The San Bernardino massacre has inspired a welter of speeches and commentary. This is not a political blog, and I don’t want to go into the content of the speeches, other than to say some of them demonstrate the difference between public speaking and public yammering. I don’t know about you, but I find public yammering unpersuasive.
Even in a nonpolitical blog, however, the San Bernardino massacre is relevant, if for no other reason than it shows more and more of us will be faced with the task of speaking to grief stricken audiences. Here are 7 tips I have come up with for giving a speech to the grieving.
1. Be natural and authentic. This tip applies to any public speaking, but it is especially important here. In fact, when the occasion is grief, you should not worry as much about losing a little bit of control. If you find yourself choking back a sob or having to pause and compose yourself, it may comfort the audience to know you are grieving with them.
2. Avoid platitudes. “She’s in a better place now.” “God must really love him to have taken him so young.” “I know what you’re going through.” At best, remarks like these come across as empty formulas. At worst, they seem like attempts to manipulate another’s grief process. Your primary role in addressing a grief stricken audience should be to offer comfort, and platitudes offer no comfort, so avoid them.
3. Memorialize the lost. The greatest fear of the grief stricken is that their loved one will be lost to memory as well as life. You may be in a position to mitigate this fear by telling them why the community will remember. Do your homework, find out what made the victim(s) special, and offer it as a reason for people to remember them. In other words, offer sincere and specific praise for the victims.
4. Unless the audience is denominational, be nondenominational. Nothing is more intrusive to the grieving than force-fitting their grief to fit some unshared belief. It may comfort you to offer a prayer for a dead child, but if the victim’s parents are, say atheists, you may be offering more offense than comfort. Unless you are certain that you and the audience share a belief system, leave your beliefs at home and focus on the audience’s grief.
5. Provide hope. Grief is often accompanied by the most soul-crushing of human emotions: hopelessness. Take the opportunity to try to get the audience past it. Without using platitudes, remind them there is cause for hope, if only because the memory of those lost provides an example for the rest of us.
6. Allow a change of mood. You don’t need to be unremittingly somber. It can be a comfort to an audience to be reminded of a funny or happy moment with the person they lost. Again, do your homework, find an authentic anecdote that represents what made this person fun to be with, and lighten the mood with it.
7. Don’t expect results. You’re not going to overcome an audience’s grief with a single speech. The best you can do is give them reason to hope and to know they are not alone in their grief. But if you can accomplish both of those things, you will be successful.