Different Language for Different Situations

Learning Objectives

Identify appropriate language effects for different situations.

You don’t have to be an artist or a famous writer to add warmth or color to a special-occasion speech. Just do your research, be yourself, and ask for help.

Nicola’s mother passed. She and her siblings agreed that Nicola would give the eulogy. As she prepares, Nicola asks her mother’s friends to share stories. She also taps into her own sadness at losing her mother. The day of the eulogy, Nicola chooses words that are somber as appropriate for this event. She also chooses words that are personal and connect to her family and her mother’s friends. These words describe what a wonderful person Nicola’s mother was and how she touched people’s lives. At the reception, many approached Nicola and stated how much her eulogy connected with them and really described her mother well.

So, how does one connect to the audience no matter the occasion? Start by simply thinking about the event itself. If you have been to an event like this, what made it memorable? You can also search the internet for similar real-life events and speeches given to watch what this type of speech is like and see if your ideas are a good fit with your speaking engagement. You should take note of interesting concepts, rhythms or word patterns, and literary devices that are often used in literature, poetry, and speechmaking.

Specific, Concrete Language

As is so often the case in public speaking, specificity is key. If you’re talking about a person, try to think about them as specifically and individually as possible. If you’re describing them with a trait or characteristic, think about examples of how they embody that trait. Brainstorming a word map (or using clustering, like in the page on “Narrowing Your Topic”) can be a useful way to get started.

Tamara will be giving a wedding toast to her sister, Lisa, and her sister’s new wife, Jo.  She thinks, “What do I want to say? I want to tell them how much they mean to me and how much I admire them.” First, Tamara writes, “You’re both such incredible people and you mean the world to me.” Then she pauses. “What does incredible mean, anyway? You could call a vacuum cleaner incredible. Not to mention the Hulk.” After writing down a few more adjectives (“Amazing? Nope, Spider Man. “Fantastic? Nope, Fantastic Four. Are there any adjectives without superheroes attached?”), she decides that she needs to be more systematic. So she divides a piece of paper into two columns and writes “Lisa” in one column and “Jo” in the other. She starts brainstorming words that she associates with each of the brides-to-be. Some qualities they share include “kind, generous, funny.” Others are quite different. This gives her an idea for structure. She starts writing notes like crazy. At the wedding dinner, Tamara gives her speech:
A woman with a microphone giving a toast

“In some ways they’re so different: Jo loves to hike and sleep outdoors, Lisa won’t accept a thread count under 300. Jo’s always up on the latest music, and Lisa? Well, let’s just say that if it were possible to wear out MP3s, Lisa would have destroyed ’90s Party Mix by now. Even though they’re so different, the qualities they share are some of the greatest qualities people can have. They’re both kind, and thoughtful, and funny—by the way, if you haven’t heard it yet, make sure you get Jo to tell you the 7/11 story sometime. Just don’t take a drink right before she tells it, or you’ll snort soda all over everyone like I did! They’re both generous with their time—like when Lisa spent two hours on the phone talking me through making a pie step by painful step. And they’re generous with their couch, which I always appreciate.

Now some of you may not know this, but I can be generous with my stuff, too. Did you know that Lisa was borrowing my pants the night she met Jo? It was this pair of heavy wool slacks—I still have them—super hot, super itchy. And this was in August. Now imagine the scene. Jo’s at a party—a friend of a friend, she doesn’t really know anyone. And Jo’s like, “I think I’ll go talk to that sweaty, uncomfortable-looking woman in the corner who keeps scratching her thighs.” Now Jo might tell you she picked Lisa for her quick wit or her great hair, but I know it was because of my lucky pants. And someday I hope that I’ll put on these itchy, hot, uncomfortable, lucky pants and meet someone who looks at me the way Jo looks at Lisa, or the way Lisa looks at Jo. So now let’s all look at this happy couple with love in our eyes and raise our glasses.”

Lisa and Jo loved the toast, and the audience seemed to like it too. Tamara’s wedding toast was successful because she took the time to find specific, concrete language to describe the couple. And this, in turn, helped her find the organizing structure for her toast.

Elevated Language

In some occasion speeches, especially more formal ones, you may want to use more elevated language. One of the best ways to elevate your language is through the thoughtful use of rhetorical devices.

The following examples of elevating language for occasion speeches are drawn from two speeches by Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona: his announcement of retirement, delivered October 24, 2017, and his farewell address to Congress, delivered December 13, 2018.

  • Imagery: Draws your audience in by using strong words to create pictures in their minds.
    • Example: “Through eighteen years in Washington, our kids grew up thinking it was normal to have their faces plastered on campaign signs along the roadside when election time rolled around. . . . They spent summers in Washington catching fireflies and voting with their dad on the House floor.”[1]
  • Simile: usually using “like” or “as” to draw a comparison between things and adding an element of freshness to bring the words alive such that they make a bigger impact.
    • Example: “It might seem that all of this has lately been tossed around like pieces on a board.”[2]
  • Metaphor: Like a simile, this is a comparison between two different things, but it is implied. The words “like” or “as” are not used.
    • Example: “Cheryl is the rock on which our family is built.” “Eastern Europe was squinting out into the light of liberation for the first time in forty years.”[3]
  • Repetition: The device of repetition acts as verbal underlining. Repetition of a word or phrase or a sound (or silence) makes the listener take notice. Repetition ties together a point and each additional repetition tightens the knot. Repetition is memorable. Repetition makes the point stick.
    • Example: “We must respect each other again in an atmosphere of shared facts and shared values, comity and good faith. We must argue our positions fervently, and never be afraid to compromise. We must assume the best of our fellow man and always look for the good. Until that days comes, we must be unafraid to stand up and speak out as if our country depends on it. Because it does.”[4]
    • Anaphora: Repeating the same sequence of words at the start of several clauses or sentences. The “I have a dream” passage of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech, in which the phrase “I have a dream” is repeated at the beginning of five consecutive sentences, is one of the most famous cases of anaphora.
      • Example: “It must also be said that I rise today with no small measure of regret. Regret, because of the state of our disunion, regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics, regret because of the indecency of our discourse, regret because of the coarseness of our leadership, regret for the compromise of our moral authority, and by our—all of our—complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs.”[5]
    • Alliteration: Another form of rhythmic repetition is alliteration. It is usually the repeating of a first consonant in a group of words.
      • Example: “The reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons.” “Humility helps. Character counts.” [6]
    • Antimetabole: An antimetabole, related to a figure called chiasmus, repeats a clause with the word order reversed in the second version. Most famously: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” or “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
      • Example: “We were not made great as a country by [. . .] calling fake things true and true things fake.”[7]
  • Quotation: Especially when introducing or concluding a speech, a quotation can add weight to the words being said and the event itself. If the quote is from a literary text or a more formal style of speech, it can be a way to elevate the language of your speech even further. In the example below, Flake quotes Lincoln’s first inaugural speech. Although a contemporary speaker probably wouldn’t write a phrase like “the mystic chords of memory,” this quote allows Flake’s language to expand toward the conclusion of the speech, ending on a point of maximum elevation.
    • Example: “I thank my colleagues for indulging me here today, and will close by borrowing the words of President Lincoln, who knew more about healing enmity and preserving our founding values than any other American who has ever lived. His words from his first inaugural were a prayer in his time, and are no less so in ours: ‘We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.'”[8]

to watch: Jeff Flake, Announcement of Retirement

In this speech, delivered Oct 24, 2017, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake announces that he will not run for reelection. He uses the occasion to make a powerful statement about the divisiveness and rancor in U.S. politics at the time.

You can view the transcript for “Sen. Jeff Flake announces retirement with fiery speech” here (opens in new window).


If you need some help with creating your speech for a specific event, ask a friend or colleague who is familiar with or attending the occasion to work with you. Talk with them about your ideas, pose questions, and practice speaking with language that speaks to your audience and makes you, your speech, and the event sparkle.

  1. Flake, Jeff. "Farewell Address to Congress," 13 Dec 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/13/politics/jeff-flake-farewell-address/index.html
  2. "Farewell Address to Congress."
  3. "Farewell Address to Congress."
  4. Flake, Jeff. "Announcement of Retirement". 24 Oct 2017. https://www.cnn.com/2017/10/24/politics/jeff-flake-retirement-speech-full-text/index.html
  5. Flake, Jeff. "Announcement of Retirement." This use of anaphora was also pointed out in Gallo, Carmine. "Senator Jeff Flake Used These 6 Public-Speaking Tools to Build His Headline-Grabbing Speech." Inc. 26 Oct 2016. https://www.inc.com/carmine-gallo/6-reasons-senator-jeff-flakes-big-speech-is-so-memorable-shareable.html.
  6. Flake, Jeff. "Announcement of Retirement"
  7. Flake, Jeff. "Announcement of Retirement"
  8. Flake, Jeff. "Announcement of Retirement"