Can You Say a Few Words?, Second Revised Edition

How to Prepare and Deliver a Speech for Any Special Occasion

Joan Detz

St. Martin's Griffin

CAN YOU SAY A FEW WORDS? (Chapter One)Anniversaries

Be ruled by time, the wisest counselor of all.


Suppose the principal at your local high school completes 20 years of service, and your town wants to host an anniversary tribute. Or your company wants to celebrate 50 years in business. Or your nature club wants to garner attention for 10 years of environmental accomplishments.

How can you come up with a speech that's as special as the occasion? Here are 12 ideas for an anniversary speech people will remember long after your event is over:

1. Say Why the Anniversary Is So Important

When Kraft Foods marked the 100th anniversary of Jell-O, the occasion brought together dignitaries, employees, and media--and hailed the country's largest-selling prepared dessert as an American cultural institution.

2. Turn Back the Clock

People love to reminisce, to go back in time, to remember the way things used to be. So turn back the clock 20 years, 50 years, 5 years--whatever.

What were the hit TV shows? Who made front-page headlines? What captivated the blogs?

In short, what were people talking about when this person got started? Use these details to grab your audience's attention.

For example, you could say:

Back in 1985, something called a compact disc appeared on the market...four-wheel-drive vehicles hit our roads...and the phrase "ozone layer" entered our national vocabulary. And a new science teacher by the name of Jane Smith came to Penn High School. Today, on her service anniversary, we've gathered to salute her dedication to our school.

3. Return to the Scene

In 2002, on the 10th anniversary of the race riots that devastated Los Angeles, President George W. Bush went to the scene, speaking in a church hall near the riot area.

4. Recognize Changes That Have Occurred
Over the Years

What's different now? Have the passing years brought big changes? If so, point them out. Cite specific improvements. Give details. Share examples. Create a vivid understanding in the mind of the audience.

5. Cite the Good Qualities That Have Remained
Constant Over the Years

Has the person kept a sense of courage, of curiosity, of fairness? Has the company honored its founding principles--even during tough times?

If so, cite those qualities, and remind the audience of their current value.

6. Articulate the Shared Emotions

After the 1994 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, President William Clinton gave a stirring address at the memorial service. No president could have done a better job rallying the nation's spirits at that difficult time.

In 2004, when formal ceremonies were held to mark the 10th anniversary, private citizen Bill Clinton returned, offering this perspective: "Oklahoma City changed us all. It broke our hearts and lifted our spirits and brought us together."

7. Articulate Your Beliefs

What better time than an anniversary to restate your philosophy?

When President Lyndon Johnson marked the 10th anniversary of the Government Employees Incentive Awards Act at Constitution Hall in Philadelphia, he used the ceremony to restate his beliefs: "I believe in the tight fist and the open mind--a tight fist with money and an open mind to the needs of America."

8. Use an Inspirational Quotation or a Bit of
Local Color

When the University of Pennsylvania celebrated its 250th anniversary, President Sheldon Hackney tapped into the university's origins as a "charity school" established by Ben Franklin.

Quoting an inspirational line from a 1749 Franklin pamphlet, President Hackney said, "The great aim and end of all learning is to be able to serve others. That is why our university exists. That is why all universities should exist."

9. State the Abiding Lessons

Anniversaries come...and go. But their lessons can be timeless.

Back in 1974, when President Gerald Ford addressed the 75th annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he placed war (and peace) in this perspective: "All of us who served in one war or another know very well that all wars are the glory and the agony of the young."

10. Share Your Enthusiasm

On the 30th anniversary of Apollo 17's moon mission, David King (then deputy director, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center) personalized his greeting:

I've been looking forward to this day with childlike excitement. With us today are some of the heroes who had a huge impact on what I wanted to do with my life....

You don't have to raise your hand, but how many of you remember--as a child--standing in your backyard at night looking up at the the hopes of seeing one of the astronauts walking around up there?

The fascination with humans going to the moon kept me in hot water with my mother. Many times she would have to tell me to go to bed: "Quit watching that show about space." Today, she understands.

11. Honor the Sacrifice

Lt. Gen. Bruce Carlson offered these remarks at the Prisoner of War Recognition Ceremony on the 61st anniversary of the Bataan death march:

Every person who has worn the uniform and fought in battle understands the nature of sacrifice. But as a people united in freedom, we owe special respect and gratitude for those who were captured. They suffered tremendously at the hands of their captors--virtually all of them subjected to physical torture and incredibly harsh conditions. Yet they maintained their faith in their Nation, and they nurtured the hope that one day they would return home.... America must never forget their courage.

12. Say It with Something Other Than Words

Don't feel you have to rely on words alone. Anniversary ceremonies can be enriched by:

  • Silence. When world leaders gathered to honor the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gallipoli, Australian and British warships fired their guns, and everyone observed one minute of silence.
  • Applause. When a popular retiree returned to a company's anniversary event, no words seemed adequate to express the goodwill in the air. So the audience simply rose and applauded with great enthusiasm.
  • Song. When a coach celebrated his 5th winning season, his team honored him with a rousing rendition of the school song.

    CAN YOU SAY A FEW WORDS? Copyright © 2006 by Joan Detz.