I’ve given three best-man speeches at weddings, and the one thing I’ve always noticed is that the audience is a little antsy. They want to eat, and the last thing they want to hear is the best man and the maid of honor prattle on about how great “Jessica and Todd” are together and how their love will conquer all and other over the top sugar-filled statements. I often thought that the speech would be far better received if it could be given… after dinner.
Of course, this leads into the basic question: what is an after-dinner speech?
That question is usually followed by, “Is it, like, jokes or a funny story or something like that?”
Yeah, something like that… only not.
Focus on Fun
After-dinner speeches are tougher to nail down because they can be just about anything as long as it is fun. Audiences should come away from the experience with a smile on their face. Any laughs you can provide is icing on the cake.
To that end, we must recognize the most important rule of an after-dinner speech:
Do Not Bum the Audience Out
This is not the time to talk about puppies getting hurt or relatives suffering from financial woes. Don’t mention anyone dying. I know it seems intuitive, but some speakers forget that the occasion is meant to be a happy one, and as a speaker, your job is to keep the good feelings going. Talk about almost anything else, as long as it is fun. The focus is on fun. Fun. Not sad. Fun.
But, because the only purpose of this speech is for the audience to enjoy the experience of the speech or the occasion, this means that identifying a problem and a solution (the foundation of informative or persuasive speeches) don’t really apply, and as a result, you might feel a little lost. So, what do you do?
The only way to know what to do is to understand what not to do. After-dinner speeches can come in many forms, but here are a few things to keep in mind:
Format the introduction – I’m not suggesting you have to have a preview of main points (“I’ll tell you about the camping trip from hell by looking at the nightmares of packing, the non-stop rain, and the flat tire on the way home”) even though that would work just fine. At least we know what the highlights will be. But, we need some idea of what to expect. An introduction into the story or topic helps give us the structure we crave.
No stand-up routines – After-dinner speeches still require the same rigorous development as any other speech. You can’t just get up there and start telling knock-knock jokes or ask, “What’s the deal with airline peanuts?” If you find yourself doing that trick where it looks like you’re detaching your thumb, you’ve sunk to a new low. If I see you doing that, I’ll be laughing, but for entirely different reasons.
No random stories – Again, the point here is that you need some formatting: introduction, body, and conclusion. Don’t just say something like, “Okay, I’m going to tell you a story, okay? Ready? Go.” The problem is that this is followed by a rambling story that we have no idea when it will end. If the story is amusing, you can spend a moment setting it up.
Research within – Since many topics often deal with more personal matters, research might not necessarily be formal in the sense that you search through documents or gather statistics, but it will require experiences that can be described in an amusing manner. Think about your story or topic and see if you can find a fun way to tell the story.
Laughter not required – “I’m just not funny!” I hear that all the time, and it’s not true. Anyone can be amusing. Just loosen up a bit. Relax. Laugh a little at yourself. Be a little silly and like it. But, remember that an after-dinner speech doesn’t need to be funny. It just needs to be fun. So, if you find that you can’t get people slapping their knees with your clever word play or goofy sounds, go for heart-warming. Smiles work just as well.
Appropriate topics – As I said, anything that bums out the audience is bad. Embarrassing stories seem like a way to get a quick laugh, but if you aren’t the topic, this is dangerous ground. People get upset when they feel like they look stupid or silly. The best way to decide if the topic is okay is to imagine the youngest or most conservative person in the audience. If you feel uncomfortable discussing it in front of them, then change the topic.
What Can I Say?
But, what topics can you discuss? What kind of speech would work? Well, that depends on the venue. For example, a wedding will probably include speeches about the couple. All you have to do is not saying anything that might upset the couple or the crowd (i.e. past relationships, individual shortcomings of the couple, or bets on how long the marriage will last). For other occasions, this might not be as obvious. You might be asked to simply get up and entertain the extended family at a reunion. Now what? Well, again, the venue often decides the topic.
Just find a way to relate to the audience and discuss the matter in a way that makes it fun: not-so-miserable camping trips, growing pains between mother and daughter, grocery store trip that took five hours, why Uncle Bob is the coolest and craziest guy ever, and so on.
Where’s the Roast Beef?
Most after-dinner speeches won’t actually involve a meal. I often wish they would. When people eat food, there’s generally a better overall mood felt by the crowd. That makes it easier to engage the audience. Just remember that when you do, keep the good mood going by developing a speech that will at least put a smile on their face. The audience will forge the words, but they won’t forget the feeling.