The Purpose Of After-Dinner Speaking
( Originally Published 1901 )
Briefly stated, it is to bring into one focus the thought of an assembly. While the good things of the table may be satisfactory, and conversation free and spontaneous, there is yet need of some expedient for making all thought flow in one channel, and of blending the whole company into a true unity. There is one way, and only one, of doing this — the same that is used to produce unity of action and thought in any assembly, for whatever purpose convened. When the destinies of empires are at stake, when great questions that arise among men are to be solved, the art of speech must be called into play. So after a good dinner has been enjoyed, the same potent agency finds a field, narrower, indeed, but scarcely less operative. And this object —of causing a whole assembly to think the same thoughts and turn their attention to a common topic—is often well attained even when the speeches do not aspire to great excellence or pretension to eloquence.
A commonplace illustration will make our meaning clear. Suppose a great reception, where many rooms are filled with invited guests. There is conversation, but only by groups of two or three persons; refreshments are served; larger groups begin to gather around prominent persons, but there is the same diversity of sentiment and purpose that is to be found in a chance crowd in a public park. The guests are not in one place, with one accord. But now, on some pretext, the power of public speech is evoked; perhaps a toast is offered and responded to, or a more formal address of welcome or congratulation, or anything else suitable to the occasion. The subject and the manner of introduction are not material, so that the living, speaking man is brought face to face with his fellows; at once, instead of confusion and disorder, all is order and harmony. The speaker may hesitate in the delivery of his message, but his very embarrassment will in some in-stances contribute to harmonize the thought of the assembly even more powerfully than a more pretentious address. But a good and appropriate speech will indelibly fix the thought, and be far more satisfactory.
Where no particular kind of address is indicated by the nature of the assemblage, stories and humor will generally be highly appreciated. A good story has some of the perennial interest that surrounds a romance, and if it is at the same time humorous, an appeal is made to another sentiment, universal in the human breast. If people thrill with interest in unison, or laugh or cry together for a time, or merely give attention to the same thoughts, there will arise a sense of fellowship and sympathy which is not only enjoyable, but is the very purpose for which people are invited to assemblies.
More ordinary after-dinner speeches succeed by the aid of humorous stories than by all other means combined. In a very ingenious book of ready-made speeches the turning point of nearly every one depends upon a pun or other trick of speech. While this is carrying the idea a little too far, still it fairly indicates the importance placed upon sallies of wit or humor as a factor in speech-making. The fellowship that comes from laughing at the same jokes and approving the same sentiments may not be the most intimate or the most enduring, but it is often the only kind possible, and should be prized accordingly.
The chief use of toasts is to call out such speeches, and thus lead the thought of the assembly along pleasant and appropriate channels—all prearranged, yet apparently spontaneous.
A long speech is selfish and unpardonable. It the wearies the guests, destroys variety, and crowds others out of the places to which they have been assigned and are entitled. When the speaking is over, the company will have been led to contemplate the same themes, and will have rejoiced, sympathized, and laughed in unison.