Most presenters shy away from being the one to give an after dinner speech. If you’re not careful, talking when people are full and tired can be a recipe for disaster. Perhaps that’s why Winston Churchill said, “There are two things that are more difficult than making an after-dinner speech: climbing a wall which is leaning toward you and kissing a girl who is leaning away from you." But despite any hesitations of modern day speakers, the custom of saying a few words at the end of a meal is probably as old as civilization itself. The after dinner speech gained prominence in England during the early nineteenth century, and according to Barnet Baskerville in his book The People’s Voice: The Orator in American Society, these speeches became so popular that they were called “the style of oratory most cultivated” in the U.S.
What makes these speeches unique (and sometimes feared by presenters) is that audiences generally expect to be not only informed about a particular issue, but also entertained. This duel focus can make the after dinner speech a challenge. But with skill and practice, anyone can deliver one with ease. Here are a few points to remember:
• Ditch the formality. After dinner speeches have a light touch—they are less formal that most other speeches since the intent is not just to persuade, inform, or motivate. The intent is also to entertain and to make people feel relaxed and welcome. They are community builders at their best.
• Choose an appropriate topic. Fortunately, just about any topic is good for an after dinner speech. Even serious, weighty topics work if they are handled with a light touch. The most important thing to keep in mind is that they must be relevant to the occasion.
• Be funny…but not too funny. While the tone and topic and can be lighter, that doesn’t mean you should attempt to be a standup comic when delivering an after dinner speech. Avoid stringing jokes together or using inappropriate humor. For more tips on using humor effectively in your after dinner speech, see my past blog post.
• Watch the time. One nice thing about doing an after dinner speech is that most people won’t have to rush out at the end to make another appointment. However, that doesn’t mean you can talk all night. Most people don’t want to stay up to the wee hours of the night listening to a speaker—even if that speaker is entertaining. Be mindful of the time so you can keep people’s attention.
While after dinner speeches were originally always delivered “after dinner,” today such speeches are delivered after cocktails, after lunch, after breakfast—or just about any time people gather for meals. So whether it’s morning or night, use these tips when you have to speak after a meal and you’re sure to have your audience eating out of your hands.