The Value Of A Good Story
( Originally Published 1901 )
No matter how inexperienced a speaker may be or how stammering his utterance, if he can tell a good story, the average dinner party will pronounce him a success, and he will be able to resume his seat with a feeling of satisfaction. The efforts often made to bring in an entertaining story or a lively anecdote are sometimes quite amusing, but if they come in naturally the effect will unquestionably be happy. Almost any story, by using a little skill, can be adapted to nearly every occasion that may arise. We may mention a few among which a speaker can scarcely fail to find something to serve his purpose.
It is necessary always to be thoroughly familiar with the story and to understand its exact point. No matter how deliberately or with what difficulty you approach that part of your speech where the fun is to be introduced—yet, when that point is reached there must be no hesitation. It is well to memorize carefully the very words which express the pun, or the flash of wit or humor which is the climax of the story. The story itself may be found in such a manual as this, or in some volume of wit and humor.
There is no disadvantage in using wit gathered from any source, if it has not been so often used as to be completely worn out. When a good story is found anywhere and fully memorized and all its bearings and fine points thoroughly understood, there are two ways of getting it before an audience. The direct way is to say frankly that you have read a story and will tell it. This will answer very nicely when called upon for a speech. Few festive audiences are unwilling to accept a story for a speech, and a proposal to compromise on such terms is very likely in itself to bring applause. But the story in this case should be longer than if it is given as part of a speech. If, however, it should prove a failure, your performance will make a worse impression than when a poor story is introduced into a speech, although the story may only feebly illustrate any portion of it.
For these as well as other reasons most persons will prefer to make an address, even if it be very brief, and will endeavor to make the story fit into it. All stories that suggest diffidence, modesty, backwardness, or unwillingness to undertake great things, can be introduced to show how reluctant the speaker is
to attempt a speech, and if these characteristics are only slightly referred to in the story it may still be used effectively and will leave a favorable impression.
If a topic, a toast, or a sentiment is given for a response, any of them may suggest a story; and after a good story has been told—one that has real point —it will be better to stop without making any at-tempt at application or explanation.
A great help is often found in the utterances of previous speakers. If these have done well, they may be complimented, and the compliment so contrived as to lead directly up to the story that is lying in wait; or something being said with which you heartily agree—however slight a portion of the address it may be—this harmony of views can be used in the same manner. On the other hand, if you disagree with any of the speakers, the mere reference to it will excite a lively interest. If this difference is used, not as the basis of a serious argument, but only to drag in a story illustrating the disagreement, the story will nevertheless appear to be very appropriate.
If you happen to be the first speaker, you are by no means without resources. You can then imagine what other speakers are going to say, and if you can slip in a humorous or good-natured hit at the expense of some of the prominent speakers, it will be highly relished. If you describe what they are likely to say it will be enjoyed, while if you should happen to mention the very opposite this will be set down as your intention. You may even describe the different speakers, and be reminded of things that will bring in the prepared story very appropriately.
. The writer once knew of a very dull speaker, who scored a great success in a popular meeting, by describing the eloquent speaker who was to follow. He began by telling how he was accustomed when a boy to take a skiff and follow in the wake of a steamer, to be rocked in its waves, but once getting before the huge vessel his boat was swept away, and he was nearly drowned. This unfortunately was his situation now, and he was in danger of being swept aside by the coming flood of eloquence. But he asked who is this coming man? It was the first time he had heard of him—then followed the story he had been trying to work in—a story wherein the eloquent man was described as " one who could give seventeen good reasons for anything under heaven." The story was a great success. In dumb show, the speaker he referred to begged for mercy. This only delighted the audience still more, and when the dull speaker finished it was admitted that, for once, he had escaped being stupid or commonplace. He had also forced upon the next speaker the necessity
of removing the unpleasant effects of the jokes made at his expense, a task that required all his cleverness.
The manner of introduction by the chairman, his name or general position, the appearance of any one of the guests, the lateness or earliness of the hour, events of the day that attract interest, the nature of the entertainment or assemblage—all of these will offer good hooks by which to draw in the story. But let the story be good and thoroughly mastered. Of course the work of adaptation will be much easier if you have several stories in reserve. A story must not be repeated so often that it becomes known as be-longing to you, for then a preceding speaker might get a laugh on you by telling it as yours, leaving you bankrupt.
Jones and Smith once rode several miles in a carriage, together, to a town where both were to make addresses. Jones was quite an orator; Smith had a very retentive memory. Jones asked Smith about his speech, but Smith professed not to have fully decided upon his topic, and in turn asked Jones the same question. Jones gave a full outline of his speech, Smith getting him to elaborate it by judicious inquiries as to how he would apply one point and illustrate another. The ride thus passed pleasantly for both parties. Smith was called upon to speak first, and gave with telling effect what he had gathered from Jones, to the delight of everybody, but poor Jones, who listened in utter consternation, and had not strength enough left even to reclaim his stolen property.
If your speech is to be a story it is especially advisable to have a reserve on hand, for stories are easily copied and apt to be long remembered. Care also must be taken that the story is not one with which persons generally are familiar. A gentleman was in the habit of telling a story which has already been quoted, the point of which lies in the phrase " I'm from Boston." Some of his more intimate companions, in self-defense, would exclaim when he proposed a story, "Is it a mile from Boston ?"
The definition of the toast itself or of any of the words in the sentiment which is the speaker's topic may be made the occasion for drawing in the illustrative story.
The manner of ending a good story is also worthy of careful study. When an audience is applauding a palpable " hit," it does not seem an appropriate time to stop and take one's seat; but it often is the best course. To do this appears so abrupt that the novice is apt to make a further effort to finish up the subject till he has finished up his audience as well. An attempt to fully discuss a topic, under such concumstances, is not successful once in a hundred times. The best course is to follow an apt story by some proverb, a popular reference, or a witty turn, and then to close. But no abruptness will be disliked by your hearers half so much, as the utterance of a string of commonplaces, after you have once secured their attention. The richness of the dessert should' come at the close, not at the beginning, of the oratorical feat.