In this column, professional speechwriter Chandler Dean provides partly satirical, partly genuine “How To” advice focused on a hyper-specific subcategory of speeches—from graduation speeches to wedding toasts to eulogies, and all the rhetorical occasions in between.
So it’s happy hour, and your beloved colleague is taking their leave after many years of service to the company. You’ve been tasked with capturing exactly what they mean to you, your team, and anyone who doesn’t really know them that well but showed up because the bill is coming out of your department’s discretionary budget.
So remember the fundamental tenets of the collegial farewell toast:
Keep it short.
This is a good rule for pretty much any public speaking opportunity, but it’s especially true for a relatively informal event like this, in which the moment you get up and start talking, most people will be thinking, “Oh, are we doing speeches?” as opposed to something like, “It’s good that this is happening.” Aim for two minutes, time yourself beforehand, and then, no matter how long it takes, go ahead and cut half of it. No one has ever left a farewell happy hour—or any occasion of any kind—and thought, “I wish the speeches were much, much longer.” That said…
Do not announce at the top that you’re gonna keep it short.
You are setting yourself up to fail miserably at the expectations game. You have no idea what “short” means to everyone else in the room. If you’re aiming to delight and surprise, delight your audience by getting straight to the point, and surprise them by stopping after you’ve made it. If anything, flip the script—you’ll be much better off if you can drop subtle hints that you’re aiming to outlast William Henry Harrison’s inaugural address.
Tell a quick story that captures one of your colleague’s defining traits.
You do not have time to summarize every aspect of this person’s humanity—or, in fact, even two aspects. Just pick one idea and make that the thesis. And if you can, try to come up with something that actually distinguishes them from everybody else in the room. If you end up focusing the whole speech on how they work hard, or show up every day, or how their autonomic nervous system is functioning 24-7 with no breaks, you will come off as less thoughtful than if you hadn’t given a speech at all. Ooh, there’s an idea:
Maybe don’t give a speech at all!
Who said you had to do this? But anyway, if you must…
Talk about actual work stuff as little as possible.
If you get stuck in the weeds of that one time that Caitlin found a bug in the intranet and saved the team two months of headaches, you’re missing the point. You’re really not saying goodbye to the employee, per se. Someone else will come in to complete the tasks they’ve been completing. You’re saying goodbye to the human being. So think of this speech as if you’re microdosing your coworker’s funeral. Speak to their humanity, their energy, their character—the role they played in your life, not the role they list on their LinkedIn. (And you can steal that “X, not Y” sentence structure if you want. It’s a banger, not a flop.)
Some well-placed references to your workplace’s wacky lore can go a long way.
Normally, I would discourage incorporating inside jokes into any kind of public remarks; they’re cheap, and a great speech should provide enough context that even a complete stranger can be moved by it. But in this case, you’re playing to a group of people that have shared an incredibly esoteric experience—forty hours a week—perhaps for years. So knock yourself out. Refer ominously to the 2019 company retreat. Joke about the infamous “yogurt investigation” from that one staff lunch. They’ll eat it up. Like somebody did with the yogurt.
Flatter your honoree by claiming you don’t know how the company will go on without them, unless it’s actually true.
This type of line is a bit cliché, but some sentimental hyperbole is totally called for in a situation like this. Go ahead and make a joke about how the whole enterprise is gonna fall apart by Monday. But the catch is that this will not play as well if your organization has slowly been getting whittled away by the venture capital firm that bought it a few years ago, and your departing coworker was one of the last remaining vestiges from the glory days. If that’s the case, maybe index a little more on that good ol’ wacky workplace lore!
Never say out loud exactly what their next job is.
You’re gonna wanna call it their “next chapter” or “next adventure.” Naming a specific company or new job title will only remind your remaining coworkers that nothing is stopping them from also having dreams. You can claim you “can’t wait to see what they do next,” as long as you don’t make it easy for everyone else to google open positions at whatever they’re doing next.
Save the purely earnest sentence where you actually try to express what they mean to you for like the second-to-last paragraph.
You can’t reveal a heartfelt truth too early, or you will look sad for the rest of the speech. But skip the heartfelt truth altogether and you will miss a rare opportunity to hear people go “awwww!” So slip it in right toward the end and then get outta there like you’re fleeing the scene of an emotional crime.
When in doubt, close with “So let’s raise a glass…”
If you ignore all the preceding advice and try to just wing it on the day, at least remember to do this. No matter how poorly structured your speech has been up to this point, starting your final sentence with these five words will make it seem like you’ve been completely on the rails this whole time.
Let’s see what it looks like when we put all of these ideas into practice. Presenting:
A Toast to You, the Reader, Who is About to Leave This Web Page After Several Minutes
Buckle up, folks. We’re about to party like it’s Thursday, March 4, 1841.
When I first met you, the reader of this piece, several minutes ago, I was immediately struck by one thing in particular: your commitment. We’ve all met readers who just skim through a piece or click around to other tabs when they get bored, but not you. When I see the IP address [INSERT PHP CODE HERE THAT DISPLAYS THE READER’S IP ADDRESS], I think, “They’re reading most, if not all, of this web page’s words.”
But commitment isn’t just what you do. It’s who you are.
You’re committed to the people who you love. The friends with whom you laugh. And yes, the web pages from which you learn.
Soon, you will no longer be on this web page. And honestly, given the state of digital media, we might have to shut down this entire website as soon as you go. (Ha ha, just kidding! But seriously, go ahead and sign up for our Patreon on the way out.)
We can only speculate about what lies on the horizon in the next chapter—yet to be written—of your adventure-quest of a life. Other web pages? I couldn’t say.
But what I can say is this: It seriously touches me that you would read this column start to finish. Sometimes I wonder, as I pump out piece after piece, if anything I say is meaningful to anyone other than myself. So even though you’ll be moving on to another web page soon—as you should, you’ve earned it—it means more than I can say that you would stop by this one, even for a few minutes.
So, let’s raise a glass… to the reader. Come back and visit anytime. We need the page views.