Most people are happier being reaudited by a fiber-deficient IRS agent than speaking in public. They’re even more fartutst about writing their own speeches.
Sometimes, we have to do both.
It’s easy for me. I’ve been a speechwriter all my life. But you can do it, too, anxiety-free, as long as you follow a few rules. In fact, if you’ve been asked to speak at someone’s bar or bat mitzvah, you may even find the process of writing a speech quite simple and fun. (Notice I said process.)
Where do you start?
1. Prepare early. The minute the date is set and you know you’ll have a speaking part in the celebration, start thinking about what you might say. That gives you a year. Don’t wait until it’s 8:52 on Saturday morning, and the bar mitzvah begins in eight minutes. At that point, it’s almost too late for even a professional to help you.
2. Find a theme for your speech. There is a portion of the Torah read at every bar or bat mitzvah. It corresponds to that particular week and is called a parasha. It’s easy to look it up, along with its modern meaning. Maybe the theme is trust. Maybe bravery. Overcoming hardship. Tie that in with your special feelings for the child being celebrated. Add to it by sharing some of the best memories of that young person. “I remember the scooter when …”
You could also refer to the honoree’s Hebrew name, connecting it to the biblical character with the same moniker, if there is one. However, if the child who is coming of age is named Boo Boo or Bugsy, you might have to be a little creative.
Your speech might also discuss the Jewish values and traditions you observe together. Lighting the Shabbat candles is one. Saying Kiddush. Celebrating Chanukah. That’s a classic approach. To be more contemporary, you could talk about how you and the bat mitzvah girl go rippin’ along the Pacific Coast Highway on your Harley every Sunday, or how you and the bar mitzvah boy have watched every episode of “Breaking Bad” over and over together, and are in the same 12-step program to stop.
3. Don’t be intimidated. You’re not addressing Congress or the Supreme Court. This isn’t your Harvard entrance essay. It’s a private, family gathering. You’re not Jimmy Fallon and you won’t be appearing on national TV. You probably won’t even be on YouTube, unless the challah somehow starts dancing the lambada. It’s just you, your extended family and your friends. Everybody will be cheering for you.
4. Make lists. Before trying to write sentences for my speeches, I make lists. Then my lists make lists. I move ideas around and add new ones. As a writer, I know better than to sit down at my desk, thinking I’ll nail something perfectly in the first draft. In reality, as ideas pop into my head, I scribble them on anything I can find, including the upholstery in my car.
And rather than feel the panic of having to sit there and finish this speech tonight tonight tonight, I make an appointment with myself to write for five minutes a day on weekdays. Not everybody has a couple of hours each morning, but we all have five minutes — no skipping. I mark the appointment with me in my day planner. And even if the page is blank when my five minutes are up, I check off that time anyway. I’ve kept my commitment. Maybe tomorrow something good will appear during my warm-up session. Eventually, it always does.
When I get a draft — no matter how scattered it is, I congratulate myself and haul out the candy corn. Rewards for good work go a long way.
5. Hook ’em with a great opening. You have a captive audience. Don’t lose them by starting with recycled language. You’re not a cliché. Your speech at a bar or bat mitzvah shouldn’t be one, either.
In your opening sentence, be clever. Maybe a little funny, too. If you’re speaking at a reception, instead of simply thanking the chefs who brought hors d’oeuvres, how about, “The CIA confirms that Aunt Puddy, Auntie Lacy and Great Aunt Yakabovsky caught the carp, the whitefish and the pike themselves. Now that’s gefilte fish. And nobody named Manischewitz was involved.”
6. How long should I speak? Less is more. Keep it short. If you’re the only speaker, five minutes. If you’re sharing the time-slot, three. You want to say what’s in your heart, leave your fingerprint in the room, congratulate the honoree and his or her family, then sit down.
7. How do I end my speech? “Mazel tov!” and “L’chaim!” get ’em every time.
Molly-Ann Leikin is an executive speechwriter and Emmy nominee living in Santa Monica. Her Web site is anythingwithwords.com.