Unaccustomed as I am…By Trevor Plumbly
We’ve all suffered it: the wedding reception when the rumble of small-talk has replaced the clatter of crockery being cleared away. The glass pings, almost politely, and he rises to his feet surveying the seated guests in much the same way as Christopher Lee eyed the maiden’s neck in the old Dracula movies. This is the best man and it’s time for his shot at glory: the speech! He looks confidently at his wife, but rather than smile encouragement, she decides that the tablecloth needs her undivided attention. It’s not a good sign. Hell, if she can’t take it without flinching, what about the rest of us? At this point, I usually scout round for full or even half-full bottles, figuring that if I can get three parts pissed, I’ll only get to suffer a quarter of the drivel that’s sure to follow. He starts well, welcoming all and sundry (hard to go wrong there really), but the temptation to dazzle proves too much. He remarks on the groom’s age and the bride’s youth, then, descends further by observing that the children can have three grandfathers. After that, it’s all downhill. Not-so subtle hints about their sexual and drinking exploits in days of yore, leaving guests at the top table looking as if they’d rather be under it than at it, and me wondering why anyone would volunteer to make a complete prat of himself and not realise it. But I guess bad speakers come self-insulated.
Funnily enough, those who choose to speak publicly are creatures of the extreme, either interesting or blindingly boring. Men of the Cloth, despite having a captive audience that only answers back in agreement, seem to have trouble finding a standard sales pitch to deliver the good word. There’s nothing wrong with the product, it’s been around for years, it’s even compulsory in some parts, and they don’t take it back if it don’t work. The Almighty’s agents range from tub-thumping evangelists down to the reverent reverends. Fire and brimstone preachers are always riveting: let’s be honest, it’s pretty hard to doze off when you’re being promised the fires of hell if you don’t stop lusting and all that other human stuff. Meanwhile the apostles are extracting the admission price from the believers with the ease of back street muggers. It’s all great entertainment, church oratory at its very best. Reverent reverends deliver the same message, but in hushed tones, as if they’re lucky to be on the team and don’t want to make a fuss. A soft monotone can induce drowsiness, and a rousing hymn every so often is needed to keep the attention level above stupor. It’s all very genteel; hell is occasionally referred to, but no-one gets threatened with it or knows of anyone who actually went there. The admission price here is harvested from the believers by benign blackmail rather than religious thuggery. It’s worth a visit for academic comparison rather than entertainment. If you feel compelled to attend, get married by the former and buried by the latter.
Politicians set the benchmark when it comes to public speaking. An argument could be advanced for thespians, but let’s face it, they only use other people’s material, so it’s all a bit pre-cooked, and we all know that they’re only acting. The Honourable Member might also be acting, even lying through his teeth, but it’s bloody hard to prove it! Right from the start, politicians learn to tap-dance; on their way to the top they have to serve three masters: the constituency, the party and their own ambitions. The ladder gets easier to climb if you’ve got televisual appeal, the gift of the gab and can toss in a dollop of sincerity on cue.
Aspiring high flyers lead the fray rather than mumble from the back benches along with the rest of the cannon fodder. It’s relatively easy to identify them: they enjoy the spotlight and the sound of their own utterances. They don’t use facts and figures; ordinary mortals like advisors and consultants deal with that stuff! It’s pretty hard to galvanise a crowd with trade figure percentage variations. An impassioned non-specific picture of how great the future could be usually pulls in a few punters, and, let’s face it; rosy images aren’t exactly hard policy. If they materialise, great, if not, just blame the previous administration. Well worth a listen for smoke and mirrors oratory, but take along plenty of salt.
Sadly for long-suffering listeners, good speakers don’t say enough, while bad ones always seem to say too much. Can I appeal to the latter by asking them to please remain unaccustomed?