Saturday, January 27, 2018

Every Speech Should Entertain

The Passionate Speaker

A Newsletter for Speakers
Michael Landrum

Every Speech Should Entertain
"Ennui, felt on the proper occasions, is a sign of intelligence." – Clifton Fadiman

* * *

A speech should have a solid and serious purpose: to inform, persuade or inspire the audience towards a specific goal. But if a speech is not entertaining on some level, it will fail in that purpose. Every speech must entertain, in the broadest sense of the word.

There are many ways to entertain. Stories are the most common element of entertainment, but any sort of surprising or unusual phrase, rich language, a startling metaphor, or a little-known fact, can intrigue and entertain an audience. So, rather than just say 87 years, one well-known speaker chose "fourscore and seven years ago. . . " and transformed the mundane into the memorable. Lincoln had a genius for making phrases that were poetic and interesting; he makes us think, pause, relish the words and ponder their meaning long afterwards. That's entertainment.

While I am not in favor of speakers telling ‘jokes,' I do appreciate it when one goes to the trouble to season a speech with wit – borrowed, bought, stolen or homegrown. Quotations, epigrams, and wisecracks from the past are an excellent source of wit. Casey Stengel could have been describing the talent of quoting rather than managing when he called it: "The art of getting credit for all the home runs that somebody else hits."

I love quotes. I'm also fond of daffy-nitions such as "Nut – a fruit built like an oyster;" or "Kibitzer – the unmarried Siamese twin," or "Fun – which is like insurance – the older you get, the more it costs." The problem is, these things are like peanuts – it's hard to know when to stop. Unfortunately, some speakers have come to resemble the airlines who now give peanuts where we used to get meals. Too many speeches offer a couple of one-liners and then back to the heavy lifting.

The square meal of speaking will always be the story. There is an art to finding a story with a point that is entertaining and can stand on its own. If it carries a message congruent to the speaker's point, that is a pure trifecta. A good story well told can be pressed into service to illuminate many different points. It's a challenge to find stories and turn them in the light to see their various facets and meanings. Here's a story from my childhood that has been a standard at the Landrum holiday table for years. I would be interested in knowing what moral or message it carries for you.

When I was six years old and my little brother, Mit, was four, we lived in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Steamboat was mainly a cow town in those years just after World War II. With a population of 1,500 or so, it was hardly the resort it has become since. Dad was driving a bulk gasoline truck for Mobil, and times were hard for us. The winter of 1948 was one of the toughest in the history of that area. We had snow in August. By fall the blizzards came as regular as breakers on a beach, and by December people had to tunnel out of their houses. We had been snowbound for a long time and the week before Christmas we still had no Christmas tree in our newly-built, four-room cement-block house.

Then one day, the sun broke through and the sky blessed us with that clear, deep azure the mountain people love to see on a winter afternoon. "Now's our chance to go get a tree!" Mom said, and we all piled in the Chevy.

Folks in Steamboat didn't buy their trees at the grocery store in 1948. They figured, living in the middle of one of the largest evergreen forests in the world, the thing to do was cut your own. We drove out on the back roads and admired the trees. "There's a nice one, Stu," said Mom, pointing to a little fir about fifty yards from the road. "Are you sure, Becky? I'm only gonna cut one." We voted and that tree was it. So dad got the ax and some rope out of the trunk and stepped off the road toward the tree. He immediately sank into the snow up to his armpits. "My!" said Mom, "It didn't look that deep."

Dad waded across to the tree, and with much effort and many stops for breath, he managed to cut it down. He tied the rope to it and dragged it back to the car. When he reached the firm road at last, he was so exhausted that he just lay there and gasped for air. Mit, already showing signs of becoming the scientist, examined him closely and asked in a detached tone "Is he gonna die?"

The tree, which from the car had seemed about six feet tall, was three times that length when he got it back to the road. So when dad recovered, Mom picked out the best looking eight feet and they cut it and tied it to the roof. It trimmed up nicely and its fresh, wild, scent filled our little house to the rafters. It was the first Christmas I can vividly remember and it gives me great pleasure to bring it out again to share with you, like an old and cherished ornament.

The next summer we found ourselves out driving again, when Mom suddenly exclaimed "Oh! This is the road where we cut our Christmas tree! Let's look for the stump." At first we had no luck but finally, on the return trip, Mit sang out "There it is!" And there, across a deep ravine stood a twenty-foot tall Douglas fir tree with a missing top.

A Thought to Ponder

"More die in the United States of too much food than of too little. "

-John Kenneth Galbraith, economist

© Michael F. Landrum

No comments: