So you’re the droll godparent whom they’ve chosen to speak at their reception? The local Rotary Club’s last throw of the dice? The committee member who has One Or Two People Who Really Must Be Thanked? You’re gazing out at a sceptical (and woozy) crowd of employees, business rivals, tenantry. Your collar is wet, your mouth dry. Into your mind rise unwelcome images of Rowan Atkinson and George VI.
I cheat: I do it in song. But, lord knows, I’ve sat through some duff speeches in my time. When the new CEO of a major telecom-munications company was given a dinner at Hampton Court Palace some years ago, every single job-scared member of his board stood up like a craven back-bencher to offer Uriah Heep words of welcome. They went on for 20 minutes each. The evening was longer than Parsifal and not as funny.
Here are 10 simple steps to a pat on the back and that warm gush of relief as you sit down again to the sound of ringing plaudits.
You need to be both seen and heard. If there are more than 70 in the room, you’ll require a decent microphone, not hand-held, and somebody qualified to operate it. Women’s voices especially need a boost or they can sound hectoring. Beware the stand obscuring your face, and make sure that the lights are in front of you, not behind, or you’ll be in silhouette. You need to be higher than anyone in the room, so stand on a chair, a table or a comatose relation.
Get it right
This is an important day for everybody attending-in particular, the hosts, as it will have cost them the Greek national debt. Mobile phones will be capturing your triumph-or shame-forever. One word out of place will come back to bite you. So get the tone perfect. As a general rule of thumb, something old, something new, something borrowed, but nothing too blue (unless it’s a stag do, in which case, make it as filthy as possible).
Your job is to meld the disparate elements of your audience into one single unit. Treat them as a family. ‘An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman…’ is not nearly so effective as naming people of those nationalities present. Don’t shoehorn in jokes taken off the internet or deliver a one-size-fits-all speech. Instead, weeks in advance, find the least discreet member of the party and tease out the amusing anecdotage. Fillet it elegantly into as few words as possible. Commit as much to memory as you can, but have it on small filing cards (A4 paper is prone to betray trembling hands).
Make them laugh
For leavening, pick an Aunt Sally known to the room: the CEO, the MFH, the cheeky nephew or the office battleaxe. Judge carefully what you’re saying, however: post-stand-up audiences have very finely tuned antennae. Political incorrectness or class arrogance is, quite rightly, baulked at; the ‘makes X look like Y’ comic comparison possibly beats sarcasm as the lowest form of wit. If you need a fail-safe laugh, go for very local placenames. Or family pets.
Wit should be kept tinder-dry. Stand your ground when there’s laughter and wait. If you don’t know where to look, gaze at your note cards. Don’t go at it like a Butlins Redcoat or cascade the one-liners like Ken Dodd (unless you are Mr Dodd, who’s had years of practice), nor be afraid of leaving space: remember James Middleton’s beautifully paced reading at his sister’s wedding in Westminster Abbey.
Don’t, for pity’s sake, get drunk-not even a small sherry for Dutch courage. And take time out of the room 10 minutes before you’re due to go on. An extended visit to the loo may make them think that you’re taking narcotics, but it does collect the thoughts. A deep breath of fresh air is even more effective. And don’t be vain-wear those glasses unapologetically. Spectacles add both gravitas and useful prop value.
The rule of three
The Romans knew about rhetoric: the tricolon auctum, the rule of three, is central to structuring a good speech. If you’re delivering a business address, audiences will really only remember three bullet-points, so pare the information down as far as is consistent with making the whole shindig tax-deductible. As any Englishman, Irishman or Scotsman will tell you, jokes are better built around threes. Classicist and historian Earl Spencer understood the rule, too: however controversial, his funeral oration to his sister was so beautifully constructed that it’s now studied in schools.
Make sure there’s absolute silence before you begin. You’re allowed to ‘Shhh’ everyone. Eye-contact them all and remember that speaking quietly is often the most effective way of commanding attention. Ronnie Corbett knows that, and so does The Prince of Wales, although I’ll grant you he is at something of an advantage.
Your first remark should take the mickey out of yourself. Audiences never like to feel that they are being spoken to de haut en bas. Your second should be that-very-day topical. The brilliant Rory Bremner ices it with impersonation, but it flatters the crowd that they are au courant. And, en passant, don’t use too much clever-clever French.
Make them weep
Just before your time is up (and you’d have to be Cicero or Eddie Izzard to justify more than five minutes), afford yourself a moment of sentiment. You can even let a crack of emotion into your voice. Let your humanity show through. Well up, and you’ll be well up.
to Country Life and save over £50 a year