The Art of Public Speaking HTML version
AFTER-DINNER AND OTHER OCCASIONAL SPEAKING
The perception of the ludicrous is a pledge of sanity.
--RALPH WALDO EMERSON, Essays.
And let him be sure to leave other men their turns to speak.
--FRANCIS BACON, Essay on Civil and Moral Discourse.
Perhaps the most brilliant, and certainly the most entertaining, of all speeches are those delivered on
after-dinner and other special occasions. The air of well-fed content in the former, and of expectancy well
primed in the latter, furnishes an audience which, though not readily won, is prepared for the best, while the
speaker himself is pretty sure to have been chosen for his gifts of oratory.
The first essential of good occasional speaking is to study the occasion. Precisely what is the object of the
meeting? How important is the occasion to the audience? How large will the audience be? What sort of people
are they? How large is the auditorium? Who selects the speakers' themes? Who else is to speak? What are
they to speak about? Precisely how long am I to speak? Who speaks before I do and who follows?
If you want to hit the nail on the head ask such questions as these. No occasional address can succeed
unless it fits the occasion to a T. Many prominent men have lost prestige because they were too careless or too
busy or too self-confident to respect the occasion and the audience by learning the exact conditions under
which they were to speak. Leaving too much to the moment is taking a long chance and generally means a
less effective speech, if not a failure.
Suitability is the big thing in an occasional speech. When Mark Twain addressed the Army of the Tennessee
in reunion at Chicago, in 1877, he responded to the toast, "The Babies." Two things in that after-dinner speech
are remarkable: the bright introduction, by which he subtly claimed the interest of all, and the humorous use
of military terms throughout:
Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen: "The Babies." Now, that's something like. We haven't all had the good fortune
to be ladies; we have not all been generals, or poets, or statesmen; but when the toast works down to the
babies, we stand on common ground--for we've all been babies. It is a shame that for a thousand years the
world's banquets have utterly ignored the baby, as if he didn't amount to anything! If you, gentlemen, will stop
and think a minute--if you will go back fifty or a hundred years, to your early married life, and recontemplate
your first baby--you will remember that he amounted to a good deal--and even something over.
"As a vessel is known by the sound, whether it be cracked or not," said Demosthenes, "so men are proved by
their speeches whether they be wise or foolish." Surely the occasional address furnishes a severe test of a
speaker's wisdom. To be trivial on a serious occasion, to be funereal at a banquet, to be long-winded
ever--these are the marks of non-sense. Some imprudent souls seem to select the most friendly of after-dinner
occasions for the explosion of a bomb-shell of dispute. Around the dinner table it is the custom of even
political enemies to bury their hatchets anywhere rather than in some convenient skull. It is the height of bad
taste to raise questions that in hours consecrated to good-will can only irritate.
Occasional speeches offer good chances for humor, particularly the funny story, for humor with a genuine
point is not trivial. But do not spin a whole skein of humorous yarns with no more connection than the inane
and threadbare "And that reminds me." An anecdote without bearing may be funny but one less funny that fits
theme and occasion is far preferable. There is no way, short of sheer power of speech, that so surely leads to