A Brief History of the After Dinner Speech

Put bluntly, after dinner speakers have been around for a long time. The world’s first recording of an after dinner speech is dated October 5th 1888. In this short speech, Sir Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan musical fame) adopts the role of after dinner speaker to praise the work of Thomas Edison for his invention of the Phonograph. The recording took place at the Surrey home of Colonel George Gourand, the man responsible for bringing Edison’s sound recording device to London and distributing it in Britain. Using the phonograph itself to record his speech, this recording puts Sullivan first in a series of celebrity after dinner speakers employed by Gourand to promote his newest product: Edison’s phonograph. You might therefore say that – given the promotional, business focus of the dinner – Arthur Sullivan’s speech establishes him as the first of many corporate after dinner speakers… Or maybe that’s too tenuous.

However, whilst 1888 gives us the first recording of after dinner speakers, the roots of this tradition can, as you’d expect, be traced back much further. Whilst it is thought that early training in public speaking took place in ancient Egypt, the art of public peaking in a more general sense was popularised in Ancient Greece, where oratory skills were regarded as essential for success in court, politics and a social life. In the democratic life of Athens in the 5th Century BC, public speaking was almost exclusively reserved for a small, educated elite. It is here that we can find the first shadowy figures resembling after dinner speakers. These after dinner speakers would certainly all be male, and would meet in the home of a host where a substantial amount of eating and drinking would take place before one of the present company would take to the floor as a speaker, presenting a combination of jokes and more serious political points to his peers.

Dating after dinner speakers back to Ancient Greece, we can still see hazy parallels between this classical educated elite and the after dinner speakers on the circuit today. After dinner speakers, whilst not exclusively so, are still predominantly male (of the after dinner speakers JLA work with, a whopping 87% are men) and for many, the world of after dinner speakers is still closely associated with impressive socio-olitical figures ready to take a slightly informal and wine-soaked look at how their world meets that of their audience.

Kin Hubbard famously said of after dinner speakers that ‘No matter how much strong black coffee we drink, almost any after-dinner speech will counteract it’. That’s not exactly how we’d like to look at it over here, and judging by the rich history behind after dinner speaking, I’d say that’s not a particularly popular point of view, but I guess you’ll have to decide for yourselves.

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