Least said, soonest mended, but with a sting

Years ago, I became enmeshed in the public speaking circuit. It started innocently enough.

A friend who was in Rotary asked me to be their guest speaker. I'd just done a history of hairbrush manufacturing and he assured me that the Rotarians would go wild about it.

In fact, the audience was subdued, but one Rotarian asked what the profit per book was.

After that, I was trapped. There are dozens of clubs, all desperate for guest speakers. The treadmill began and, to be fair, it was a pleasant way to meet people and pick up the odd petrol voucher.

Eventually, the Rotary club which started it all rang suggesting I speak to them and I realised I must have done them all. It seemed a good reason to retire from the speaking circuit, and this I did.

A few non-speaking years went by and then a woman rang to say her Probus club was getting a bit desperate and would I speak in May the following year? It seemed so far ahead and the caller was an old family friend, so I agreed.

Inevitably, ''May next year'' rolled around and I turned up to deliver a few pearls of wisdom.

I warned my audience that if they'd been members of various clubs for any length of time they probably had already sat through one of my speeches.

Not surprisingly, when the lady presenting the petrol voucher came to speak she said she had been in several clubs for some years and that I had been ''much more entertaining last time''.

I immediately reimposed the public speaking ban. But then, just a week ago, came another request to speak at the anniversary dinner for an organisation I much admired. I could hardly refuse, but I knew I'd have to brush up on my public speaking.

But where to go? There was no point asking a politician, as there are none who actually provide enjoyable listening.

Then a city councillor told me of an organisation which had helped him in his public speaking, Speak-E-Z (an offshoot of an American crowd, obviously).

For my first session I was asked to bring along a speech and as I read it, the expert would make corrections or suggestions.

''I.''

''Oh! No, no! Never start with `I'. It smacks of egotism. It's non-inclusive.''

''We are about to be given my thoughts.''

''No. No. You don't `give' or `reveal' stuff - you share it.''

''We will share thoughts on the history of.''

''Whoops. Sorry. Forgot about the greeting. Back to the top, please.''

''Good evening. We are.''

''No. No. It's tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.''

''Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa. Before we share the history of this club can I tell you a story which may be new to some of you here tonight? There was this Chinaman.''

''No. No. No. If you must do humour then no racial stuff, nothing about religion, sex, politics, disability or bodily functions.''

''So I drop the one about the one-legged Irish lesbian who became Pope?''''Definitely.''

''Strangely, nothing amusing has happened during the entire 50-year history of this club. But, before closing.''

''Yes, that's good. Signpost the end of the speech; that cheers them up.''

'' ... I would like to thank you for the invitation and to thank the ladies for ...''

''No. No. That's patronising and sexist.''

''... thank the ladies for being the backbone of this club and for retaining it as a strictly female club over all these years.''

''Oh, I see. That's OK.''

''Thank you and good night.''

''Great.''

''But I didn't actually say anything.''

''Yes. Well done. I can see politics will be a doddle for you.''

''But I wanted to tell stories and give them some history.''

''No. No. Might have offended someone. This way you can leave without anyone complaining about the content of your speech. That could lead to more invitations.''

I paid Speak-E-Z their fee and left feeling a bit down. My speech at the dinner would certainly be inoffensive but would anyone actually enjoy it?In the event, it was a great success.

I followed the advice of Speak-E-Z and received a standing ovation. Someone even called for three cheers. I was a bit surprised, to tell you the truth, because during the speech I noticed quite a few fidgeting and squirming and at least a dozen people had dropped off to sleep.

I asked the chair's opinion on my performance and insisted on an honest answer.

''Well, to tell you the truth, it was a bit bland in parts. And the Maori greeting was odd as we've never had a Maori member.''

''But what about the ovation and applause?'''Mmmm? Hard to say. May well have been your parting bit about offering $5000 to the club's social fund. Now that's really public speaking!!''

 -Jim Sullivan is a Dunedin writer and broadcaster.

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