Today, we’ll consider the subject of after dinner speeches – how to give them, not avoid them (the latter requiring merely one simple piece of instructional advice: stay home).
Personally, I’ve never been fearful of giving after dinner speeches, partly because I’m rarely invited to dinners. But on occasions when I’m selected as “the last resort,” I follow these guidelines:
Begin by planning your speech well in advance. The most effective presentations are written before the meal, not scribbled on a soiled napkin during dessert. Bear in mind that your speech will be presented while the audience finishes a meal, so aim to encourage digestion rather than regurgitation.
Keep your speech brief, but the topic lively and entertaining. Unless you’re addressing a room full of toxicologists, a one-hour lecture on food poisoning is not going over well, especially if guests start referring to the Smoked Salmon entrée as Smoked Salmonella.
Avoid controversial topics, too, such a politics, religion, and the grossly inaccurate expense account annually reported by the company CEO. Guests at office dinner functions are just itching to break out into a Three Stooges-like free-for-all food fight. So don’t give them the slightest excuse for provocation.
Once you begin talking, stay alert. It’s generally considered rude to fall asleep during your speech before the other dinner guests do.
Beginning your speech with a joke is expected, so take the opportunity for a friendly coworker jab: “Tonight, my speech will have you all on the edge of your seats. Oh wait, I see after five glasses of wine Mr. Witherspoon is already there…” But don’t become too personal by, for instance, mocking a colleague’s physical appearance – even if Bob from the mailroom basement has grown to resemble Jabba the Hutt in the past year.
Speaking of alcohol, remember its well-documented tongue-loosening effects. So sip Dasani, not Daiquiri’s, during the evening. Otherwise, you may spill office secrets to management: “My kids think I own a time machine because I officially stop work at 5 pm, and I’m always home by 4:30.” Many an after dinner speech has led to early retirement.
Brevity is another key to a successful speech. The Gettysburg Address was only two minutes long, so don’t fall in love with the sound of your own voice. Anything longer than 10-15 minutes will have guests reaching for concealed weapons.
Do strive to display self-confidence; it will relax both you and the audience. No one likes to see a nervous speaker bathed in a river of sweat, or other body fluids. Speak clearly, loudly, and directly without the use of rhetorical figures of speech – avoid metaphors like the plague. By all means use body language to emphasize your message, but avoid aggressively brandishing props towards the audience, especially if they take the form of sharp, pointed tableware.
Opening with a little humor and ending on a high note (with not a whole lot in between) will ensure a well-received after dinner speech.