3 speechwriting tips from a Kennedy eulogy

Caroline Kennedy’s eulogy for Edward Kennedy provides tips for all speechwriters: It’s OK to make people laugh, show emotion, and highlight the details.

Even for the most polished speaker, it’s tough to deliver a eulogy. That said, how do you judge the eulogy delivered by a woman whom many have upbraided for her poor public speaking skills?

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 gave her speaking style poor reviews.

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. While she didn’t crisply deliver her remembrance or fill it with lovely language, it was the right speech for her audience, her speaking style, and the needs of the occasion.

Many of us will have to deliver a eulogy at some point, 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 people 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 how she saw a brighter-than-the-rest star in the sky after Edward Kennedy’s death. It is a well-worn metaphor, but Kennedy gave it a humorous twist by admitting, “I knew it was Jupiter, but it was acting a lot like Teddy.” There are laughs throughout the speech; most of them were gentle but true to her subject’s 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. She tells this tale with so many tiny details—the sticky, 98-degree heat, the stench of low tide, the roar of planes taking off above the children’s tents—that it resonates as a treasured memory only she could share.

Show your emotions.

Eulogy speakers often worry they will be so emotional they won’t be able to speak well or make it through their whole speech. If you’re concerned, keep your speech brief. You should also acknowledge that you can’t, and shouldn’t, completely banish emotion.

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 whom she will miss dearly. That’s entirely appropriate for the occasion.

Have you delivered a eulogy? Share some of your tips below.

Becky Ham is a freelance writer. She writes for The Eloquent Woman blog, where a version of this article originally ran.


Ragan.com Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from Ragan.com directly in your inbox.