After-dinner speaking: Cinderella or Ugly Sister?
I contributed the following article to the August issue of Speaking Business Magazine. I reproduce it here in its entirety!
AFTER DINNER SPEAKING: Cinderella or Ugly Sister?
That may be a provocative title for an article – but from personal experience there is no doubt that After-Dinner speakers are often considered the poor cousins of the “business speaking” world!
How do I know this? Over the years while networking with other speakers and answering the question “What do you speak about?” with “I do after-dinner” I have often experienced the glazed expression and the furtive look over my shoulder to see if anyone else more interesting is around! Most of the speakers I meet have no interest in this type of speaking – and would rather run a mile rather than speak after dinner!
Why should this be? Well for a start, the majority of members of organisations like the Professional Speaking Association are trainers, consultants, motivational speakers and keynoters. Out of 600+ members of the PSA I know of only a handful who would consider themselves after-dinner speakers (though most of those are also able to deliver a keynote as well).
Speaking after dinner is not the time to impart knowledge – it is a time for humour, laughter and relaxation. While it is possible to have a “theme” to weave a speech around, audiences who have wined and dined are not looking to be informed – mainly entertained. As such speaking in the after-dinner slot can be perceived as lightweight, fluffy and inconsequential by most “content-rich” business speakers! (Though of course all good speakers should use humour in their presentations – if – as the saying goes – “they want to get paid”…)
A second consideration is that the environment in which the after-dinner speaker performs is not an orderly, classroom style conference setting – with an attentive audience and the comfort of PowerPoint slides to aid your presentation! You’re on your own in front of what can often be a challenging, easily distracted and potentially unruly crowd – whose feedback should be laughter but can also be a rising buzz of conversation if their attention is not held! I know of one speaker who says he “would never speak in a room where alcohol is present” – in which case the after-dinner market is definitely not for him!
Yet the market is a huge and potentially lucrative one which all speakers should consider developing as a part of their offering. There are of course some pitfalls to be aware of before you can think of adding it to your portfolio, but if you have the aptitude and aspiration to try it then you will be able to add another income stream to your speaking career!
AFTER-DINNER SPEAKER OR COMEDIAN?
So what are the skill sets you need – and do you need to be a comedian? In fact – isn’t an “after-dinner speaker” just a glorified comedian by a more dignified name? Many comedians market themselves as after-dinner speakers – yet there is a subtle difference – and it’s not a case of which is “better” – more a case of which is more appropriate for the event. We all love to laugh and a good comedian can be a real asset – yet 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!
With an emphasis on humour and entertainment you may think you need to be a “joke teller” – not so! In fact the wonderful Jeremy Nicholas offers a great bit of advice for after-dinner speakers: “don’t tell jokes”! (By the way – if you want to use humour in your talks – whatever type of speaking you do – you simply must attend one of Jeremy’s keynotes on humour in speaking – or watch some of his many YouTube clips on the subject). Telling traditional jokes (set-up, punchline, topper) runs the “heard it before” risk – especially as many popular jokes and stories “do the rounds”. While it IS possible to restructure an old joke to fit a topical (or event-specific) situation – in general they are best avoided. So there’s no need to tell jokes – your humour should be personal, based on your experiences and your “research” about the audience.
The difference as I see it is that a “speaker” will have a “theme”, or stories to tell based on their personal 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. Basing a speech on yourself guarantees it will be original! Any “message” should be kept light – just enough to add some substance without getting too deep. My own personal feeling is that the ratio of humour to message should be 90/10 in an after-dinner speech.
A speaker who tries to incorporate an in-depth 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. A thoughtful blend of the two is what is required – delivered with panache, style and good taste!
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! I always issue a briefing sheet, and ask for a guest list and table plan so I know everything there is to know about the organisation, event and audience. I always ask to be seated next to a senior person who can continue to brief me about the audience and the event during the meal. (“Celebrity” speakers will rarely do this as they are there to speak about “themselves”!)
Many “speakers” are sportspeople, adventurers, business people or simply people from professions 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.)
In fact many of the speakers on the “after-dinner circuit” are known by their professions…. there’s the Prison Governor from Glasgow, the Air Traffic Controller from Birmingham, The Bank Manager from York, the Chest Surgeon from Bury, the Gynaecologist from Hull and the Scrap Metal Dealer from Skegness! As diverse a selection of professions as you could ever imagine! All base their humour – loosely – around their profession – though if truth be told there is a certain amount of “artistic licence” employed in the interest of making their stories funnier – and why not!
So you don’t need to be a comedian – but you do need the right fundamentals. I would say you will know if you have the aptitude to be an after-dinner speaker if you have “funny bones”. By that I mean a humorous outlook, a quick wit and a likeable warm personality. If you are more the serious, intellectual type you may need to lighten up a bit first! The good news is – humour can be learnt – seek out a good “humour coach”, or enrol on a comedy course – scary, but there’s no better way to learn to swim than jumping in at the deep end!
After-dinner speaking is a huge responsibility as it is often the very last part of an event – and thus one the audience will remember – hopefully for the right reasons! There is nothing better than holding an audience “in the palm of your hand” – involving them all and making them laugh – it’s a drug! Try it!