I need to speak at the unveiling of a memorial plaque (this one, incidentally).

I have an idea of what I want to say, and how I want to arrange it. My struggle is with the opening.

I have spoken in public before - in academic settings, on fantasy/sci-fi conventions. In all those circumstances, my go-to strategy has been (introduce myself, then) "start by saying something funny". When I've got everybody laughing, I've got everybody engaged, and it helps me get over the first moments of petrifying stage-fright.

This approach isn't going to work here: the holocaust is not funny. And the people who are going to be in attendance are not the friendly geeks of sci-fi conventions, which doesn't help the stage-fright one bit.

How do I open this kind of speech? How do I start strong, and engage the audience at once? I can't afford to stand there and blabber.

  • 1
    I must say I'm curious why the downvotes. Mar 14, 2019 at 10:53
  • 2
    I don't get the downvotes either. Ignore them, I think some people don't get that the Writing Stack is about writing, including non-fiction.
    – Amadeus
    Mar 14, 2019 at 12:18
  • Who are the attendees -- members of the affected group in general, family members, the public at large? Will there be other speakers too or just you? Will you be introduced? (On this last, at funerals, for example, the officiant will sometimes announce people with something like "and now John's brother Joe will share a few words", so you start off with some context already.) Mar 14, 2019 at 16:14
  • @MonicaCellio I'm still under an NDA. There will be other speakers, there will be dignitaries present. I'm not allowed to say more than that at this point. Mar 14, 2019 at 16:19

3 Answers 3


I would begin with a story, about somebody you are memorializing. I'd expect it to be tragic, obviously, but the point of the memorial is to remember what was taken from so many. To prevent that from being a faceless crowd, we do what writers do: Focus on an individual. Photojournalists do the same: I'll never forget this photo. (NSFW, naked napalm girl). One person representing a horror that befell thousands.

If you can make it a personal connection, that may be good, but it doesn't have to be.

There is a reason for this memorial, and it comes down to individuals. Find a story of contrast, that represents the love and kindness that was destroyed by hatred and cruelty.

  • Great answer! Stick with your tools as a writer.
    – wetcircuit
    Mar 14, 2019 at 2:15
  • I was going to answer this question but I can't come up with anything better than this.
    – Cyn
    Mar 14, 2019 at 3:10
  • 2
    I was at a memorial for the victims of a shooting in my community, and the main speaker began with a story about one of the deceased that was specifically not tragic -- showing us that this was a real person with a real life and not just a statistic. Not humorous (that might have felt out of place), but something that showed us what kind of person she was. I found it very effective. Mar 14, 2019 at 16:18
  • @MonicaCellio I agree completely. I would even say mild humor would work. What I meant was that Galastel's issue is a Holocaust memorial, and we know anybody we talk about that is being memorialized there met a tragic end. But if she knows a good story about a victim, from a survivor or family member, an endearing story about them, even a little humorous one, humanizes the victims; and makes a happy life cut short more poignant and worth grieving.
    – Amadeus
    Mar 14, 2019 at 16:38

When I taught Presentations in Tech Writing, one of my biggest tools was "ROPES" - review/rapport, overview/objective, present, exercise, summary.

In more social settings, you're using the comedy opening to establish rapport with the audience. Here, you want to instead connect with them by explaining your connection to the memorialized people and to those attending. It doesn't need to be fancy.

Overview/Objective - this is where you can directly state the "thesis statement" - why this memorial is here. Perhaps also point out the distinctness - what makes this group of memorialized people significant/different from the ones represented in existing memorials.

Present - this is the "body" of the talk - any specific details you want to point out, anything about the creation of the memorial, any of those elements.

Exercise - in a strictly educational/informative setting, you'd alternate a Point Presented and an Exercise or Interaction. For a memorial, you may want to give a moment now and then asking the audience to reflect - maybe on what they'd say to the deceased, maybe on how they would represent these concepts in their own designs. No need for you to fill all the time. Allow some silences.

(Feel free to also remind people of any other interactions - if there's a guestbook to sign, or if others can speak if they want to.)

Summary - this is just a quick restatement of any key things you want people to walk away with -- people tend to remember the starts & ends of things.

I hope this structuring tool is useful.


Begin with an aspect you will most miss of the person(s), then continue on the relationship of that person with family and friend who survived. Keep the common theme around that one most important aspect, adding only few small details. Keep it simple.

  • Thank you for your answer, Brain, and welcome to Writing.SE. However, I'm afraid this answer is not really applicable to my case: the memorial plaque is to (a particular group of) Holocaust victims. People I never got to know, so I can't miss them. Mar 14, 2019 at 15:01
  • I'm sorry Galastel. I misunderstood, thought you mean that this was an example for a memorial plaque. Well, then maybe you can begin with how important it is to remember. Or you can mention particulars of the different groups of the Holocaust victims. For example in Germany there was groups of Jews, Jehovah Witnesses, Roma and Sinti, Homosexuals, even physical handicapped or people with down syndrom ... all together. What got these people in common? What made them unique? Just an idea. And then you could address the importance of remembering and holding the memory alive over the generations.
    – Brain
    Mar 14, 2019 at 16:59

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.