One of my classmates was the valedictorian for our high school. But sometime between our grad banquet and the commencement ceremony on the last day of school, he ran into some trouble.
The incoming class president had based his election campaign on insulting our grade as degenerate, beer-swilling losers. As punishment, he was driven up a mountain and abandoned in his underwear. The police got involved. Suddenly, the valedictorian duties were up for grabs, and they asked me to fill in.
That first big public speech was a rush job for me.
(Lesson No. 1 - Take the time to get it right.)
Thinking back on the bland statements about challenges and opportunities, I cringe for the West Vancouver Secondary School Class of '77. The grad class' motto was "The Year of the Beer." You would think I could find some lively comments to make.
(Lesson No. 2 - Engage your listeners.)
No mention of drug charges, teen pregnancies, long-term bullying and emotional abuse. No challenge to the school credo that a university degree was the only worthwhile goal for a West Van grad. Nothing to suggest that for some of us, our years in high school were extremely boring, humiliating, depressing, or all of the above.
I delivered what the administrators wanted, but it wasn't a speech that would change anybody's mind about anything.
(Lesson No. 3 - Decide what you want your audience members to think or do differently, and build the talk that will move them in that direction.)
Because I was the second choice for the job, it just didn't feel like my speech. I never sat down and worked out the kind of speech I would want to hear if I was in the audience.
(Lesson No. 4 - You have to own the speech, using your ideas and your words.)
My son Sam is working on his valedictory speech right now, as the Grade 8 class departs for high school. To make matters more complicated, he has to alternate between English and French.
The advice I gave him was: "Be yourself. And practice."
In fact, that's the advice I give everyone I coach in public speaking.
(Lesson No. 5 - Read your talk out loud, edit the stuff that doesn't sound right, and practice.)