word on Eulogies

Death takes people by surprise. Even when an elderly or infirm person passes we are shocked by the news. Funerals, therefore, unlike other ceremonies, aren’t scheduled far in advance and the eulogy is one ceremonial speech that is often prepared in haste and as the bereft speaker is experiencing an exhausting combination of shock and sadness.

Yet, amid this distress, it is the noble man or woman who accepts the responsibility of composing a final, formal statement of praise to the decedent. It is the noble man or woman who accepts the responsibility for articulating thoughts and feelings at the time others report that they “just can’t speak.” It is the noble man or woman who accepts the responsibilities of “saying a few words” just when others insist that words are insufficient to describe their loss or the meaning of their lost loved one’s life.

In point of fact, speech offers us a lot in this saddest of situations. A eulogy is actually a tribute in words to an individual at the time of his or her death, and the informed eulogizer can provide and find some much-needed comfort and guidance using language. While the challenge is great, the format and components of the eulogy offer direction and relief. You see, effective eulogies follow a very particular sequence in both preparation and delivery. As the decedent’s next of kin, clergy and undertakers each assume their traditional roles and responsibilities for observance of the death rituals, so can the eulogizer adhere to a long-established process of eulogy preparation and delivery.

Getting Prepared: Collect the Key Components

The eulogizer begins by gathering facts, acknowledging feelings and reviewing history as these are the three ingredients that combine to form an effective eulogy.

First, find the facts. List the facts of the death. Where did this happen? At what age did s/he pass? What circumstances surrounded the passing? As a eulogizer, you report the facts of the death.

Second, specify your sentiments. Identify two or three characteristics or personality traits about the decedent that account for your feelings. For instance, if you describe your late aunt as thoughtful and generous, note the illustration that she never once in twenty-eight years missed sending you a birthday card and it was each and every year the very first card and gift you received. If you describe your late great uncle as punctual to a fault, recall humorously the time that he arrived at the maternity ward before you did to deliver your child. As a eulogizer you share your own observations and sentiments as you reflect on the charms of the person lost.

Third, view the future through the lens of the past. Recall the personal history of the deceased, identifying the people s/he loved so you can mention them in the eulogy to offer the appropriate condolences. Reflect on the journey s/he took and the activities, roles and principles that characterized the decedent’s life. As a eulogizer your words move the mourners forward, pledging to keep alive the deceased’s values through specific acts.

Crafting the Eulogy: Rely on a Five-Step Format

Equipped with the facts about the death, feelings about the decedent and his or her personal history, you as the eulogizer are ready to weave them together in your own style and voice. The order and excerpts below will give you a model and feel for this.

1. Explicitly acknowledge the death. It is the responsibility of the eulogizer to articulate the facts of the sad news unequivocally and early in the eulogy.

It is said that the Lord works in mysterious ways. This seems true today as we gather to pay our final respects to a very young man. It is indeed a mystery why and how a twenty-two year old athlete–a college basketball superstar–could collapse on the very court where he typically exhibited excellent health and a prowess far above his peers. And yet, this is precisely the mystery of the passing of Jay Grabor. This past Monday night, Jay collapsed and died during a home game. We cannot help but ask “Why?” and “How could such a thing happen?”

2. Reminisce fondly about the deceased. One delivers a eulogy if and only if s/he genuinely loved, respected and/or admired the decedent. Accordingly, you might recall the words of the deceased, perhaps a saying he or she often used. You might tell an anecdote, a story that reveals a key characteristic or personality trait you admired.

I have coached scores, perhaps hundreds, of young athletes in my years at this university and I can tell you that Jay was one in a million. I met none like him before his time and I don’t expect to find another soul like him ever again. His maturity was as deep as his talent. Once, I summoned a freshman teammate of Jay’s him to my office for a chat. There were problems between him and the other fellows and although things had improved a bit, I thought that a sit down might help things gel. Well, this young boy sits down and starts pouring his heart out about how rough he’s had it ’n all. And just as I’m about to give him some fatherly advice the kid says, “It was a good thing that Jay Grabor had me over to his dorm room for a sit down! Once he and I talked and he took me under his wing, things really started to improve!” My fellow mourners, I wasn’t terribly surprised to hear that. That’s the kind of mature and caring team player that Jay was. Actually, it wasn’t just the way he was with his teammates. It’s just the kind of guy he was. He was like that with the campus community at large.

3. Offer your condolences. A conscientious eulogizer recognizes that others are grieving as well.

While the loss of a son is unspeakable, while the loss of a brother is unbearable, while the loss of a grandson, nephew and all the other roles Jay played in his brief but vibrant life is tragic, know that your pain is felt by peoples near and far. We mourn with you on the campus and in the community and in your neighborhood and all the halls this treasured young man graced. Our memories are now your memories. We share them with you and we pray that in time they give you some measure of peace.

4. Reassure the mourners that the deceased will be remembered meaningfully. It is the responsibility of the eulogizer to make a commitment to continue the efforts for which the deceased lived. These may be the continuation of the decedent’s work or the completion of plans to reach certain goals in the family or in the community.

A wise man wrote that, “true love is eternal.” And Jay Grabor truly loved the sport of basketball and the team he honored at the University of Southington. In Jay’s memory, this team shall go on. In Jay’s memory and for Jay’s memory this team shall prevail. He has forever changed us and it has been for the better. It is a change for the better of these players, for the better of us coaches and for the better of the sport of college basketball itself.

5. State a clear goodbye to the deceased. It is the responsibility of the eulogizer to do what may be too painful for other mourners to do and that is to specifically bid farewell to the deceased. It is the responsibility of the eulogizer to mark the departure from life of the person we knew in life.

In a penalty we do not understand, with a time out that comes out a lifetime a head of it’s time, we all as fans of Jay Grabor, bid farewell to him, a true champion.

Delivering for the Occasion: Lean In and Let Go

In sharing the stories, words and traits of the deceased, don’t shy away from material that will make you laugh and cry. It is okay to get emotional when delivering the eulogy. You won’t be alone. Others will be comforted that you share their many emotions and they will admire you for expressing them nonverbally as well as with words.

It is my wish that your need for this skill-set be minimal. It is my hope that when the need for it does arrive you are equipped with the know-how to guide you through the challenge with as much ease and confidence as such circumstances allow.