"The three most difficult tasks a man could ever face were: 1. To climb a mountain that was leaning toward him. 2. To win the affection of a lady who was leaning away from him. 3. To give an after-dinner speech."
Having had plenty of experience with it, I must concur with at least the last of Sir Winston's observations. Recently I had the honor to give a couple of after-dinner talks, and things went fairly smoothly. There were, however, a couple of minor glitches in the sound systems, which served as reminders of how easily things can go wrong and how you have to be prepared for any eventuality.
One of the first things on any list of "dos" and "don'ts" for dinner speeches is adding drink to the mix. A good physician friend of mine once told me the story of being asked to speak to a group of fellow internists and their wives. He had had a couple of drinks at his table, and as he got up to speak he felt he was in good form. He also thought it was best to tell a few stories as he went along with his talk and that he thought his anecdotes had been most entertaining. The problem was his audience didn't share his enthusiasm, and when he completed his talk and returned to his table his wife greeted him with open disgust. My physician friend tells me he has never taken another drink before a speech. Some of us have to learn life's lessons the hard way.
The imbibing doesn't have to be done by the speaker to cause a problem. I was asked one time to give a talk on the latest trends in healthcare to a decidedly nonhealthcare organization at a gathering at the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln, Neb. Wanting to get to know my audience a bit, I attended a cocktail reception prior to the talk. It was a jocular group to say the least and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. An hour passed and the reception showed no signs of winding down. Instead, another hour went by before my host was able to corral his colleagues into the area where I was to speak before dinner.
To say my audience was in a raucous mood would be an understatement. Most of my listeners appeared to be three sheets to the wind, yelling and joking with one another as I was being introduced. My host literally fled the room as I got up to speak and I wasn't sure whether I would survive the ordeal. It took me a while to get some semblance of order from my audience, but through some miracle I got through the talk, liberally interspersing my remarks with jokes. I felt like Bob Hope entertaining the troops.
Another interesting after-dinner speaking experience happened to me at Chicago's Ritz-Carlton Hotel. I was excited about the event, as the company involved is important to our industry. As I arrived I met the president of the company, who told me there would be some awards given that night to some of the top performers in the company. He also advised me that the founder of the company would also be given special recognition. This was all to happen before I spoke and I had no reason to think that things would not go along smoothly. I assumed I would go on at a reasonable hour, but of course things dragged on and on. The founder took three times as long as planned, so by the time I got up to speak it was 10: 30 p.m. and still no one had been served anything to eat. I was nervous and apprehensive, but I started my talk hoping for the best. Two minutes later the ballroom doors were flung open and at least 20 waiters came into the room carrying plates of soup. The serving process went on interminably and I was able to get the attention of my audience for a few minutes when the waiters again burst into the room, this time with the salad. By now the audience members were totally into their food, which wasn't surprising given the time of night. I cut my remarks short, vowing that never again would I accept a similar invitation.
I never kept that oath, and I am glad for it. Most of the time the experiences are good ones, even though it can be unnerving to remember how easily it can go wrong. One time I was asked to speak to a group, and as I looked to the front of the room I noticed there was no podium and no sound system. I had 20 minutes to get things in place before I spoke.
Being able to speak well and capture an audience is an art, but it takes plenty of preparation, experience and courage to do it well, especially when the audience may have had a few too many cocktails. It's your job to have the flexibility to adjust to such unusual circumstances and still get your message across.