The after-dinner speech is a unique kind of special occasion speech. Mark Twain made this type of speech very popular in his day, speaking at many dinner events. These dinners were very lengthy, and were followed by several hours of humorous speeches (Patout, 1978). Such events still occur today, and are often scheduled before, during, or after a professional or civic meeting (O’Hair et al., 2001) where a meal might be served. During these speeches, audiences generally expect to be
entertained while at the same time be informed about particular issues. These dual roles can make the after-dinner speech a challenge, but with skill and practice, a well-received speech.
A well-prepared, rehearsed, and delivered after-dinner speech can make a significant mark on the audience and occasion, all the while using humor to make a serious point. Due to the nature of this speech, there are several issues to keep in mind. First, the topic or theme of the speech should relate to the occasion of the event. It is obvious to the audience when a speech is canned—that is, given repeatedly at different events to various audiences. The after-dinner speech should be tailored to the audience and specific occasion.
Second, avoid being a stand-up comedian (Hamilton, 2002; O’Hair et al., 2001). A stand-up comedy routine is merely a string of jokes, whereas the after-dinner speech is a well-organized speech that has a polished delivery. Without a clear organizational pattern, the audience will have difficulty understanding the serious point made with the speech. Furthermore, after-dinner speakers should avoid styles and forms of delivery with which they do not feel comfortable. The audience is likely to be more comfortable with the speaker’s own style. In other words, the speech and humor used should be consistent with the speaker’s persona. Additionally, there is the possibility that the speech may touch on issues that are serious or controversial. After all, the after-dinner speech sets a social agenda (O’Hair et al., 2001). Skilled after-dinner speakers understand this, and they are observant of the audience’s comfort levels. If the theme or occasion is a very somber one, such as commemorating the lost lives of the Civil Rights movement, the speaker should keep her or his humorous remarks modest so as not to seriously offend (Hamilton, 2002). Even when the purpose of the speech is more heavily weighted on agenda setting rather than entertainment, it should still be a celebration of the occasion.
The topic of humor itself warrants careful discussion. Humor is a good way to keep the audience interested in your speech—when used effectively (Hamilton, 2002). Humor creates a sense of immediacy and psychological closeness. Humor also promotes a common bond between speaker and audience, which helps the audience identify even more with the topic and content of the speech. When learning to use humor, speakers should understand the importance of nonverbal delivery (Hamilton, 2002). For one thing, do not give off the impression that you expect laughter or smiling in response to any particular remark. For example, if you deliver a clever line and stand there with an expectant smile, you are going to feel and look foolish if no one responds. Nonverbal delivery also involves a sense of comic timing. Being able to deliver funny lines without having to adjust your overall delivery is a skill that is highly valued. Timing also means not having to step in and out of a humorous line. In other words, try not to show a difference in tone between the funny and not-so-funny segments of your speech.
Of course, nonverbal humor should not stand alone in an after-dinner speech. Rather, an afterdinner speaker should have a good understanding and command of various verbal humor forms (Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, 2007) and plays on words. The idea here is that the verbal and nonverbal cues supplement each other to convey the most appropriate humor, and using humor as a verbal strategy can convey what visual humor usually cannot. For instance, it may be difficult or impossible to convey irony or contradiction through nonverbal cues alone. Using language to point out ironies and contradictory situations in life can remind listeners of what makes us human (Eisenberg, Goodall, & Tretheway, 2007), as well as make a serious point in a subtle way. Additional forms of verbal strategies include puns, hyperboles, anecdotes, and others that can tell a story or use language to convey humor images. Some of the more popular forms can be found in Table 15.1.