How to Give a Tribute Speech

by Chris Cook

A tribute recognizes and expresses appreciation for a person's contributions and characteristics, typically from a personal perspective. Occasions for tributes range from significant life events (like weddings and funerals) to retirements, award presentations and special-day celebrations. Even if you will present your tribute orally, the exercise of planning and writing it helps ensure that you will convey the desired points vividly and succinctly.

Prepare to write. Gathering facts and recollections will lessen your qualms at the blank page before you and help make your tribute personal. If you do not know them already, seek out highlights of your subject's life story---including family, education, work, church, and avocation. You will not include all of these details in your tribute, but use them to inform your personal conclusions about the subject's value to you and others. Remember your interactions with the subject, focusing on those that had a direct effect on you or exemplified his personality. (Looking at old photographs and letters sometimes jogs the memory.) Ask others to share their recollections with you. What main themes emerge? From among them, identify the contribution and characteristics that have most affected you and others.

Begin the first draft of your tribute by simply sharing your connection to the subject---in effect, letting your audience know why you are the one giving the tribute and providing general context for your comments to come. "John was my first boss at XYZ Company, and over the next 20 years..." (Do not get stalled here by the notion that some profound or witty opening statement or quotation is called for. You can decide that after first-drafting, when you polish.)

Having chosen the special few of the subject's contributions you want to focus on, use stories to make them vivid. For each, share a personal experience with the subject and tell what the interaction meant to you or how your life was affected. Summarize the contribution, and where appropriate, extrapolate it to others who have been similarly touched---"Just as Mrs. Jones [did this] for me as my teacher, she inspired two entire generations of students to...." Consider whether you need to identify and briefly comment on the subject's other accomplishments, taking into account the likely content of other tributes to be given.

Highlight the special traits of the subject that impressed you most. Tell stories to illustrate them when you can. Or make word pictures: "She is a faithful and dependable volunteer at the clinic. You will see her there each Tuesday, in her white uniform, patting the hand of the aged woman in the wheelchair while her expert nurse's eyes look for signs...."

Crisply recap the contributions and characteristics of your subject that you have highlighted. End with a warm expression of your personal respect and appreciation---and, where appropriate, your best wishes.

When your first draft is done, refine your work. (Some writers prefer to set their drafts aside for a day or so, believing that a "cold" eye is superior for editing.) Review your draft from the perspective of the audience that will hear or read it. Will that audience gain the impression of your subject you intend? In addition to checking grammar and spelling, look at how you have expressed yourself. If you will give the tribute orally, read it aloud and recast sentences that would be awkward to speak, rendering them in a more conversational tone. See if any passive-voice sentences can be improved by using active voice. (Not "this was done by her..." but "she did this....") With a deadly eye, seek out and kill unnecessary words and consider what you can say more succinctly. If you think your draft is a little dull, look for places to add a telling description, a colorful metaphor ("he was as persistent as a ..."), or gentle humor that illuminates a trait. Consider what will delight or warm your audience. Refining the beginning and the end, which are key places for engaging your audience. How have you first drawn the audience in, and what thought have you left them with? Now is the time to reconsider that quotation or comparison you thought was so relevant. But simple and sincere personal expression is always in order, and your draft approach may be just fine.

Tip

  • Unless you are asked to summarize the subject's entire life story and accomplishments, speak primarily from your personal relationship with the subject and the role you played in her life--for example, employee, family member, longtime friend or fellow volunteer. If you must refer to negative circumstances concerning your subject, focus on the positives that came from them.

About the Author

Chris Cook has been a professional writer for more than 30 years, working as a newspaper reporter and corporate communications executive responsible for strategies and execution of communications collaterals such as news releases, brochures and website content. She has a bachelor's degree in English from Limestone College.

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