The cruel conspiracy of public speaking
At secret headquarters, Hutchison insists, there’s a file on every speaker and every subject. And since every speech is basically the same, the victim finds himself in a dozen drawers.
Just open your mouth once in public and your name goes into the secret files of unpaid after-dinner orators. Then you’re doomed to an eternity of roaming the nation’s hotel dining rooms, picking at thousands of execrable meals, and making and remaking the same old speech to audiences of 27. So warns a famous writer (and retired public speaker)
]My first knowledge of the great Canadian conspiracy reached me at the unlikely village of Cobble Hill, Vancouver Island, ten years ago.
As I remember it, the local Board of Trade had invited the distinguished Ontario orator, Mr. Wellington Pilk (known in those days as the Golden Voice of Sarnia), to deliver his memorable speech entitled “Canada on the Road to Ruin,” then in its fifteenth successful season. Unfortunately, Mr. Pilk was compelled to cancel the engagement when he had occasion to elope with a wealthy married lady from Swift Current, who had fallen in love, like so many others, with his peroration—one of the common hazards of the orator’s profession.
In any case, my ill-fated friend, Mr. Horace Snifkin, agreed out of civic spirit to act as a substitute and unwittingly assured the shipwreck of his career. Though that tragedy was not foreseen, Mr. Snifkin was too nervous to drive his car so I took him to the meeting in. mine and thereby stumbled upon the nation's best organized crime network, its intellectual Mafia.
In the exposé I am now able to make, after a decade of investigation, Mr. Snifkin’s appearance at Cobble Hill is a small incident. Instead of speaking on Canada’s Road to Ruin, as the audience expected, he showed some colored lantern slides of his trip to the Middle East in 1911 and said the Pyramids were quite impressive. The Board of Trade was very sporting about the whole thing, I thought, but a little disappointed after it had widely advertised a “Staggering Sensation.”
The entertainment seemed harmless enough but poor Mr. Snifkin was already in the grip of the conspiracy. Actually, while the conspirators’ methods are complicated beyond belief, their original inspiration was absurdly simple. They had the genius to recognize Canada’s unnatural, insatiable appetite for speeches and any kind of culture requiring no mental exertion from producer or consumer.
On that single fact was built a unique Canadian industry dedicated solely to the harassment of the public, an industry which uses up more time and energy than all other industries combined but never pays its workers a nickel, earns no profits and contributes no taxes.
According to the Dominion Bureau of Statistics, no less than a thousand public meetings are under Way in Canada at any given moment; the total sound issuing from our public speakers’ collective vocal
chord any night of the week equals a hundred megatons or five carloads of sleeping pills.
Of course, the immediate aftermath of Cobble Hill should have warned me that Mr. Snifkin confronted an enemy of diabolical cunning, whose resources of information were unequaled by the Mounted Police, but 1 was a guileless young fellow at the time.
Two more years of research were needed to uncover the secrets of the nationwide espionage system, consisting of luncheon-club presidents, speakers’ committees, corresponding secretaries, publicrelations counsel and virginal ladies of culture with palpitant bosoms, tinkling bracelets, protruding teeth and the instincts of a cobra.
When any man. however obscure, makes a speech, or writes a book, or submits a letter to the newspapers or is mentioned in the social columns of the smallest weekly publication in Canada the conspirators learn about it on the grapevine within hours.
Once the name of the unsuspecting citizen reaches headquarters his normal life is finished. He becomes a Public Speaker in capital letters and a filing cabinet. He would be much luckier if he were privately buried under small print.
Suddenly, as Mr. Snifkin found after the Cobble Hill meeting, the victim will receive invitations to make a speech in every city, town and hamlet from St. John’s to Victoria.
The record shows no case of escape from the dragnet. Men who had always been faithful husbands and lived Godfearing lives are invariably seduced by this systematic flattery. They gladly abandon home, family and business to fly to Port aux Basques or Aklavik (generally at their own expense) to deliver a speech on any subject as required.
By the ethics of their craft they accept no payment, for their hosts, who willingly pay the hire of the hall, the heating bill and the janitor, would be scandalized by the thought of paying the only real worker. There is no law against this sweated labor. (Mr. Diefenbaker might think about that in his Bill of Rights.)
So it turned out with Mr. Snifkin. His life became an endless succession of luncheons and banquets, an unbroken parade of clichés, a coast-to-coast platitude, a perpetual speech. Like all his fellows, he lived on publicity, adulation and food unfit for an ostrich. So the conspiracy wrote another name on its blacklist.
The club secretaries licked their chops. The cobras of culture coiled themselves for the kill.
They had Mr. Snifkin where they wanted him. at the head table, safely between two warm females and a plate of cold consommé. In this classic setting of Canadian oratory he was destined to live the rest of his life.
The complete downfall of my friend was to take some time but within a week of Cobble Hill Mr. Snifkin (having added to his Middle Eastern repertoire some pictures of his trip to Honolulu in 1913) arrived at Kamloops, B.C., and was ready to face that preliminary test and ordeal of fire arranged by the conspiracy for its new recruits. According to the routine of all public banquets in Canada, the secretary of the Kamloops Philatelists' Society had assured Mr. Snifkin by telegram that a vast audience hungered to hear him. He was a little surprised, therefore, to find on the railway platform, at 4 a.m., no welcoming committee, only a tired taxi driver who had never heard of the Philatelists’ Society and, looking hard at the stranger, evidently considered philately a repulsive vice or an Oriental religion.
“He forgot his slides altogether and collapsed into a chair”
Mr. Snifkin was further surprised, on his arrival at the banquet hall that evening, to find an audience of 27 persons, including the paid pianist, hungering only for the regulation rubber chicken, the synthetic potato salad turned out by the plastic industry, the ice cream made from seaweed and the coffee shipped in tank cars from Montreal.
The local conspirators immediately began to execute the invariable strategy of delay and bewilderment laid down in the manual. Mr. Snifkin was lured into a back room where the elders and druids of the club shook him warmly by the hand, as in long farewell, enquired sympathetically about his health, said he probably felt better than he looked and added that a supreme performance was expected of him.
Then a jovial character, one of those smiling, oily, hard-eyed veterans who have long trained themselves in the art of breaking public speakers, patted Mr. Snifkin affectionately on the back and advised him not to be nervous, as if he were about to swim the English Channel, and an amateur poetess of love sonnets took him aside and unfolded the story of her life.
When Mr. Snifkin looked sufficiently softened up, the head-table gue.sts were deployed in the customary Canadian chain gang and marched, lockstep, to the almost empty auditorium. Clutching his notes in a damp hand beneath the tablecloth, the guest wanted to spring to his feet and get the agony over, the way a man leaps desperately into a dentist’s chair, but no such merciful relief is ever permitted under the strict rules.
Three preliminary speakers were allowed five minutes each and took twenty to say that they could hardly wait to hear Mr. Snifkin. The treasurer read the club’s annual report, a document somewhat longer than the federal government’s budget but showing a smaller deficit, only $7.65. A soprano, a baritone and a conjurer filled up another hour or so. Whereupon the chairman, seeing that it was hardly ten o’clock, wheeled out his deadliest weapon.
An old hand at this kind of work— every club has one of them and they all display the same seamy actor’s face, insinuating leer and salivary utterance — rose at last to perform the introduction. He generously suggested that the audience had not come to hear him but the renowned speaker of the evening. The audience heard the introducer nevertheless, as it always does, for some forty minutes while he exhausted every theme in Mr. Snifkin’s notes, which he had carefully read in advance, as provided by Canadian protocol, and ventured some views of his own on the tariff, national debt and foreign policy.
The audience being also satisfactorily exhausted by 10.45 p.m., the introducer stated that the guest of honor was too
well known to need any introduction and in a loud whisper to the chairman enquired the visitor’s name. This he pronounced variously for ten more minutes as Siskin, Skifton, Simpkins, Squiffson and Smith. At 10.55 punctually he promised that his dear old college chum, Mr. Stimson, would now give his address.
Once, under similar circumstances, the late Heywood Broun rose and said: "My address is 169 East 75th Street, New York,” and sat down, but Mr. Snifkin lacked Mr. Broun's courage. He was not satisfied to give his address. He felt obligated to give his speech as well.
Not the intended speech, of course. It was too late for that. He had been throwing away his notes page by page under the table as the introducer used up all their contents. Swaying on his rubber chicken and rubber legs, Mr. Snifkin recited such remaining portions of the notes as he could decipher in a dark room, repeated a few stale jokes, noted that the world was in a pretty serious state, forgot his colored slides altogether and collapsed into his chair.
Lots of pluck, no luck
His listeners, after a faint round of applause, agreed that he had not been up to the club’s usual standards. Still, they were hospitable. Though he doesn’t smoke, they presented Mr. Snifkin with one of those engraved imitation - silver cigarette cases that are always supplied by the gross from Toronto.
Mr. Snifkin fled home to weep on his wife’s neck and deliver the whole speech from beginning to end. The unhappy woman, like all speakers’ wives, had years of this sort of thing ahead of her.
Anyone, except the conspirators, would have expected Mr. Snifkin to abandon public speaking in favor of some safer work like safe blowing or moon travel. The conspirators knew better. They serit him another invitation next day and he accepted an engagement six months hence, in the hope that long before then he would have gone to Europe, or died, or been appointed to the Senate or otherwise escaped from Canadian life.
He had no luck. The apprentice orator never has. He was alive, or at least vertical, when the date arrived.
Meanwhile he decided to analyze pub-
lic speaking scientifically and to this end consulted Mr. Waldo Peevil, perhaps the most famous of Canadian orators^ (He is now in retirement with permanent laryngitis, hut, until supplanted by Mr. Paul Martin, was known throughout the land as the Organ Voice of Windsor.)
Mr. Peevil, who had been living for years on the conspiracy’s generous pension, kindly shared all his trade secrets with Mr. Snifkin, as he had already shared them with the entire nation.
The first principle of oratory, he explained, is to write one speech and stick to it. Retrimmed now and then with a few extra touches of chromium wit, a little new grille work here and there and some local jest in every town, a good, old, solid speech will look like a new automobile model and last a lifetime.
Mr. Peevil's definitive work, The DoIt-Yourself Speaker—it sells for only $2 and is the official handbook of the Orators’ Guild—divides all speeches into four basic categories.
There is, first, the End-of-the-World or All-is-Lost speech, whose practitioners are called Doomsters, Weepers, Flesh Creepers or Jolts in the jargon of the trade, though the press generally calls them Men of Stature or National Figures.
The second category is technically described as Sweet Talk, Lollipop or Aspirin, being designed for chambers of commerce to promote faith in the future. The adherents of this school are known to their colleagues as Rousers, Pep Men or Geewhizzers. The press usually refers to them as Men of Vision.
Third, there is the authoritative, factual speech intended for gatherings of economists, professors, civil servants and the better sort of hardware merchants. Any speech becomes authoritative if it mentions the latest figures of the Gross National Product, the Trade Deficit, the Velocity of Money or the Gold Reserve. This class of speaker is termed as Fact Man, Mystifier or Brain among the professionals and as an Expert or Authority in the editorial columns.
The fourth and highest department is classified as DreamstufT, Up-and-Up, Higher-and-Finer, or Goo. It scorns facts and relies on sheer eloquence, an appeal to man’s better faculties. Here everything depends on the practiced impromptu manner, the look of sudden revelation and plenty of extemporaneous phrases taken from the Oxford Book of Quotations.
On Mr. Peevil’s advice, Mr. Snifkin chose the role of the Doomster. As Mr. Peevil said, anyone can be a Doomster. Anyone can predict the End of Everything. A child could do it. The editorial waters do it every day, automatically, with a hangover, before lunchtime.
The important thing, said Mr. Peevil, was to shock the audience at the start with a few brutal facts; as, for instance, that the world's population will soon double, triple or quadruple (the exact figure is of no account) and we shall all starve or live on plankton. After that any Canadian audience will listen breathlessly for a full hour and ask for more doom.
Some morsels of decoration are useful. If you invent a vivid new epigram such as "man is the prisoner of the machine,” or “our system is obsolete” or “society is going to hell in a hack” you will have all the women’s clubs drooling over you, the teacups and the cinammon toast in the best hotels.
With all this advice Mr. Snifkin retired to his summer camp and spent three months composing the speech of a lifetime. He would have received at least $3,000 for that much work in his old profession as an auditor but he didn’t grudge his unpaid efforts. Any speaker worth his salt and rubber chicken will happily take three months to earn twenty seconds of applause.
Since the chance that any Canadian has yet to hear it is remote, I shall not report Mr. Snifkin's speech. Sufficient to say that it is a speech of Crisis, delivered under many titles.
In business clubs Mr. Snifkin spoke on the Economic Crisis, in YMCA groups on the Moral Crisis and at missionary societies on the Spiritual Crisis, but it was the same good old Crisis all the time. Without a Crisis Mr. Snifkin and his fellow workers would have been out of business long ago, or would be forced to write a new speech or even turn to honest labor.
I have read his speech thirteen times and find myself as baffled as Mr. Snifkin. All he ever says, when you get right down to it, is that the future lies before us. That exact phrase occurs in seven different paragraphs. But then, it occurs in all well-established Canadian speeches and it never fails to impress an intelligent audience.
No one in Mr. Snifkin’s innumerable meetings ever expressed any lack of surprise and admiration as he proved with an hour’s argument that the future definitely lies before us and went on to demonstrate, beyond reasonable doubt, that nuclear destruction would not be in the true interests of mankind.
Now and then Mr. Snifkin introduced a few experimental flourishes and light persiflage like his early gagline: “Let us march breast forward with chins up and ears to the ground.”. He had expected to raise a harmless titter but that facetious phrase was taken so seriously that he incorporated it, at the end of the speech, as a ringing clarion call to the nation. It did a lot, he thinks, for Canadian morale.
A little doctoring and change of title made the speech look as if it had been especially prepared for every occasion. At farmers’ meetings Mr. Snifkin was billed to speak on “The Harvest of the Future,” at plumbers’ conventions on “Civilization Down the Drain,” at building contractors' banquets on “Firm Foundations,” at gatherings of fire chiefs on "The World Conflagration” and at an assembly of Blood Indians on “The White Man’s Crime.”
After a few years Mr. Snifkin needed no notes. He could deliver the speech in his sleep and, according to Mrs. Snifkin, he did so every night until she moved to a separate bedroom. There was no escape, however, for that poor lady, or any speaker’s wife. She had to attend the meetings and listen over and over again with a glazed look of fascination. She got hardened to it, though, and eventually learned to add up her housekeeping accounts, compose letters to her grandchildren or count the electric lights on the ceiling while apparently hearing the speech for the first time.
Thanks to the newspapers, no Canadian speech ever grows shopworn by repetition. Otherwise our political leaders, each carrying one set of notes which he juggles occasionally for appearance’s sake, could not survive a campaign. The newspapers of every town play up a different portion of the speech and search out their own “angle.” A speech may have been delivered a hundred times already, may be rubbed quite free of angles, may indeed be spherical like a bubble, with the same content, but it always looks brand new in print every night.
The black and white of it
Thus on his latest national tour Mr. Snifkin remarked, in a humorous aside at the University of British Columbia, that he had never been to college and didn't feel the lack of it. He was reported as vigorously denouncing higher education in large headlines. It caused quite a scandal in Vancouver. The Sun, a specialist in chaste controversy, asserted that Mr. Snifkin was a “mental hillbilly whose ego has jelled.” The Province used seven hundred words to defend the local seat of learning from “the innuendoes of eloquent ignorance.”, As advertising, no speaker could ask more.
Consequently Mr. Snifkin attracted an overflow audience in Calgary. The same old speech was interpreted as a demand for more higher education. The assertion that the future still lay ahead was greeted by the Herald as a stirring testament of faith in the prospects of the naturalgas industry.
At Edmonton Mr. Snifkin observed, by way of a whimsical introduction, that he had never seen so many square miles covered by subdivisions and mortgages. The headline in the Journal read: “Economist warns against inflation,” and the editorial columns argued, on the contrary, that the real problem was deflation.
By the time he reached Regina Mr. Snifkin’s unaltered text became, in the Leader-Post, a sociologist’s lecture on juvenile delinquency, but in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix it appeared as a monetary reformer’s plea for a return to the Gold Standard. Next day the Winnipeg Free Press emphasized and warmly commended Mr. Snifkin’s trenchant attack on high tariffs.
The Ottawa Citizen rebuked him for his mischievous left-wing radicalism and the Journal was glad to see that an eminent scholar of political science had bitterly repudiated socialist thought.
At Toronto the guest was introduced by Mr. Leonard Brockington, high priest of the head table, who had remodeled one of his better eulogies of Churchill and described Mr. Snifkin as an Elizabethan in his Finest Hour. The Telegram featured his passionate defense of Toronto's civic beauty. The Globe and Mail condemned his attack on birth control as narrow-minded and prudish.
Fredericton found Mr. Snifkin a learned student of Bliss Carman’s poetry and Lord Beaverbrook instructed the London Express by cable to endorse a fearless
Canadian statesman's views on Empire Trade. Premier Smallwood stated at St. John’s that the strong man of the far west had articulated Newfoundland's native dream.
Everybody knows the upshot of that triumphal pilgrimage. Mr. Snifkin was elected to parliament and, for the first time, was compelled to write a new speech. It, too, was a triumph and looked good for a couple of parliamentary terms anyway.
All the newspapers noted the wealth of facts in the new speech, the profound research, the unequivocal declaration of principle. In fact, Mr. Snifkin had merely consulted the book of helpful hints which is distributed privately to all members of parliament by the Queen’s Printer and which has so greatly raised the level of debate.
This politician’s handbook contains speeches for all occasions, on every known subject, alphabetically indexed. Under the index letter F, for example, Mr. Snifkin found an unanswerable argument for Free Trade and, under P, the indisputable case for Protection.
Parliament, you will remember, was electrified by that maiden effort. Mr. Diefenbaker called Mr. Snifkin a Young Disraeli who had explained the government’s program precisely. Mr. Pearson welcomed a brilliant convert to the New Liberalism. Only Mr. Pickersgill introduced a somewhat sour note. He said Mr. Snifkin had plagiarized a speech by Mr. Mackenzie King, delivered in 1946 and ghost-written, of course, by Mr. Pickersgill.
The House was particularly impressed by Mr. Snifkin’s poise, expression and gesture. It didn’t know he had been studying at M. Armand Bibelot’s private school of elocution, the alma mater of many leading Canadian statesmen.
Mr. Snifkin also acquired from M. Bibelot the other essential equipment of the sincere orator, including the planned hesitation, the desperate groping for words, the disjointed sentence, the helpless look that arouses the listener’s sympathy, the elegant twist of the shoulders, the impressive arms-akimbo stance, the prepared ad lib, the nervous fingering of spectacles, the delicate clasp of the teacup for women’s clubs and the firm clutch of the tumbler for men’s.
As M. Bibelot told Mr. Snifkin on graduation day, “You now have everything that Laurier ever had. Nay more, you're as good a man as I am, almost. Courage, mon ami! The future lies before you.”
Indeed it did. Mr. Snifkin was on his way to the treasury benches. A few smallminded critics said he had modeled his manner on Mr. Diefenbaker, his boyish grin and sprawling forelock on Mr. Pearson, but this was mere jealousy. No one could stop the future before Mr. Snifkin. No one could put it behind him.
Then, to general consternation, he suddenly retired at the next election and returned to the carefree, unpaid life of the road. The rules of the House, especially the limit of thirty minutes on every speech, tended, he said, to cramp his genius. Since his departure parliament has been a dull place.
I seldom see my old friend any more. Occasionally he sends me newspaper clippings about the same old unchanged but always different speech. Last time I heard from him he was touring the outports of Newfoundland to discuss “The Cod Crisis.”
In his long tragedy the rest is silence, except for midday, afternoon and evening appearances and now and then a morning address to school children on “The Crisis of Youth.” ir