Speaking lessons from Obama’s eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney

Sadly, the president has often had to speak to grieving relatives and a stunned nation in the wake of gun violence. His words and tone last week again offered solace to those in mourning.

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Last week was not a slow news week in the United States, with landmark Supreme Court decisions at home and terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world.

One of the best addresses of President Barack Obama’s presidency took place with far less coverage than those events—at a funeral service for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine worshippers killed by a white supremacist during a Bible study session in Charleston, South Carolina. Even as this speech was unfolding, readers were messaging me to make sure I had it in my sights.

The event carried another distinction for Obama.

From the National Journal:
Charleston is the 17th mass-casualty shooting of his presidency, the 17th time that one incident claimed at least three lives, bringing to 149 the death toll from these bursts of gun violence on his watch. It is the 11th time that he has issued a statement in reaction. And Friday will be the seventh time that Obama has spoken at a memorial, trying to comfort the bereaved and make sense out of the handiwork of a killer.

It’s believed that the president has spoken at more such memorials than any other president, and he has been dubbed the United States’ “mourner-in-chief.” Or maybe it just feels that way, thanks to live-streaming and YouTube. What was so special about this speech, and what can you learn from it for your own?

Work your acknowledgments into the context of the speech, rather than just load them all at the beginning. In describing Pickney’s salutory qualities, Obama called him “a man of service who persevered, knowing full well he would not receive all those things he was promised, because he believed his efforts would deliver a better life for those who followed. To Jennifer, his beloved wife; to Eliana and Malana, his beautiful, wonderful daughters; to the Mother Emanuel family and the people of Charleston, the people of South Carolina.”

Letting the names of the acknowledged flow as context about the people he was serving makes eminent sense—and makes the acknowledgment more meaningful.

Structure and task-shape a good speech: Speechwriters and speaker coaches say that “every speech has a job to do” and that the speech’s structure should reflect that task. Here, the phases of the eulogy are crystal clear, each with its purpose: a description of the life of the deceased person being honored, the first task of a eulogy—in this case, because of the significance of the crime, the lives of those slain with him and the role of the black church in society. Making sense of a senseless massacre. The symbolism of the Confederate flag and how it is seen differently in the wake of the murders. Our years of ignoring that symbol, and a call to action for how to behave differently. A conclusion that remembers the dead again, so that those worshipping leave with their names in mind. A theme about grace that winds its way through the speech to tie all that together. Do your speeches reflect their purpose?

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Connection is everything: Without a connection to your audience, you may as well read your speech in a closed, soundproof booth. There’s real feeling in this speech, and not just because the president adopted the traditional style of preachers for it. When he says the names of Pinckney’s children and looks straight at them, when he urges the audience to understand that God was using the killer to a higher purpose, when he sings, rather than recites, “Amazing Grace,” he’s connecting. This is a highly responsive audience, standing, clapping and saying “amen” again and again, but often the points of deep connection are quiet moments in the speech.
In his description of Pinckney’s life, the president concludes with a thought that might be on any listener’s mind:

“Sometimes I think that’s the best thing to hope for when you’re eulogized—after all the words and recitations and resumes are read, to just say someone was a good man.”

Be sure your eulogies for others do the same. I think this speech will go down as one of the president’s best and most moving.

Read the transcript of this speech. Read it. Read it again. And by all means, watch it in the video here.

Denise Graveline is a Washington, D.C.-based speaker coach who has coached more than 100 speakers for TEDMED or TEDx talks. A version of this article first appeared on her blog, The Eloquent Woman.

(White House photo by Lawrence Jackson)


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