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After-dinner Speaker or Comedian?

31 January, 2015

Is there a difference between an after-dinner speaker and a comedian? There are certainly similarities – after all – they both “speak”, and both should aim to be funny! Yet there is a subtle difference… and it has nothing to do with which is “better” – it’s a case of which is is more suitable – given the type of event and the requirement of the organisers.

I am talking here more about “non celebrity” speakers – of which there are many on the circuit! I am also referring specifically to corporate events like sales conferences, AGMs and annual dinners of Associations and Institutes – and not to “sportsmen’s dinners” where “after-dinner speaker” can be a very loose description!

So what is the difference?

Everyone loves to laugh. So if the aim is simply to provide entertainment then a good comedian is certainly an option worth considering. However someone telling “jokes” runs the “heard it before” risk – especially as many comedian/speakers tend to use “popular” stories that “do the rounds”. In addition, many comedians do not appreciate corporate sensibilities and will either use bad language or inappropriate material. Sadly at a recent Business Association dinner at which I was guest speaker their Chairman told me they now have a policy of never hiring comedians as after-dinner speakers after several bad experiences in the past. Caveat emptor!

The difference as I see it is that a “speaker” will have a “theme”, or stories to tell based on their experiences which will include insights or opinions which are (hopefully!) thought provoking and “interesting” ….  as well as being funny! They will usually base their speech around an area of expertise – whether this be related to their occupation or their achievements.  Thus many “speakers” are sportspeople, adventurers, business people or simply people who have had experiences that they can relate in an entertaining way. (Whisper it quietly – many “speakers” would like to be comedians – and often attempt to model their style and delivery! There is nothing wrong with that of course – both comedians and speakers can learn from each other.)

Another key difference is that a good “speaker” will usually attempt to make a speech relevant to the audience, and should do their homework before each event so that they can personalise their remarks. Many comedians  who market their services as “after-dinner speakers” (as well as “speciality acts” like magicians, ventriloquists and mind readers) will perform an “act as known” with little or no relevance to the audience. Very often they will simply appear to perform at the end of a dinner – similar to a cabaret.

For this reason a good after-dinner speaker should be a part of the event from the start – and even before! They should always ask to sit at the dinner – hopefully next to a senior person who can continue to brief them about the audience and the event during the meal. (“Celebrity” speakers will rarely do this as they are there to speak about “themselves”!)

On the differences between stand-up comedy and humorous speaking, American speaker and “humorist” Rich Hopkins puts it like this:

“I see four distinct differences that keep these two skill sets separate:
1) Intent: Stand-up comedy’s goal is to create nothing but laugh after laugh. Humorous speaking still focuses on an overall message, a call to action, which is punctuated by comedy.
2) Rhythm: Effective stand-up comedians look for laughter 4-8 times per minute, whereas effective humorous speakers may have some minutes with several laughs sandwiched around several minutes with some or no laughter, depending on the topic, setting, and overall message.
3) Appropriateness: Stand-up comedy commonly steps over normal bounds of decency in both topic choice and language usage. Humorous speakers rarely have that luxury.
4) Expectations: Stand-up comics face a crowd demanding they be not just funny, but rolling on the floor funny. Speakers use humor to soften reality, provide a light moment, and give their audience an opportunity to relax, and allow the important points of the speech to sink in.”

So it’s all down to which is more suitable for the event in question. A speaker who tries to incorporate a thoughtful message can often fall flat when an audience wants nothing more than a good laugh. Likewise a comedian or cabaret performer can be inappropriate at a business event where the audience is looking for something more than just comedy.

I have often wondered if all the pre-event research I do is worth it – and whether I should just have a comedy speech I can repeat ad hoc – “off the shelf” as it were! However I recently came across this quote from an attendee at a dinner I spoke at – forwarded to me by the organiser (following annual dinner of the Chartered Institute of Taxation Yorkshire) which I found reassuring!

“…the after dinner speaker was one of the best I can remember at the dinner. What I liked, apart from his relaxed attitude and his phenomenal memory was the fact that he had done some homework to make his talk relevant to his audience. Too many speakers do not do that. ” Jim G. (The organiser commented: “Bearing in mind Jim has been to every dinner for the last 20 odd years his praise must mean you were excellent!”)

So that’s why I do it! (Always nice to have such feedback from members of the audience – not just the organisers!)

In a nutshell then – if your aim is simply to entertain or get laughs – hire a comedian or speciality act. If it is a business event where a blend of message, insight and humour is more appropriate – hire a speaker.

If you are a comedian or speaker – have you an opinion on this? I’d love to hear your views! The same applies if you are an event organiser or speaker bureau  – do share your success (or disaster!) stories …  hopefully with names withheld if the latter!

In my next post I will address another type of speaking – so called “motivational speaking” – and why I do not like referring to myself as a “motivational speaker”!

If you are looking for an entertaining keynote or after-dinner speaker – please get in touch to discuss your event!

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