Friday, January 21, 2011


Spontaneous Speeches

“The President can’t make it. Can you step in for him? It starts in ten minutes.”

Uh, sure.

That isn’t the worst. I’ve actually been called on to “say a few words” on the spot. That’s always a little unnerving.

I mostly write about either the management dilemmas of my job, or the larger structural issues that underlie them. But there’s also a ceremonial aspect to the job. Sometimes, you have to be the public face of the college. Presidents expect that, of course, and they’re always the first choice. But sometimes the President’s schedule doesn’t permit, and suddenly, it’s showtime.

It gets less scary the more it happens, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit having to pause a bit each time.

Over the last few years, I’ve developed a few rules of thumb for spontaneous speeches. I’d love to hear more from readers who regularly deal with this sort of thing.

- Audience, audience, audience. If it’s a graduation ceremony, or an orientation, or a celebration of something-or-another, they aren’t there to hear you. The “few words” are purely ritualistic. To the extent that they can include a reference to why they’re there, all the better. Brevity is your friend. Serve the purpose of the gathering, and it’ll be okay.

- Flattery. When in doubt, flatter the audience. Since the occasions at which spontaneous speeches tend to be celebratory, in one form or another, this is usually easy.

- Simplicity. This is not the time to show off your vocabulary. Clear, direct, simple.

- Safe humor. This is tricky, and it’s where years of practice in the classroom really pay off. The safest humor is self-deprecating. Avoid puns, irony, and complexity. I also avoid “jokes.” Better to find humor in your own fish-out-of-water moments -- relatable, but safe -- then to try to pass as a comedian. Doing comedy well is astonishingly hard, and watching a wannabe comedian bomb is physically painful.

- Quotes. I generally avoid them, since they often come off as clunky and pretentious. To the extent that I do use them, they’re simple, and usually in the context of telling a very brief story. Never, ever, ever, under penalty of death, quote a dictionary. Ever.

- Positive. In the words of Ren and Stimpy, “happy happy joy joy.” (That’s the kind of quote I’ll actually use.) The spontaneous speech is not the time to plumb the depths of your soul. Be positive, flattering, and brief, and sit the hell down.

Wise and worldly readers -- there’s the flattery! -- have you found graceful ways to handle spontaneous speeches?

We recently had a member of the Board of Regents give the best commencement speech I ever heard. He told us it had 10 points that graduates should know going out in the world (and they were short). Point number ten was a self-deprecating comment about clapping for the speakers who gave short speeches.
No advice but a great memory. When I graduated from college the Governor was there, he gave a great, short little speech. It was funny and went over well with the largely democrat crowd. The commencement address was given by the director of a local art museum (very well known in the area). She went through the whole alphabet with a thought for each letter. A LONG thought.
Another non-advice memory comment here.

At one of the high school graduations I've attended (I'm a teacher), they decided to play a CD for the National Anthem rather than have students perform it (I'm not quite sure why - we had a music program). The CD player did not end up working, and so the principal ended up leading us all in singing the National Anthem. I've both sung solos and given speeches, and I know which I'd rather do on no notice. (It actually ended up working out ok. She started us off and had the sense to step back from the mike and blend with the crowd as soon as the audience started singing along.)
Quotations are deadly, I agree--unless they are ones that have sunk into your soul and are on your tongue regularly. Here's an example, stimulated by your post, a quotation rarely far from my mind in class: "Dying is easy, comedy is hard."
Of course, there is always the possibility of galvanizing your audience and riveting their attention with counterintuitive, outrageous, astonishing remarks.
The bottom line is that if you make your audience feel good about themselves, they will love you.
So your advice to all future administrators is to go to every meeting and dinner with an "acceptance speech" in your coat pocket? Makes sense.
We all have a God-given right to speak freely, and the First Amendment to the US Constitution says only that government may not abridge it:speech recognition program
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