TERRY PRONE: Lessons from history and today on why brief speeches are simply better

AN awards ceremony in Limerick. A newspaper apology in the US. The Gettysburg Address. This weekend crafted an odd connection between the three.

The awards ceremony was that staged by the Limerick Chamber of Commerce on Friday night. Now, here’s the truth about awards ceremonies from one who has served as master of ceremonies at dozens of them. They’re a lot of fun because everybody’s on a celebratory high, so moaning and bitching doesn’t happen. The MC has a ball because a PR company provides all the speaking notes while juggling the awards, be they scrolls, lumps of plastic, or cups of silver, and managing the bouquets is someone else’s problem. The only downside is that they always take exactly twice as long as they’re supposed to.

“The keynote speaker will address those present at 7pm on the button,” the organiser promises. “Then there’ll be one award between each course — no speeches, each recipient just says a few words of thanks — and you’ll be winding everything up around 9pm.”

Two chances, you think, but don’t say. First of all, the keynote speaker won’t stand up until nearly eight, because shifting people away from a source of freely administered champagne is quite difficult. Secondly, he or she will talk for a lot longer than is scheduled, which nobody minds much because they’re full of bubbles from the champagne. As the keynote speaker keynotes, the waiting staff rock gently on their feet, the familiar phrases rolling past them: “At this time of challenge for Ireland...” “I am reminded of the words of the late, great Seamus Heaney...”

They know the warm goat’s cheese salad will have turned an episcopal purple, thanks to the accompanying beetroot, by the time they get to put it in front of the diners, but that is outside of their control. Their evening varies between frantic clear-and-replace forays and utter idleness, the latter occasioned by the award winners, who never confine themselves to brief words indicating how honoured and appreciative they are. Instead, they give separate votes of thanks demanding rounds of applause to their grandparents, their parents, their primary school teacher, their secondary school teacher, their professor at college, the Dragons who rejected their big idea but gave them publicity, the head of the IDA and the local representative of Enterprise Ireland. In the old days, they would also mention the local bank manager, but that happens less often these days.

Ostensibly, no award winner ever knows they’ve been selected, which means they should all arrive on stage stunned into a graceful silence. Forget that. Half of them arrive on stage with a five-page speech wot they wrote on the offchance they’d get selected. The other half arrive without a speech, but with the determination not to be out-done by those who came prepared, and so they follow the example of Oliver Goldsmith, of whom a contemporary said that, in rhetorical terms: “He gets on without knowing where he will get off.”

Now, I wasn’t at the Limerick awards do, but I gather it followed more or less the pattern outlined so far. The secretary general of the Department of Health and other important people spoke. Eight companies received awards, which meant the evening was well advanced before the time came to announce the winner of the President’s Award, which went to the formidable Rose Hynes for her chairing of Shannon Airport’s revival. Its revival is largely thanks to Hynes’ sheer force of personality. This is not a woman who’d put a severed horse’s head at the bottom of your bed if you failed to deliver. The head at the end of the bed would be human, and yours.

So her name is announced and as she proceeds to the top of the room to receive the award, those present brace themselves for a lengthy rhetorical excursion into Shannon Airport. Instead, she quotes from Churchill to the effect that courage is what it takes to stand up and speak, and courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen. She’s been sitting down listening to her customers for the last two hours and as a result makes two points. A) That they don’t want to have to listen to another speech. B) That her main point is “Fly Shannon”. Then she leans into the microphone.

“Here’s the deal,” she tells them. “You agree to fly Shannon and make it your airport of choice and I’ll sit down.”

Cries of “Deal!” rang out on all sides as the room erupted in laughter. Relieved laughter. They were delighted by Rose Hynes’ good humoured eschewing of her chance to address the assembled movers and shakers of Limerick. Her restraint is rare.

At dinners, award ceremonies, seminars and conferences, speakers regard filling their allocated time as essential, and exceeding it as inevitable. When trainers like me suggest they could do the event a great service by using only half of their time, because every other speaker will overflow, they nod and smile and ignore the advice, fearing that if they don’t fill the time allotted, they’ll not be considered significant.

They do have a certain amount of precedent on their side. Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg followed a two-hour oration by a former Massachusetts governor named Edward Everett. One can only guess at the president’s thoughts as he listened — attentively, according to contemporary accounts — to the two-hour oration, knowing how short was his own planned speech, which would last for a couple of minutes, after which, according to one witness, “the assemblage stood motionless and silent. The extreme brevity of the address together with its abrupt close had so astonished the hearers that they stood transfixed. Had not Lincoln turned and moved toward his chair, the audience would very likely have remained voiceless for several moments more. Finally there came applause.”

According to biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Lincoln may have initially interpreted the audience’s surprise as disapproval”.

Everett, the man who had warbled on for 120 minutes, knew better. “I should be glad,” he wrote to Lincoln the following day, “if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours as you did in two minutes.”

Media, however, couldn’t cope with a president who could get to the point in two minutes, and one newspaper (which, to be fair, had always loathed him), talked of “silly little speeches” from “a jester”.

This weekend, that newspaper revisited the issue. “Seven score and 10 years ago,” they wrote, “the forefathers of this media institution brought forth to its audience a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives.” The paper talked of having failed to recognise the “momentous importance” of the speech, its “timeless eloquence and lasting significance.”

It would be ungracious to quibble with such a beautiful apology, but it could also have praised the welcome brevity of the Gettysburg address…


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