How to deliver an after dinner speech

Many people fall into the trap of thinking that an after dinner speech is just the same as giving any old presentation. Wrong. An after dinner speech – similar to a best man’s speech – has its own set of rules. Know and work to these rules, and you will be asked back, get these rules wrong, don’t expect to generate any opportunities from your evenings exertions.

Firstly, let’s look at the after dinner speech. Regardless of your subject matter you are there to entertain. Yes, amuse, interest, captivate… but most importantly, entertain.

Too short a speech and people will feel like they have been short-changed, too long a speech and you will find your audience lose interest. So, how long should an after dinner speech be? About 20 mins, or as the average speaker talks at about 100 words a minute, 2000 words.

An after dinner speaker is generally very “naked” (not literally). Generally, the use of PowerPoint or other such standard presentation tools are frowned upon for an after dinner speech.

Without the use of props or tools, the content of what you are saying and how you are saying it, becomes all important. A strong opening or beginning is vital – get it right, and you’ll have the audience listening intently to you all the way through; get it wrong and you’ll lose the audience before you even start. To get your headline right, think about your audience and what will ‘hold’ or ‘grab’ their attention.

Here is an opener that I used recently for a talk on Twitter which I gave as an after dinner speech: “To tweet or not to tweet, THAT is the question.”

As you think about your content, decide on what is relevant to the audience, and what will interest them. Do keep your speech on one main theme. For example, my speech on Twitter was delivered to small business owners, and was focused on how small business owners can use Twitter to generate business – a subject near and dear to every small business owner’s heart!

For some people, 20 minutes can seem like an eternity. However, when getting into their stride, most speakers can easily cover more than 20 minutes. Don’t try and cover the whole length & breadth of your topic. Interlace your speech with lots of anecdotes and personal stories to illustrate your points. Keep your speech simple. You normally don’t have the luxury of slides to describe diagrams or complex theories. Nor do you have the luxury of going back and showing a slide again, to revisit a piece of theory again.

Humour and presentations are the subject of many a big debate. My view is to avoid pre-prepared jokes, but do think about adding in a few chosen humorous comments or tip-bits.

To help keep you, the speaker, on track, do use index cards. Prepare your index cards so that they are numbered in order, and tagged together in the right order. There is nothing worse than a speaker who doesn’t use index cards and goes completely off piste for a metaphorical ramble.

And finally, don’t be tempted to give handouts until you get to the end of your slot. Handouts, if given out before or during your speech, will only decrease your audience’s engagement with you. And let me remind you, that you – as the speaker – are the most important person in the room while you are delivering your speech. Good luck!

Heather Townsend, Britain’s queen of networking, is the founder of The Efficiency Coach, a company that helps professionals achieve better business results for less effort. Follow her Joined Up Networking blog for more useful tips and tricks. She has just been commissioned to write the FT Guide to Business Networking.

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