Gyles Brandreth holds the record for the longest after-dinner speech, and has entertained audiences all over the world. In the wake of John Humphrys’ alleged postprandial faux pas, we asked the former MP to share his wisdom on the subject – without referring to notes, of course.
Know your audience
You can’t just turn up, stand up and hope for the best. You need to understand where people are sitting, how they are dressed, how old they are, the balance of men and women, and the mood of the occasion. I spoke at a function of the metal trade the night after 9/11, and I have spoken for companies where there have recently been redundancies.
I do my homework – last week I was in Frankfurt speaking at the flotation of a big aerospace company, and so I needed to know about aerospace, about the company, about German politics. Often you are speaking to quite a sophisticated audience, so don’t assume that they are anything but.
Entertain your audience, not yourself
There will be audiences that may require you to be politically correct and it may amuse you to be politically incorrect, but you are there to give pleasure to your audience, not to beat them over the head or upset them. If you are going to be a bit playful, first check with the person you are going to tease. I wear contact lenses and if I’ve forgotten them I will go back even 100 miles to get them, because you need to be able to see the whites of their eyes when you’re speaking.
You need your wits about you. I don’t have a sip of wine. Not a sip!
Speak before 11pm
Public speaking is about energy – yours as a performer and theirs as an audience. At 10pm they may be mellow. By 11pm, they may be exhausted. Heckling is easy to deal with if you are an old hand: if the audience has heard the heckle, then respond to it, sharply and quickly. It’s all about the moment.
Don’t be lumbered with a set text
Tony Blair speaking to the WI in 2000 arrived with a set text on an Autocue. He’s a good impromptu speaker, but he stuck to the Autocue. He should have torn up the speech and said, “Ladies, I’ve clearly got this wrong. What shall we talk about?” I was the next person on, and as his speech went wrong, I stood in the wings and modified mine. I got a standing ovation. Don’t go with a set-piece script – build into it what suits the occasion. I work from cards, on which I have 10 headings. In the break, I lock myself in the loo and read through the prepared material, and the material based on what I have learned that evening. I keep the cards in my pocket so I can keep an eye on the audience as I speak.
Don’t get rattled
Blair got rattled and did what many do – he barrelled his pace. Michael Heseltine was a barnstorming speaker, but his hand used to shake with nerves. Michael Portillo is a very good speaker, but when he’s nervous, his voice leaps an octave.
It’s the first 120 seconds that catches an audience, but pace yourself. Stand there, shoulders back, head high, stomach in. Look at them, wait until they are all quiet, then speak with clarity, conviction and warmth.
Ten years ago or more, I spoke at a dinner for the music industry. As I got up, they began throwing bread rolls. Then they began dipping the rolls in wine before throwing them. Then they put 50p pieces in the rolls. I had a dilemma. But I decided I was there for entertainment, and if being a human coconut shy does the trick, so be it. The audience is always right.
Don’t outstay your welcome
Nobody ever complains that the speech was too short. People usually ask you to speak for too long because they want value for money. I’m often asked to speak for 40 minutes. I prefer 30. Some of the best speeches are just 10. But you should please the audience, not the bookers. Bill Clinton and Desmond Tutu are the best speakers. Great speeches have humour, content and humanity, and Clinton and Tutu deliver on all three fronts.
The best speeches are like the best theatre. There is laughter and there is pathos. You make the audience roar and also you can touch them, you can see a tear in the corner of the eye. I quite often end seriously, partly to surprise people. People often think an after-dinner speech has to be a barrel of laughs, but if there’s one golden rule, it is this: if you’re speaking to dentists, don’t make jokes about dentistry – they’ve heard them all before.