Prepare carefully_. Self-confidence is a valuable possession, but
beware of being too sure of yourself. Pride goes before a fall, and
overconfidence in his ability to improvise has been the downfall of many
a would-be speaker. The speaker should strive to give the effect of
spontaneity, but this can be done only with practice. The toast calls
for the art that conceals art.
_Let your speech have unity_. As some one has pointed out, the
after-dinner speech is a distinct form of expression, just as is the
short story. As such it should give a unity of impression. It bears
something of the same relation to the oration that the short story does
to the novel.
_Let it have continuity_. James Bryce says: “There is a tendency today
to make after-dinner speaking a mere string of anecdotes, most of which
may have little to do with the subject or with one another. Even the
best stories lose their charm when they are dragged in by the head and
shoulders, having no connection with the allotted theme. Relevance as
well as brevity is the soul of wit.”
_Do not grow emotional or sentimental_. American traditions are largely
borrowed from England. We have the Anglo-Saxon reticence. A parade of
emotion in public embarrasses us. A simple and sincere expression of
feeling is often desirable in a toast–but don’t overdo it.
_Avoid trite sayings_. Don’t use quotations that are shopworn, and avoid
the set forms for toasts–“Our sweethearts and wives–may they never
_Don’t apologise_. Don’t say that you are not prepared; that you speak
on very short notice; that you are “no orator as Brutus is.” Resolve to
do your best and let your effort speak for itself.
_Avoid irony and satire_. It has already been said that occasions on
which toasts are given call for friendliness and good humor. Yet the
temptation to use irony and satire may be strong. Especially may this be
true at political gatherings where there is a chance to grow witty at
the expense of rivals. Irony and satire are keen-edged tools; they have
their uses; but they are dangerous. Pope, who knew how to use them,
Satire’s my weapon, but I’m too discreet
To run amuck and tilt at all I meet.
_Use personal references sparingly_. A certain amount of good-natured
chaffing may be indulged in. Yet there may be danger in even the most
kindly of fun. One never knows how a jest will be taken. Once in the
early part of his career, Mark Twain, at a New England banquet, grew
funny at the expense of Longfellow and Emerson, then in their old age
and looked upon almost as divinities. His joke fell dead, and to the end
of his life he suffered humiliation at the recollection.
_Be clear_. While you must not draw an obvious moral or explain the
point to your jokes, be sure that the point is there and that it is put
in such a way that your hearers cannot miss it. Avoid flights of
rhetoric and do not lose your anecdotes in a sea of words.
_Avoid didacticism_. Do not try to instruct. Do not give statistics and
figures. They will not be remembered. A historical resume of your
subject from the beginning of time is not called for; neither are
well-known facts about the greatness of your city or state or the
prominent person in whose honor you may be speaking. Do not tell your
hearers things they already know.
_Be brief_. An after-dinner audience is in a particularly defenceless
position. It is so out in the open. There is no opportunity for a quiet
nod or two behind a newspaper or the hat of the lady in front. If you
bore your hearers by overstepping your time politeness requires that
they sit still and look pleased. Spare them. Remember Bacon’s advice to
the speaker: “Let him be sure to leave other men their turns to speak.”
But suppose you come late on the program! Suppose the other speakers
have not heeded Bacon? What are you going to do about it? Here is a
story that James Bryce tells of the most successful after-dinner speech
he remembers to have heard. The speaker was a famous engineer, the
occasion a dinner of the British Association for the Advancement of
Science. “He came last; and midnight had arrived. His toast was Applied
Science, and his speech was as follows: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, at this
late hour I advise you to illustrate the Applications of Science by
applying a lucifer match to the wick of your bedroom candle. Let us all
go to bed’.”
If you are capable of making a similar sacrifice by cutting short your
own carefully-prepared, wise, witty and sparkling remarks, your audience
will thank you–and they may ask you to speak again.