18.3 Special Occasion Language

Special occasion speaking is so firmly rooted in the use of good language that it makes sense to address it here. More than any other category of speech, the special occasion speech is arguably one where the majority of your preparation time will be specifically allocated towards the words you choose. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have used good language in your informative and persuasive speeches, but that the emphasis shifts slightly in a special occasion speech.

For example, for your informative and persuasive speeches you were required to conduct research and cite your sources in a bibliography or references/works cited page, which took you some time to look up and format. In most cases, that will not be necessary in a special occasion speech, although there may be reasons to consult sources or other persons for information in crafting your speech. So for special occasion speeches, there is a trade-off. The time you don’t spend doing research is now going to be reallocated towards crafting emotional and evocative phrases that convey the sentiment your speech is meant to impart.

The important thing to remember about using language effectively is that we are not talking about using big words just to sound smart. Do not touch a thesaurus! Good language isn’t about trying to impress us with fancy words. It’s about taking the words you are already comfortable and familiar with and putting them in the best possible order. Consider the following example from the then-president of the Ohio State University, Gordon Gee, giving a commencement address at Florida State University in 1997:

As you look back on your years at Florida State I hope you remember many good things that have happened. These experiences are,
for the most part, events of the mind. The memories, ladies and gentlemen, however, are treasures of the heart.

Notice three things about his use of language: first, he doesn’t try to use any fancy words, which he certainly could if he wanted to. Every word in this portion of his speech is one that all of us knew by the time we left elementary school, so again, don’t mistake good language for big words. Using a five-syllable word when a two-syllable word will work just as well often means a speaker is trying too hard to sound smart. And given that the use of those big words often comes off sounding awkward or inappropriate, you’re better off just sticking with what you know.

Second, notice how he uses those basic words to evoke emotion and wonderment. Putting the words you know into the best possible order, when done well, will make your speech sound extremely eloquent and emotional. Third, he uses parallelism in this brief snippet. The use of “events of the mind” and “treasures of the heart” to compare what is truly important about the college experience is powerful. Indeed, Gee’s commencement address is full of various rhetorical devices, with the twelve-minute speech also containing alliteration, assonance, and antithesis.

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