The recent passing of Muhammad Ali, a bigger than life figure who touched people all over the world, has generated a waterfall of media coverage – television specials, magazine covers and online tributes alike. But for poignancy and a story told with compassion, humor and perspective, I was especially moved by Billy Crystal’s eulogy at the Muhammad Ali Memorial service in Louisville last week. As a presentation coach and trainer, I was equally impressed by Mr. Crystal’s delivery skills, and how they apply to important speeches.

  1. Humor. Yes, he’s Billy Crystal and he’s made a career out of making people laugh. But as with all critical speeches or presentations, you’re not going for guffaws so much as striking that chord in the audience that brings brings a light counter note to your message. Mr. Crystal’s line about Ali:  “He was funny, he was beautiful, he was the most perfect athlete you ever saw, and those were his own words”. Bingo. Great balance.
  2. Improvisation. As you would imagine, there were a number of speakers at the Ali memorial service, and so many speeches can be wearing on the audience both mentally and physically. As Crystal took the dais as one of the final speakers, he opened his segment with an impromptu remark “Well folks we’re at the halfway mark” with a bearded Crystal adding “I was clean shaven at the beginning of all this”. Laughter. A nice way to give the audience a break from the emotion of the event, and most important, let them know the speaker understands the dynamics around them and is being empathetic.
  3. Metaphors. Crystal’s use of the Lightning Bolt metaphor for how Ali’s life created an impact on so many, was a powerful and perfectly chosen image. “He was a tremendous bolt of lightning, created by Mother Nature out of thin air. A fantastic combination of power and beauty.” Metaphors, similes really help the audience “see” an image in a way they may not have before, and that image creation helps your audience enjoy the message on deeper level.
  4. Finish strong. Your crescendo needs to bring your audience to a place where they will remember your story (or your key points). Crystal’s wrap up nails it:

“My friends, only once in a thousand years or so do we get to hear a Mozart, see a Picasso, read a Shakespeare. Ali was one of them, and yet, at his heart, he was still a kid from Louisville who ran with the gods and walked with the crippled and smiled at the foolishness of it all. He is gone, but he will never die. He was my big brother.”

Please enjoy the entire Billy Crystal eulogy video: