Public speaking: some people shine in the spotlight, some people don’t mind it and will speak when asked, while others dread it and avoid it at all costs. Whatever the feelings toward speaking, there will usually come a time in someone’s life where they are asked to speak on behalf of a close friend or family member, whether at their own simcha or at another’s.
Rabbi Ari Sytner has a broad background of public speaking experience. As a pulpit rabbi in the past, currently the director of leadership and community development for Yeshiva University, a communication consultant and author of a book about his journey as a kidney donor, Rabbi Sytner speaks before all different types of audiences. Traveling to shuls and communities all around the country, Rabbi Sytner has built up a reputation as an inspirational and captivating speaker. The Jewish Link approached him to share his knowledge with The Simcha Link, and offer 10 tips for how readers can deliver their best dvar Torah at any event.
- Show respect for your audience by preparing your remarks, crafting what you want to say and how you wish to say it. A speaker should never get up and “wing it,” said Rabbi Sytner. If Rav Soloveitchik, zt”l, was known for delivering every presentation with copious notes, it would behoove us to consider doing the same. “Yet, whenever one is using notes, practice it repeatedly and aim to deliver it by heart, rather than reading it verbatim.”
- Have a clear plan for opening and launching the dvar Torah. The last thing someone wants to hear is a speaker ramble for 10 minutes of welcomes and introductions, followed by, “Now I’d like to begin.” A good opening should be strong, engaging and serve as the hook to keep their attention.
- “It’s important to remember that speaking at a simcha is not a roast,” Rabbi Sytner said, explaining that people often feel uncomfortable speaking publicly and try to compensate for their discomfort with comic relief. “A simcha has been generations in the works and represents the culmination of many dreams and prayers,” he added. “The simcha is about celebrating the good, and if you just make fun of the people involved, you risk embarrassing the family and detracting from the simcha instead of focusing on the milestone,” he added, recounting instances he saw where families were devastated by the humiliating stories told by a speaker who was trying to be funny but did not consider the consequences.
- “Build your speech around a Torah value or idea, and use that as a central thought to build upon,” advised Rabbi Sytner. He reminded readers that this is not the venue with which to impress guests with your scholarly accomplishments (“Please don’t hand out source sheets for a dvar Torah,” he added). A strong dvar Torah generally presents a brief premise, which is then questioned, followed by an insightful answer with a relevant message. He recommends honing in on one clear idea—sometimes as simple as referencing a figure from the Torah or the parsha, and turn that into a personal connection to the family making the simcha.
- “This is a powerful opportunity to highlight qualities of the ba’alei hasimcha,” said Rabbi Sytner. Share a personal memory, or a special quality or a story that has meant something to you as the speaker. Sytner said it could mean so much to hear someone say, “You may not even remember this, but I will never forget how you…,” and proceed with a meaningful and personal vignette. He added further that people may not remember the dvar Torah as much as the story and the effort, so put effort into the personal component.
- “Don’t paint the bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl as the Mashiach,” advised Rabbi Sytner. While delivering the dvar Torah means focusing on the wonderful accomplishments of an individual or a family, it is also important not to go overboard and exaggerate to the point where guests will start questioning if they are attending the right simcha.
- “Acknowledge and look to the past. We need to realize we are not here because of us alone, but rather because of those who came before us,” said Rabbi Sytner. Try to draw on intergenerational connections as an important link in every stage of life, and how parents, grandparents and previous generations play an integral role in the simchas and milestones a family celebrates.
- Don’t be afraid to express hakarat hatov. “If there is something you are grateful for—share it, and allow the tender feelings to enhance the emotions of the event,” said Rabbi Sytner.
- Know your audience. “Don’t assume everyone knows Hebrew phrases, even the supposedly obvious ones,” reminded Rabbi Sytner. Interweaving Hebrew words and translations in a seamless way will allow everyone to understand and feel included.
- When wrapping up the dvar Torah, Rabbi Sytner likens speaking to flying. He advised, “Know how and where to land the plane. Don’t talk in circles, going around and around looking to hit the perfect ending. Know the end and know how to close—your audience will thank you.”
These helpful hints will add to the experience for everyone listening to the dvar Torah, and help add to the sentiment of the event.
By Jenny Gans