The writer once knew of a very dull speaker, who scored a great success in a popular meeting, by describing the eloquent speaker who was to follow. He began by telling how he was accustomed when a boy to take a skiff and follow in the wake of a steamer, to be rocked in its waves, but once getting before the huge vessel his boat was swept away, and he was nearly drowned. This unfortunately was his situation now, and he was in danger of being swept aside by the coming flood of eloquence. But he asked who is this coming man? It was the first time he had heard of him–then followed the story he had been trying to work in–a story wherein the eloquent man was described as “one who could give seventeen good reasons for anything under heaven.” The story was a great success. In dumb show, the speaker he referred to begged for mercy. This only delighted the audience still more, and when the dull speaker finished it was admitted that, for once, he had escaped being stupid or commonplace. He had also forced upon the next speaker the necessity of removing the unpleasant effects of the jokes made at his expense, a task that required all his cleverness.
The manner of introduction by the chairman, his name or general position, the appearance of any one of the guests, the lateness or earliness of the hour, events of the day that attract interest, the nature of the entertainment or assemblage–all of these will offer good hooks by which to draw in the story. But let the story be good and thoroughly mastered. Of course the work of adaptation will be much easier if you have several stories in reserve. A story must not be repeated so often that it becomes known as belonging to you, for then a preceding speaker might get a laugh on you by telling it as yours, leaving you bankrupt.
Jones and Smith once rode several miles in a carriage, together, to a town where both were to make addresses. Jones was quite an orator; Smith had a very retentive memory. Jones asked Smith about his speech, but Smith professed not to have fully decided upon his topic, and in turn asked Jones the same question. Jones gave a full outline of his speech, Smith getting him to elaborate it by judicious inquiries as to how he would apply one point and illustrate another. The ride thus passed pleasantly for both parties. Smith was called upon to speak first, and gave with telling effect what he had gathered from Jones, to the delight of everybody, but poor Jones, who listened in utter consternation, and had not strength enough left even to reclaim his stolen property.
If your speech is to be a story it is especially advisable to have a reserve on hand, for stories are easily copied and apt to be long remembered. Care also must be taken that the story is not one with which persons generally are familiar. A gentleman was in the habit of telling a story which has already been quoted, the point of which lies in the phrase “I’m from Boston.” Some of his more intimate companions, in self-defense, would exclaim when he proposed a story, “Is it a mile from Boston?”
The definition of the toast itself or of any of the words in the sentiment which is the speaker’s topic may be made the occasion for drawing in the illustrative story.
The manner of ending a good story is also worthy of careful study. When an audience is applauding a palpable “hit,” it does not seem an appropriate time to stop and take one’s seat; but it often is the best course. To do this appears so abrupt that the novice is apt to make a further effort to finish up the subject till he has finished up his audience as well. An attempt to fully discuss a topic, under such circumstances, is not successful once in a hundred times. The best course is to follow an apt story by some proverb, a popular reference, or a witty turn, and then to close. But no abruptness will be disliked by your hearers half so much, as the utterance of a string of commonplaces, after you have once secured their attention. The richness of the dessert should come at the close, not at the beginning, of the oratorical feast.
THE PURPOSE OF AFTER-DINNER SPEAKING
Briefly stated, it is to bring into one focus the thought of an assembly. While the good things of the table may be satisfactory, and conversation free and spontaneous, there is yet need of some expedient for making all thought flow in one channel, and of blending the whole company into a true unity. There is one way, and only one, of doing this–the same that is used to produce unity of action and thought in any assembly, for whatever purpose convened. When the destinies of empires are at stake, when great questions that arise among men are to be solved, the art of speech must be called into play. So after a good dinner has been enjoyed, the same potent agency finds a field, narrower, indeed, but scarcely less operative. And this object–of causing a whole assembly to think the same thoughts and turn their attention to a common topic–is often well attained even when the speeches do not aspire to great excellence or pretension to eloquence.