Mr Speaker, Sir

November 8, 2000

NEITHER my legendary politeness nor respect for protocol will help when next some glory-seeker, upon being allowed to “say a few words” at a function, deliberately mistakes this minor portfolio for that of feature speaker.

But let us not single him out for special persecution. Indeed, on a national scale, we seem to have perfected the art of staging tiresome and long-winded events, some of which come perilously close to proving the theory that death can be induced by sheer boredom.

Masters of such ceremonies, forever on the lookout for fresh opportunities to inflict additional punishment, recently hit upon the idea of ushering each speaker to the podium with a length of introduction that rivals his biography. Aware of this particular conspiracy, invitees have begun using the inevitable opening prayer as a petition for brevity of proceedings.

But the guests seldom win, because this dragging out of the event occurs sequentially, throughout the programme.

For openers, every speaker now trots out individual salutes to each category, name and title of the entire membership of the head table; sometimes even preceding the opening prayer with the detailed protocol list.

The prayer itself, in seeking to embrace all known religions and offend none, frequently turns into full-scale didactic discourse. And what used to really be just “welcome remarks” have now become elaborate historical perspectives, coupled with future plans of the host organisation and acknowledgement of its elders and support groups.

A new addition to the programme is that person “who will give us a little background to the event”.

Recognising that his time at the microphone may be limited by the description of his purpose, the backgrounder begins at the dawn of time and inches his way toward the podium, year by agonising year.

By way of extending the torment, the feature speaker deduces from his job-specification, unlimited licence to wallow in nostalgia, introduce a string of spectacularly incongruous anecdotes, or tell jokes that leave the majority of the audience well outside of the humour loop.

Then there are those walk-in surprises, living addenda to the already burdened programme, who have been seen in a series of whispered consultations at the side of the stage and who, the MC would have us believe, “could not let this event pass without saying a few short words”. Fact is, having imposed themselves upon the agenda, the interlopers never limit themselves to even a few long paragraphs.

But you know you’re really in trouble when you hear the promises like: “I am going to confine my speech to just two small points”, or worse, “I will be very brief”. And at events where awards are presented and each recipient afforded an opportunity to express gratitude from the podium, expect the worst.

It may be useful here to examine the model introduced by American comedian Rosie O’Donnell. Minutes before her hosting of a recent music awards presentation, O’Donnell corralled all potential recipients and guided them accordingly: “I just ran into God backstage,” she said. “He already knows your thoughts and sent to say ‘You’re welcome’.”

Presumably, that ruse will reduce the detailed evangelising that has, in the latter day, replaced the simplicity of “thank you”. We come now to the person who is “here to make a few closing remarks”.

Normally, the most ruthless character at the organisation’s disposal is given this responsibility, knowing he can ensure that the audience does not lightly earn pending cocktails. These “wrap-up” speakers often execute the portfolio to the extent of mummifying the audience. Mark you, as a people, we never seem to properly close jars, drawers or doors, so there is no cultural reason why we should expect that “closing remarks” should be any different.

The vote of thanks, that final hurdle before members of the audience can regain circulation in their buttocks and thighs, is quite another matter. Sponsors, some of whom gave nothing more than a bag of used ice, get the same mention as organisations that rented the venue and donated the liquor bar and food service.

And how can we forget the newspaper boy who has supplied regular delivery?” the last speaker asks, as if sincerely in need of guidance on the topic.

Three hours later and without so much as a thought for those of us sweltering under the tent or left to stand all the while because organisers had underestimated response, the final “thank you” comes. And on more than a few occasions, some committee member rushes back to tap the microphone, asking our attention to “one last thing”.

It is all too wearying, these oratory excursions that masquerade as “brief and simple functions”. Indeed, a good research project for theologians who still argue that “Jesus wept” is the shortest complete paragraph in the history of communication, would be to check further and find out if He was really on the Mount of Olives, or attending a local gathering at the time. Researchers in language arts should meanwhile work at the origin of the Parliamentary statement.

“I beg to move”, with particular reference to its proximity to speeches such as we have examined today. There is more than an even chance that the appendage was first heard around the same time that Jesus wept.

Terry-J at I-Level