A commonplace illustration will make our meaning clear. Suppose a great reception, where many rooms are filled with invited guests. There is conversation, but only by groups of two or three persons; refreshments are served; larger groups begin to gather around prominent persons, but there is the same diversity of sentiment and purpose that is to be found in a chance crowd in a public park. The guests are not in one place, with one accord. But now, on some pretext, the power of public speech is evoked; perhaps a toast is offered and responded to, or a more formal address of welcome or congratulation, or anything else suitable to the occasion. The subject and the manner of introduction are not material, so that the living, speaking man is brought face to face with his fellows; at once, instead of confusion and disorder, all is order and harmony. The speaker may hesitate in the delivery of his message, but his very embarrassment will in some instances contribute to harmonize the thought of the assembly even more powerfully than a more pretentious address. But a good and appropriate speech will indelibly fix the thought, and be far more satisfactory.
Where no particular kind of address is indicated by the nature of the assemblage, stories and humor will generally be highly appreciated. A good story has some of the perennial interest that surrounds a romance, and if it is at the same time humorous, an appeal is made to another sentiment, universal in the human breast. If people thrill with interest in unison, or laugh or cry together for a time, or merely give attention to the same thoughts, there will arise a sense of fellowship and sympathy which is not only enjoyable, but is the very purpose for which people are invited to assemblies.
More ordinary after-dinner speeches succeed by the aid of humorous stories than by all other means combined. In a very ingenious book of ready-made speeches the turning point of nearly every one depends upon a pun or other trick of speech. While this is carrying the idea a little too far, still it fairly indicates the importance placed upon sallies of wit or humor as a factor in speech-making. The fellowship that comes from laughing at the same jokes and approving the same sentiments may not be the most intimate or the most enduring, but it is often the only kind possible, and should be prized accordingly.
The chief use of toasts is to call out such speeches, and thus lead the thought of the assembly along pleasant and appropriate channels–all prearranged, yet apparently spontaneous.
A long speech is selfish and unpardonable. It wearies the guests, destroys variety, and crowds others out of the places to which they have been assigned and are entitled. When the speaking is over, the company will have been led to contemplate the same themes, and will have rejoiced, sympathized, and laughed in unison.
SOME A B C DIRECTIONS FOR MAKING SPEECHES, TOASTS, AND RESPONSES
1. Do not be afraid or ashamed to use the best helps you can get. Divest yourself of the idea that all you need is to wait till a toast is proposed and your name called, and then to open your mouth and let the eloquence flow forth. The greatest genius in the world _might_ succeed in that way, but would not be likely to venture it. Use a book and study your subject well.
2. Generally, it is not well to memorize word for word either what you have written or obtained from a book, unless it is a pun or a story where the effect depends upon verbal accuracy. But be sure to memorize toasts, sentiments, and titles absolutely. To know the substance of your speech well, with one or two strong points in it, is better than to have a flowery oration weighing down your memory.
3. If you are a novice (and these directions are given to no others), do not aim to make a great speech, but to say a few things modestly and quietly. A short and unassuming speech by a beginner is sure of applause. Eloquence, if you have it in you, will come later through practice and familiarity with your subject.
4. If you can’t remember or find a good story, invent one! Perhaps you have scruples as to the latter. But a story is not a lie; if so, what would become of the noble tribe of novel-writers! Mark Twain gives a very humorous account of the way in which he killed his conscience. Probably many speakers who retail good things might make confession in the same direction.
But why is it not as reputable to invent one’s own story as to tell the story some one else has invented? Does the second telling improve its morality? Rather give heed to the quality of the story. This, and not its origin, is the really important matter to consider.