Don’t tell me! Someone mentioned they were looking for an after dinner speaker for an important event and you, in a moment of weakness or sheer madness, said you would do it. And now, as the evening rapidly approaches, you have swallowed a little of your precious pride and decided to seek help or search for some speech material you might us. Am I right?
Let me begin by saying this, if it is of any consolation, you are not the first and most certainly won’t be the last to put your mouth into gear before engaging your brain. Many years back, flattered by friends who said I was a natural comedian, I did exactly the same and what follows are some of my best top tips to make the coming event a little less daunting, and hopefully help you by describing some of the basic mistakes I made in those early days whilst dying as an inexperienced, after dinner speaker.
Many people, including some of my friends, believe comedians are born funny and then somehow become a natural, polished, humorous entertainer. Nothing is further from the truth. Some top, after dinner speakers develop their skill as children as a method of dealing with school bullies, and the everyday anguish growing-up causes so many of us in those terrible teenage times. For far too many, school is not the best days of your life as described by those for whom time has distorted the truth; but a living hell, made a little easier by learning to make others laugh as a means of defense.
Some of the best after dinner speakers on the professional circuit began studying the subject after realising how powerful a tool it is in entertaining and amusing a captive audience, in convivial company, after a meal. The fact that others were prepared to pay money to have someone make others laugh would, initially, have been a bonus, and later, with lots of experience and ‘gigs’ under their belt, an effect way to earn a living.
For those amongst you who are thinking about using after dinner speaking as a means of making a living, my advice is to carefully consider whether your dream could ever become a reality. Professional, after dinner speaking is one of the most difficult occupations in which to earn a decent living. There are lots of after dinner speakers out there offering their polished skill as a service, and relatively few speaker engagements available to ply their trade.
Most after dinner speakers are hired through an agent. The difficulty for those wanting to become an after dinner speaker is that agents are only interested in established, quality, popular speakers with a proven ability to give an after dinner speech.
Such after dinner speakers have so much experience; they no longer have ‘off days’. Their reputation for excellence is already in place, and this removes the element of chance that event organisers take when engaging a less experienced, amateur, after dinner speaker. What event organisers gain in cash saving is insignificant when compared to their potential loss of reputation with which they gamble when engaging cheap amateurs.
If you are considering giving after dinner speeches as a profession, please believe me when I say that being a successful, fulltime, professional after dinner speaker is seriously hard work and is a dream that is, for most, very difficult to achieve. In regard to quality of life, it will mean many late nights, often away from home and your loved ones. The occupation of after dinner speaker is not nearly as glamorous as some would imagine. It can be an extremely tiring and demanding occupation with variable rewards.
If, all that said, you are still interested in how to give an effective, entertaining after dinner speech, perhaps as a one-off or hobby, what follows are my best, top tips:
I begin by offering some reassurance – most audiences make allowances for a courageous amateur doing his or her best to entertain them. They often hold a ‘better them than me’ attitude.
A survey carried out in America showed that more people fear public speaking than death. Which, I guess means, that at a funeral, Americans would rather be the individual lying in the coffin than the poor soul providing the eulogy to the mourners!
Some, attempting to perform as an effective after dinner speaker, fail because they don’t work hard enough at being funny. Being funny is seriously hard work and not that funny.
After dinner speaking is no different to any other skilled profession. The fortunate few funny folk having all the lucky breaks is nonsense. Luck plays little part in whether or not you are likely to succeed as an after dinner speaker.
It was Gary Player who said, “The more I practise the luckier I get”. This is as relevant to after dinner speaking as it is in golf. However the best, professional, after dinner speakers work on the principal that practise in itself is not sufficient, as many a frustrated, addicted golfer will also testify.
Preparation is an essential ingredient in successful, after dinner speaking. There is a saying – ‘failing to prepare is preparing to fail’. Learn about your audience before you start, and never forget that preparation, before presenting, is paramount.
At the research stage, you will need to know exactly who makes up the audience. For example, if you are told the diners will be made up from members of a particular profession, ask the organiser where the audience stand in that organisation. Are they managers or machine operators? Such information will help you fine tune your after dinner speech and make it totally relevant to the audience’s every day reality.
It is not sufficient to know that all of the audience have an interest in golf. You need to dig deeper. Are they all members of a particular club? Do they have a rival team whom you might poke fun at? Are there any ‘characters’ in the club who most members would recognise if an after dinner speaker were to describe and exaggerate their most noticeable characteristics?
This brings me to an important point in the art of successful after dinner speech giving.
Quality, after dinner speakers do not tell jokes. Quick-witted ‘one-liners’ are still in fashion on the after dinner speaker circuit, whereas jokes are not. The ‘these three golfers were approaching the 18th hole’ type stories will create a chorus of cringes, as many inexperienced after dinner speakers have found, unfortunately, too late to save their delicate feelings.
If an audience of diners have a strong interest in a particular subject the chances are they will have heard each and every joke you have placed in your repertoire a dozen times before. Hopeful you now better understand why I say being a successful after dinner speaker is such hard work. It is not a case of putting an act together and then repeating the speech night after night to different audiences.
For a professional after dinner speaker, what a particular audience of diners consider funny, fluctuates with the years, and is generally accepted as being a subjective and fashionable test. By better understanding who your audience are, as apposed to what they have in common, means you are much more likely to provide an entertaining after dinner speech that will be remembered with affection by the diners, and event organisers for years to come.
The fact that an audience of diners have a common interest in golf will, for a professional after dinner speaker, only act as a theme that weaves its way through their after dinner speech.
Basing your whole after dinner speech on golf jokes is preparing to fail. A quality after dinner speech is a subtle observation of the real life of the audience of diners, delivered humorously by the after dinner speaker.
Superior after dinner speech humour is so much subtler than simply reciting one joke after another. If you happen to be an after dinner speaker who tells joke after boring joke during your speeches, I make no apology if I have offended you by writing so. I never apologise. Sorry, that’s just the way I am.
And, if having read the last few sentences, you are still have a problem understanding what it is I am saying, it may be you are without all hope.
Quality after dinner speaking has much to do with a skilful observation of real life. The words used to describe a situation require vocal expression, comic timing, character exaggeration, and carefully placed pauses that are so full of meaning. Frank Carson’s catch phrase “It’s the way I tell ’em” is the essence of what makes good, after dinner speaking.
For the diners doing the laughing, and for that matter the after dinner speaker too, humour is an escape from their everyday reality. Top after dinner speakers befriend an audience and quickly build a rapport with the diners. As the average after dinner speech provided by a professional after dinner speaker lasts between 20 to 30 minutes, speed in building rapport is an essential requirement in successful after dinner speaking.
To help build rapport, an after dinner speaker will often playfully laugh at themselves. To do so, the after dinner speaker needs to become a philosophical spectator of his or her own life in relation to those they have around them. Effective after dinner speaking is about showing an understanding of what makes people tick and then making witty observations to entertain and amuse the diners.
When next listening to a proficient after dinner speaker notice that many of the topics included in the after dinner speech revolve around problems the after dinner speaker encounters in his or her day-to-day reality.
Top after dinner speakers know there is little difference in people. By making fun of their own problems the after dinner speaker develops an empathy with the diners mainly because the diners have very similar problems to that of the after dinner speaker.
The after dinner speaker is, by helping the diners to come to terms with their own problems, helping them through a difficult dilemma they would, under normal circumstances, prefer not to think about. Following a good meal, and with the well-known therapeutic effect of a moderate amount of alcohol, diners are primed and ready for the light-hearted entertainment a professional, after dinner speaker always provides.
Top after dinner speakers are constantly striving for perfection by reworking their best material. They may be at the top of their profession but they never stop asking the question “How can I make this after dinner story better?” Theirs is a quest for perfection that never comes. Most of the best after dinner speakers are their own worst critic. Depressingly so!
The best after dinner speakers are striving to be ever funnier. For them, providing the best ever after dinner speech, is a lifelong apprenticeship that few have the resolve to complete. If you are giving your first ever after dinner speech, rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse. If possible, try your material out with friends or relatives whom you trust will provide honest, constructive feedback. And if they say you need more jokes in your speech, don’t listen to them!
When an after dinner speaker is working on improving his or her after dinner speech material, they will often work on a simplistic definition of the psychology of humour. Mine is – the study of wit in relation to the workings of the human mind and prediction of people behaviour.
To make an after dinner speech humorous, the diners must first predict some outcome, and then be humoured with a punch line that nudges them off their expected route.
To do this, an after dinner speaker must be a great story teller and be aware that in telling the story the majority of diners listening to the talk will be travelling down a particular path, guided by the speaker, only to be nudged from the predicated route. It is this ‘nudge’ that makes the story humorous. An unexpected outcome can turn a tedious tale into a funny story.
When you next have the opportunity to enjoy a professional, after dinner speaker, be much more analytical about what it is they are saying, and then analyse why what they are saying, appeals to your sense of humour.
By way of example, I consider Woody Allen to be one of the best, humorous storytellers around. Here is a short extract from one of his routines and I would like you to take a few minutes out to analyse. Look particularly at the construction of the story taking into consideration the likes of rapport building, etc, I described earlier:
“When I was little boy, I wanted a dog desperately, and we had no money. I was a tiny kid, and my parents couldn’t get me a dog, ’cause we just didn’t have the money, so they got me, instead of a dog – they told me it was a dog – they got me an ant. And I didn’t know any better, y’know, I thought it was a dog, I was a dumb kid. Called it ‘Spot’. I trained it, y’know. Coming home late one night, Sheldon Finklestein tried to bully me. Spot was with me. And I said “Kill!”, and Sheldon stepped on my dog.”
Now analyse the construction of this short story. Take into account the skilful observation of life Woody Allen uses. Do you believe it possible that maybe he was bullied at school and, at some low point in his childhood, discovered humour made his life a little more bearable by effectively dealing with such obnoxious, bullying characters?
To best understand the quality of Woody Allen as a storyteller you need to appreciate his masterful style of delivery. Otherwise the quote from Woody I have provided above is merely a skeleton that lacks life and flesh.
Woody Allen’s genius as a humorous speaker comes from his vocal expression and it is that which puts flesh onto the skeleton of a story. It is his superb comic timing, character exaggeration, and carefully placed pauses that then breathe life into his amusing tale.
If you need to better understand the importance of the ingredients I have described in giving a polished after dinner speech, seek out video clips of Woody Allen and, or a top, professional, after dinner speaker and you should appreciate why I have included them.
For now, take the full stops is Woody’s story as being the pauses I described earlier. Does he build empathy by describing a situation that was similar to a problem you may once have had? It is my belief that most people have been bullied at sometime in their life. The fact that the memory of such can still cause pain may be one of the main reasons people would prefer not to speak of such events to others. It is their secret a skilled after dinner speaker has somehow touched upon. The diner can empathise with the speaker and rapport is established.
Ask yourself this:
Was money ‘tight’ when you were a child? (Rapport)
Is Woody Allen a philosophical spectator of his own life in relation to those around him? (Rapport)
What relationship does Woody with the other characters in the story?
Read through the story again and then consider – does Woody appear to be laughing at himself?
Is Woody appearing to make fun of his own problems encountered whilst child?
As with Woody Allen, during an after dinner speech the speaker becomes a story teller describing the practically enacted theory of the absurdities so often found in human relationships and this is usually related to a ‘twist’ in the story that makes the tale humorous for the diners.
The ‘twist’ takes the story away from the norm (the predicted path), and makes it funny. Woody’s dog becomes an ant. As the story unfolds Woody creates a movie in your mind. He becomes a storyteller. You are there with him as Finklestein (did you picture Frankenstein) tries to bully him and Spot (his pet ant) is instructed to Kill!
Entertaining, after dinner speakers have the ability to have fun with literal meanings. It is said they can see the funny side of most things. They can, but only when they set the mind to the task. After dinner speakers are performers, providing humorous twists. And, at the end of the day –
(pause) it’s midnight. (the twist)
If you wish to make an impact as an after dinner speaker take a topic that has a literal meaning somehow connected to the diners and think of alternative meanings to make it humorous.
By way of example – at an after dinner event where the diners are made up of people connected to the retail industry and, having probed deeper with the event organiser, you may have established that a large part of the audience will be shop owners, you therefore might include:
“I said to the guy next door – I was on my way to the shops and your dog went for me!”
Now think of alternate meaning to ‘your dog went for me’ i.e. the dog attempted to bite him:
“and he replied – that’s impressive; it never went to the shops for me before!”
The listener is nudged from the predicted path making the story humorous and, indirectly relevant to those in the audience who are the shop owners.
I would now like to offer you important advice on the type of material you should not use whilst giving an after dinner speech.
Be extremely careful about using any material that could cause offence to any of the diners. Experienced, successful, professional after dinner speakers are usually very skilled at judging how controversial they can be on topics such as sex, politics, race or religion. If you are new to after dinner speaking, take my advice and avoid all four topics during your speech.
I mentioned earlier that an average after dinner speech, delivered by a professional after dinner speaker, lasts around 20 to 30 minutes. 10 to 15 minutes is sufficient if you are inexperienced at public speaking. Don’t mistake smiles or polite laughter as in invitation to go on and on and on and on. Your aim should be to leave the diners wanting more, yet appreciative of the entertainment you have already skilfully provided.
One of the biggest mistakes made by inexperienced, after dinner speakers is their perceived need to read verbatim from copious quantities of notes scribbled on A4 sheets of paper that become totally illegible in the candle light available during your speech.
If you feel it is absolutely necessary to have an aid to memory, acquire something as small as an index card and use the odd word or two, printed in large letters, to jog your memory. Do not read verbatim. Here’s why:
And so to my final tip, purposefully left until last because I consider it to be the most important. It is this – when giving a successful after dinner speech- Stop Trying Too Hard!
I understand this initially seem to contradict all I have written about after dinner speaking and the giving of a great speech, but please hear me out.
You have completed the required research, you have prepared and practised your piece and now, as you deliver your masterpiece to an appreciated audience of after dinner diners, I want you to imagine yourself speaking informally, to a small group of close friends and family. People with whom you normally feel totally comfortable and at ease.
You have my word that if on the day, you stop trying too hard, your confidence will grow, you will appear much more relaxed, and, it turn, the diners will be much more at ease and in better positioned to enjoy and appreciate your short masterpiece – the after dinner speech.
Have a great evening.