Almost 20 years to the day of his first event for JLA, Jeremy Vine looks back on the lessons he’s learned and what makes a great awards host.
How many awards have I handed out on behalf of the various societies and associations and foundations and institutes that JLA has kindly introduced me to?
And how many times has chicken been served at those dinners?
And how many rules are there when you speak at an event in front of a thousand people in black ties and dark blue gowns, industrious people who want to win an award themselves but don’t particularly want to sit there watching twenty-five other people collect theirs?
The answers — at least five thousand, 342, and one.
Only one rule.
I watch so many people speak before me ― usually part of the industry we’re celebrating, often a magazine editor, quite often superb at their job but understandably nervous ― and I always make a mental note of what they said when it all goes wrong.
An example would be a polite company exec who I will call Martin. He oozed assurance. An accountant by training, he walked solidly onstage, heard his physical presence silence the audience, then said the following:
“Before I start, please take a look at the decorative flowers in the middle of your table. In the middle of them there should be an envelope which contains something a little bit special . . . ”
There is simply no way back from the error of calling a room to order and then telling every single person to look at an object in the middle of the table which is much more interesting than you are.
Soon the whole place was filled with the noise of people lifting up the floral bouquets and saying things like “I haven’t seen you for YEARS!” and “why are plastic flowers ALWAYS the wrong colour?” It was the perfect icebreaker, and the worst speech-starter. There was no possible way back.
But the other error was more fundamental.
I have noticed that people are allergic to those three words Martin used:
Before I start.
I know this because I have used them myself. “Before I start, let me tell you how these awards will work . . . ” And then I notice everyone thinking, “You’re on stage, your lips are moving. What part of that doesn’t count as speaking? Mate, you’ve started!”
One speaker at a business event in Wales said, “I’ve been asked to speak for exactly seven minutes — but as my close friends know, I never wear a watch!”
That even appalled me, and I never get upset at other people’s speeches, because you can learn from every single one of them.
So yes, the whole of speaking comes down to that rule.
Remember it, and you won’t go far wrong.
Just one rule . . .
Never begin a speech by saying “Before I start.”