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Two speeches and a funeral

Eddie Phillips | 01.06.2002

By Eddie Phillips

Councillor Edward Phillips officially opening the St Ninian's High School Extension in East Refrewshire.In the winter/spring 2002 Speaking Out I thought the article on Gareth Gates and his comment "don't ever let anything stand in the way of your dreams" made a fundamental point. On the next page was the story on Howard Yaffe playing the lead in a theatre production, pushing back his comfort zone. Bravo to both of them. That's the way to do it. Faced with some real challenges myself, this is how I did it.

In March I had three remarkable days for different reasons. All were tense and all involved speaking to an audience. The first was to do the eulogy at my father-in law's funeral. He died suddenly and his son asked me to do it. I can hardly remember an occasion when I was so concerned at doing the job in hand and being fluent doing it. His two sons, their wives and my wife all threw together stories from his past which I wrote down and organised into a speech. On the day of the funeral there were well over a hundred of his relatives and friends there. My wife did a Burns poem, then it was my turn. I saw a sea of faces, some I knew, others not. I took a breath and began. This bitter-sweet eight minutes in which I had to sum up a human life by all accounts did justice to the man, not because I said so, but because others thanked me for my words. It was the hardest speech of my life and it was totally fluent.

Three days later as vice convenor of education for East Renfrewshire Council I was to open a £12 million school extension. Not having time to write my own speech I got someone from the Council education department to cobble up some points which I put into a speech form.

I thought it to be somewhat humourless. On the day I sat next to the Provost (equivalent of Mayor in England) with an audience of 100, with parents, teachers and other invited guests. The school band had just finished its medley including the theme from James Bond. Eureka! I now had my joke. Should I use it? I finally decided to go with my gut. So as the Provost introduced me to give the speech and open the extension, I said: "The school orchestra has just played a medley, Gershwin, Vivaldi, and John Barry's theme from 007. When they were doing it I could imagine Sean Connery saying 'The name's McVittie...James McVittie!'" (The School Head Teacher bespectacled, 4 foot 10 inches tall - hardly secret agent material). They all got the joke and spontaneous laughter broke out. The rest of the speech went as well as the start. There is nothing like humour to relax yourself and the audience. At the end I had to pull the chord to reveal the plaque. There it was and they'd even spelt my name right. At the end a number of people came up to me to say how much they had enjoyed the evening, and that included Mr McVittie.

Finally three days further on I was to do a valedictory speech for our (female) director of education who was retiring. This was at Glasgow's Hilton Hotel with an invited guest list of over 50 people which included primary and secondary head teachers, senior academics and others. What could I say? I thought that the 007 theme had gone down so well at the school opening that I would continue to use a part of my speech. The director of education became 'Pussy Galore' our finance director 'Goldfinger', and council leader 'Odd Job', with the famous scene of James (McVittie) Bond being tied down and a laser beam cutting the steel plate he was on. The laughter was so loud I found it hard to get serious towards the end when I was trying to say nice things about her. Again people told me how much they enjoyed the night.

Is there a moral here? Only what Gareth said about going for your dream and Howard expanding his comfort zone. In the space of a week I did three things for the first time. Appreciably one of them I would have preferred not to do or have had to do. That said, the sense of satisfaction at a job done well was enormous in each case. For that to work for me, there are three things that are important: self-confidence, conviction in what you are to say and most important by far - preparation. Gareth and Howard, is this the case with you?

From the Summer 2002 edition of Speaking Out