A difference of taste in jokes is a great strain on the affections.
—George Eliot (pseudonym of Marian Evans Cross)
To joke or not to joke becomes the question for an after-dinner speech. Because your mission is to entertain rather than educate, jokes do have a place, but stories with surprise endings are safer. Search for a personal anecdote or colorful metaphor, out of which springs an unexpected, unanticipated perspective. Make it personal so you can laugh at yourself, not others
The downfall for most after-dinner speakers is to tell a joke to get the attention, then spend the next 20 minutes making a point no one cares about. You can have substance without style, but you cannot have style without substance. President Clinton tried to memorialize the close of the 20th century in his second Inaugural Address with flowery phrases that said nothing. It is what I call a "Laundry List" speech. He said:
Along the way, America produced the great middle class and security in old age, built unrivaled centers of learning and opened public schools to all, split the atom and explored the heavens, invented the computer and the microchip, and deepened the wellsprings of justice by making a revolution in civil rights for Africa-Americans and all minorities and extending the circle of citizenship, opportunity and dignity to women.
All true, but so what? There was no point. And it never got any better. Don't try to be profound without a point because you end up pontificating about nothing. Thereby wasting everyone's time and this moment in history, which will never come again.
Make your speech a metaphor or personal anecdote. Give it a middle, a surprise, and a laugh. The best after-dinner speech is a three-act play. Act I: Set up, Act II: Unexpected turn of events that produces a conflict, Act III: The climax, then, the resolution of the conflict. Problem solution, stumbling blocks along the way. Both Bull Durham and Field of Dreams are about going back, unexpressed love, father to son, and missed opportunities. Playing baseball is not the story. Life is the story told as a baseball game.
Start with a personal, real-life story that taught a lesson or personified some truth. Make yourself the butt of the joke, never the hero or heroine.
Having one or several core speeches that can be customized to the audience means that you don't have to reinvent the wheel or start from scratch each time. You know a speech better after you have given it, you learn what points, jokes, and stories work with an audience and which don't. Hindsight, after all, is 20/20. But customize your past remarks by reading up on the event, and the company, and satirize the biggest names and most important people they have. I often critique the ties of the men who introduce me. I tell them I'm going to do it, so they dress accordingly.
If you do choose to write your speech out as a security blanket, write for the ear, not the eye. Remember that your audience is, hopefully, listening — not reading.
Remember that the spoken word must be simpler and much easier to comprehend than the written word, which can be taken at the reader's own pace and reviewed until understood. The spoken word flies by and is gone, forever. So you must slow down your spoken message and keep it simple, letting it sink in.
Read your words out loud, first for yourself, then to a candid but compassionate friend or friends to see how well you can say them. If your words confuse, you have trouble saying them, or you run out of breath, write them in shorter, more simple sentences. Peggy Noonan, Good Housekeeping contributor and speechwriter for former presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, writes in her book Simply Speaking, "where you falter, alter."
Winston Churchill used dashes to break up his sentences and indicate where he should take breaths. My clients are also encouraged to use big type down the center of the page, much like a TelePrompTer. "Underline for emphasis," I tell them, use a single slash for a short pause, a double slash for a long one, put in a stick figure where you want to gesture, and a smiley face where you want to smile.
Even though every industry has it's own jargon, it's important to spell out acronyms after using them, just to make sure that everyone in the audience is on your page.
This is particularly helpful, even with technical audiences, where the same acronym may have two different meanings and context does not always clarify it. For example, IP can mean both intellectual property and Internet protocol.
Jokes are very risky unless you are a member of the group you are poking fun at and you have a joke they've never heard or want to hear every time. Comedians such as Shelly Berman and George Carlin, Dane Cook and John Stewart, Billy Crystal and Mort Saul are like watching Casablanca: layered, textured, dynamic.
When preparing your message, avoid the temptation to gather more and more facts. You probably already know 100 times more than your audience knows or wants to know on your subject. Spend your time taking an interest in audience members and really exploring what they could gain from you. Narrow the focus of your message so they will go home with one easy-to-remember point supported by three easy-to-follow sub-points. The geniuses I've known have always made things so simple and easy to understand that they made me feel smart too! Not bad for a night's work.
It is death to start a speech with, "Tonight, I'm going to talk to you about...." Instead, build rapport from the introduction or circumstance, followed by an attention-getting story and a provocative but appropriate moral, statement, or question as the main point. Now, mention who the audience is on this occasion: members, contributors, volunteers, and employees, and why this point will be important to them. Now, add your credentials as an expert in bringing this message to them and preview each of three sub-points, detail each, review them all and wrap it up with the point again, stated somewhat more profoundly.
Probably the most often-asked question of speech coaches is: What should I do with my hands?
One thing not to do is jiggle the change in your pocket. Watch sports coaches on the sidelines of important games: Are they wondering about body language and what to do with their hands? Basically, their hands and faces and bodies are doing whatever it takes to get the point across.
Avoid hanging on to the podium. Stand with your feet about 18 inches apart, depending on your height, and one slightly ahead of the other. Sink into one hip to look more natural.
A well-deserved sense of self-confidence comes from being more conscious of the gift you have to share than in being overly conscious of your self. How do you stand when you sincerely want to convince someone? Chances are you don't rock back and forth to the tune of your own sing-song voice.
There was a television commercial once that memorialized the line "You can't fool Mother Nature." You can't fool all of the audience all of the time, either. Listeners know how you feel about what you say from the sound of your voice.
If your inflection goes up at the end of a sentence, you're questioning yourself. When we make a statement we believe in, our voices drop at the end, leaving no question that we believe in what we are saying. So, say what you believe and believe what you say, and your voice will reflect it.
Really don't know what you have to offer? Hire someone to help you. The yellow pages have speechwriters and so does the Internet. There's no shame in getting some perspective. I've often said, for professional results, go to professionals. Like any good counselor, they can help you talk out your stumbling blocks and coach you.
And there's no shame in saying no to a speaking engagement or keynote that you would rather not do. "Just say no" before anyone is counting on you, because you can be sure that if you don't like the audience, they won't like you.
Being memorable means that someone in the audience was touched by an idea, an inspiration, a memory, a smile. As a speaker, you have a mandate to convince, persuade, inspire, and cajole. Go for it.
You can probably do anything for 20 minutes, including give a speech. As Ms. Noonan reminds us, President Reagan always said that no speech should be longer than that. He used the logic that if a few minutes were long enough for the Gettysburg Address and the Sermon on the Mount, it is long enough for any audience.
The Democrats were not always as succinct. Even President Clinton's early supporters bemoaned how much he seemed to love the sound of his own voice in his speech in which he nominated Michael Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. And as one-time presidential hopeful
Hubert Humphrey was reminded by his wife, "Darling, for a speech to be immortal, it need not be interminable."