The Treacherous Dinner Speech

No matter how even-tempered and courteous you might be, when you give a speech during a dinner there is a good chance you will surprise yourself and suddenly say really nasty things. This recently happened to a Chinese diplomat, who during his formal dinner speech turned to the Secretary-General of the United Nations and told him he did not like him and never had. Although we love hearing stories like this about diplomats breaking away from the boring diplomatic straightjacket, it is most awkward moment for everyone involved. And understandably so. That is what happens to you when you give a dinner table speech.

It is the most difficult kind of speech to give and at the same time the most fun to listen to because the more embarrassing it is, the more we have to talk about at the table. As the speaker, you don’t have a lot of time and you need to find just the right mix of being well-prepared and impromptu. You can stick to a written text, read it aloud without making eye contact with the audience and avoiding any possible distraction. This is the risk-free way which is common practice in royal and diplomatic circles.

But really, this kind of speech calls for a different approach. You are standing close to the other people at the table, the setting is informal, perhaps even festive. There is a great deal of pressure to respond spontaneously to the occasion, which can inspire you to deliver hilarious comments that delight the audience. However, just as easily these sudden inspirations can land you in trouble, as the Chinese diplomat discovered. There are plenty of awkward examples: the father of the bride who goes into detail about the early days of his marriage when love still seemed uncomplicated, the employee who during his farewell speech wishes his co-workers good luck with the coming reorganisation. These are expressions of uncensored gut feelings, set free by a few too many drinks, provoked by the expression on someone’s face, a look of understanding or a poorly suppressed yawn in the audience. Whenever you feel this coming, you can solely save your skin by stopping for a moment to restore your internal censor.

There was nothing his colleagues could do to stop the unfortunate Chinese diplomat. He must have been kicking himself the next morning before setting out to offer his humble apologies. I am afraid that in the future, he will be sticking to reading out load the written text, back in the boring straightjacket.