Keeping in with the in-breath

Charles 5 Comments


Caroline Goyder, above, voice coach to the stars and lesser luminaries, asked us to call to mind the person we love most. Did you notice, she asked after we’d done it, that you marked their arrival in your mind with a little in-breath? 

Did you?

When you’re speaking in public, she says, you need to preface each new thought or idea or piece of information with an in-breath. It lends spontaneity, freshness and emphasis to what you’re saying. It converts the cut and dried on your page into living, just-arrived words. It transforms a reading-aloud exercise into public speaking. 

We were then put through an exercise. We recited Churchill’s Fight on the Beaches speech: “We shall fight on the beaches (in-breath) we shall fight on the landing grounds (in-breath) we shall fight in the fields and in the streets (in-breath) we shall fight in the hills (longer in-breath) we shall never surrender. 

It’s a brilliant tip. Celebrants, do try it. It’s likely to slow you up, of course. The trade-off is that it will enable you to add meaning and impact to your ceremonies.

Caroline’s tip set me wondering about the most appropriate word count for a funeral service. A hundred words a minute is normally reckoned a good ballpark delivery speed but, given the diminished mental and emotional processing power of most funeral audiences, a more appropriate delivery speed probably lies nearer seventy words a minute. 

The occasion was the UK Speechwriters’ Guild annual convention last Friday organised by our good friend Brian Jenner, the genius behind the Joy of Death convention. I met all sorts of very nice and interesting people from the UN and the EU, and addressed them at speeds approaching a thousand miles an hour about eulogy writing. 

Two closing observations. First, judging by the speechwriters present, you’d never ask a speechwriter to deliver a speech. What celebrants do — write and perform — is rare. How many actors write their own plays? 

Second, the celebrancy orgs would do well to develop ties with speechwriters, and individual celebrants ought to consider joining the UK Speechwriters’ Guild. 

Did I say two? I’ve just remembered a third. Caroline Goyder has written a book, The Star Qualities. I’ve ordered a copy. You might like to, too. 

Caroline Goyder’s website here.

UK Speechwriters’ Guild here




  1. Charles

    What a remarkably helpful, practical post for us celebrants – many thanks. I’m just wondering where on the lectern to put the stopwatch next time….guess I’ll just have to time the dress rehearsal instead – which is, naturally, a little quicker than the real thing.

    Poets read the stuff they’ve written, of course – some wonderfully well, some pretty badly. Helen Dunmore reading the title poem from her collection “The Mallarkey” brought the kitchen at Mundi Mansions to a complete standstill and caused some gulping etc..

    Having written something doesn’t make you the benchmark for reading it, performance is all! (or “presentation,” or “speaking aloud,” if “performance” jars.)

  2. Charles

    One of the delights of celebrancy is, I find, the opportunity it affords to write in and for my own voice, knowing it’ll be me who reads it out (or possibly ‘I who shall read it out’ – Kathryn, Charles, rescue me please!).

    I can’t say I go too much with Caroline on the in-breath thing here, mind you; it seems too simple and too prescriptive, after I’ve edited and re-edited something, moved a comma along to accomodate two semi-colons and a full stop elsewhere, so as to be able to lift my voice in the right place in a sentence to make it obvious that I’m aware of what that characteristic or quality I’m illustrating must have felt like to those who witnessed it. It enables me to change pace, or laugh, or smile, or be very quiet, or pause, or wait, or invite, in a way that a simple technique could not do.

    Do other celebrants do this? I imagine some do, some don’t, but it’s worth a try – I remember the first time I risked it, very early on, and I haven’t found a better way since. I once had to read out another celebrant’s script and it took hours to edit it so I could speak it with conviction.

    1. Charles

      ‘knowing I’ll be the one . . .’ might be the formal mode.
      But the demotic, amongst friends, is the relaxed way to communicate!

      1. Charles

        Thanks, Kathryn – I wish someone at school had pointed out to me that science would become boring and language would fascinate me for the rest of my days!

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