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By Paul Carroll, Toastmasters International 

End of year meeting, staff event, awards ceremony, client presentation means speeches and talks, some long, some short. If you’re the manager or business owner, or perhaps you’re receiving an award for your work – you may well be called upon to say a few words.

You may know in advance that you’ll be speaking – in which case you’ll have time to prepare but it is worth preparing to say a few words even if you might not be called upon. That way you have your thoughts and reflections on the year in a handy well-organised form.

Reaching your audience’s emotions is necessary because it produces results. Martin Luther King, after all, did not have a spreadsheet. He had a dream of justice for all.

In public speaking analysis, this is “pathos”. Logos is the logical element, reasoning with evidence to come to a rational conclusion. Ethos is establishing your character: your authority, based on education, training or professional qualification. And pathos is the part that appeals to and connects with the emotions. 

Let’s first dispel a myth about this idea.  Pathos has pejorative connotations because something “pathetic” is often seen as contemptible. On the contrary, it’s from the Greek for “experience” and found in English words like sym-path-y (sym “with”) and em-path-y. (em “in”). Sympathy and empathy are what you’re trying to evoke when making an appeal to emotions. Fellow feeling and understanding based on trying to see someone else’s perspective are how we reach the heart.


In any speech for an occasion, your easy prep guide is:

  • Your association with the event (setting the tone of the occasion and why you’re speaking in the first place)
  • Three points on the importance (or specialness) of the occasion.
    The first point may be serious or reflective, but at least the last one should be a humorous or light-hearted anecdote
  • Finish with a toast which summarises the event.


Experience can be a valuable teacher (especially bad experiences or mistakes) but it can also help people to bond as a group. Shared experience is the basis of bonding. Again, this can be a serious thing (those who stormed the beaches together on D Day, or who escaped from the Twin Towers on 9/11 when many friends didn’t) but it can also be non-serious.   I mention this because one of the oft-overlooked aspects of pathos is humour. 

If you’re called upon to say a few words at the office Christmas Party, it’s not the time for the heavy experiences which appeal to emotions. Nor is it the time for I-climbed-the-metaphorical-mountain inspiration.  As in the outline above, you can remind your audience of a metaphorical-mountain you all climbed together this year, but I recommend getting right back to the fun stuff.

While this is not limited to the festive season, it’s particularly relevant now.  

Consider why a company even has a Christmas party or a leaving do for a retiring colleague or someone taking maternity leave. It’s not something the business sells to customers. It’s not a profit centre. It’s a cost. If they want to lavish on you, they could add it to a year-end bonus and let you spend it on yourself. Why would your department have a celebratory dinner after you’ve completed a big deal? Again, the cost of that could be put into your pay.

But that would not achieve what a group celebration achieves: bonding of the group. When you make an appeal to your audience’s emotions through speaking about a common experience (sympathy or empathy) then you bring everyone together.


Of course, what’s funny to a group who experienced it might not seem so rib-tickling to anyone outside the group, which is why examples of this kind of thing normally don’t seem funny–but rather nerdy–to outsiders. There’s a saying people sometime use when a funny line fails to draw laughter: “You had to be there”. This may be cliché, but for speakers reaching out to an audience it’s very true.

You can test my theory with this experiment. Tell a group of friends from outside your workplace the funniest incident you can recall happening at work. Or, tell a group of (non-fishing) colleagues something hilarious that happened on the expedition with your fishing buddies. The lack of common experience will mean they won’t see the humour, even though it’s obvious to you.


When I worked for a bank, I went to the retirement dinner of a colleague from a counterpart bank. The chap who gave the prepared talk was warm, funny, and gave us a good reminder of Jack’s cool calm during a 1987 financial crisis.  After that, several of us were asked to say a few extemporaneous words.


After the others, I related a story of going along with Jack on a charity golf outing which his bank had sponsored.  As we were setting off in the motor-carts, a steward came running from the clubhouse to say that they had a problem with Jack’s car, which they wanted to move, and they’d misplaced the set of keys he’d given them. 


“Call Avis!” he cried, puttering off.   Now, if you didn’t know the way Jack concentrated his attention on his clients then this story wouldn’t be funny at all. But it brought the house down, both among the dozen people who’d been at the golf club and with the hundred or so more who hadn’t been there but who knew Jack.


I gave an all-day seminar for a financial firm on a dry financial topic. Near the end, the Managing Director came in to invite all of us to the pub next door. “There’s money behind the bar” he said, and off we stampeded.  

He did this not only because it had been an intense workshop and we needed to relax, but because some co-workers were in from Bournemouth and Edinburgh for it. As I bounced from group-to-group in the pub, I heard them swapping stories about how problems with collateralization arose and how they were dealt with.
Some were serious but with humorous elements about how people had dealt with flare-ups and crises. There was laughter, but also knowing nods. That’s where the human experience—the pathos—makes something worthy of re-telling. They were bonding over these shared experiences. Since I was not an employee of that firm, I hadn’t experienced any of those particular events. Yet I had done that job and so sympathised with them all. I even shared a couple of my own crisis anecdotes.


It may sound strange, but if you’re going to a company event (particularly a year-end party) it’s a good time to prepare what to say whether or not you’re not called upon to speak.  You might just offer a toast of your own to a half dozen people around you.

You can prepare to speak impromptu! Reflect on events and try to recall something outstanding. Remember, you can bring your own point of view. If someone else mentions the same event as you do, you can talk about it from your perspective. How did the people closest to you work through it? Your audience will then share in a broader, richer accounting.


Think of this analogy to a TV drama. Shows about doctors, lawyers, police etc. don’t show the humdrum and routine elements of the job. Was there ever an entire episode of Suits where a paralegal sat at a table covered in documents and looked through them trying to find important points? For the hour?  

No, you see a few moments of the paralegal with the papers (and a clock on the wall) to establish it’s been a long time and then the “Aha! Got it!” moment.


There’s nothing wrong with this. My point is that you must use a bit of shorthand and cut events down to a few elements which establish the context, followed by the interesting part you want to remind your audience about.
When  you’re reminding colleagues of that time leaflets had been printed to send to clients about “market volitility ” and strategies for dealing  with it, and an intern (with English as a third language) pointed out that “volatility” is misspelled (on the front cover no less),  what parts do you add and which ones do you leave out? 

I thought it was funny (later, much later) that nobody had read the front cover and that the intern (who normally didn’t speak up) pointed it out.  Correcting a spelling error “in his third language” was the icing on the cake whenever I retold this story.


Particularly when the occasion is celebratory, feelings matter more than data analysis. You can hold your audience together and bring them with you by reaching, however briefly, their hearts. By using the humour and stories about shared experience—pathos—then for the duration of your “few words” your audience is one tribe.


Paul Carroll is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit