One of the perks and, to be honest, burdens of public office is the role of guest speaker at a significant event of some organization. Whether it is the annual dinner of some alumni chapter, the 50th anniversary celebration of a local museum, the start or end of a youth sports season, or even a kindergarten graduation, the presence of an elected official can seem to give the event added significance for attendees.
It was a role I struggled with when in public office. As a politician, professor and preacher (the trifecta of “talks too much”), I was painfully aware of my potential to speak to my issues and concerns, or of my ego, at inappropriate times and at inappropriate length.
So I’d try to be sure I understood the nature of the group and the significance of the occasion, tailoring my planned brief remarks accordingly. Often, I’d realize that I didn’t have anything worth saying that the group actually cared about. I was just window dressing, a bright ribbon making the banquet hall or ballfield seem just a little more festive. And I accepted (in most cases) the decorative nature of my function.
The last thing I wanted to do was diminish their celebration.
The rules of speaking on such occasions are quite simple:
• Say thank you
• Praise the organization and its members
• Say a word of inspiration
• Sit down
Most importantly, whatever you do, Do No Harm.
We’ve probably all attended an event where the prominent guest did not understand the group, or the occasion, or the rules . . . or simply didn’t care. I remember numerous whispered asides about such a speaker when I sat in the audience. Some were humorous, some were not. None of them were appreciative.
When such a speaker goes on at length, the joy starts to go out of the gathering. Only a skilled Master of Ceremonies can re-inflate the crowd after the speaker has punctured it.
I can’t imagine what it was like to be the Master of Ceremonies at the Boy Scout Jamboree this past week.
Some of the criticism of President Trump’s speech has been unfair, with critics turning vague allusions into explicit “adult” references. But he clearly misunderstood the occasion . . . or didn’t care enough about his audience to try to understand. Based on subsequent efforts by the Boy Scouts of America to reassert their nonpartisan character and the flurry of social media attacks on the BSA for comments that, in fairness, they neither anticipated nor controlled, he clearly did some harm.
There is a lesson here that all observers, regardless of partisan leanings, ought to take to heart.
We all run the risk of letting our egos take charge. President Trump is not the first strongly ego-driven person to hold elected office. All of us, from time to time, can get wrapped up in what we are doing, or even just in who we are (or think we are).
But an invitation to speak to an organization during their celebration is precisely the moment when we need to remember that we really aren’t the point. They are.
Know your audience. Thank them. Celebrate them. Inspire them if you can.
And sit down.