The rules of engagement

14th July 2000 at 01:00
Hiring a speaker for your prizeday is a complicated affair, as Angela Thody knows well

Breathless footsteps pound the playground behind me. "Miss, Miss!" I stop. "Miss, the head told me to give you this." A flower arrangement is pushed into my hands. It had been adorning the draped stage table at a school's award evening where I had just delivered my speech and presented the prizes.

Mentally, I compose my letter of thanks, congratulating the head on her recycling policy. Physically, I pile the flowers on top of my speaker's gift, a glass paperweight concavely distorting the school's crest on its base. It joins the row on my office windowsill.

Such are the tangible rewards of "speakership", of being the honoured guest expected to enliven a school's celebration of its achievements. I have extensive experience of the genre, and demand is high. I also greatly enjoy helping to preserve this rather restrained, English type of celebration. Not for us the American style mini-graduations. Instead...

How to catch your speaker

* First contact: never approach your speaker more than four weeks before the event and always let your secretary make the first contact - that way, the speaker will be sure to know that someone has let you down and that she or he is the last resort. But at least the approach will be diplomatic.

* Finding the school: ensure that your speaker has to ring you for directions, then fax an indecipherable map. Don't forget the obligatory jocular greeting when your speaker arrives, such as "I see you found the school all right".

* The CV: lose your speaker's CV, which was sent to you well in advance. Ask the bursar to chase it up with a request for an "immediate reply by fax, the head wants it now".

* Money: never let the sordid issue cross your lips. Speakers are used to the embarrassment of having to ask for travelling expenses without knowing your mileage rates, whether to travel first class, if an overnight stay can be included or whether the necessary pre-event trip to the hairdresser is tax-deductible.

How to treat your speaker

* Arrival: avoid marking a parking space for your guest near the school entrance. He or she should have just as far to walk across your dark, unknown grounds as the parents do. Never arrange for display notices to tell your speaker where to go on arrival.Navigating an empty school in the early hours of the evening is an orienteering experience not to be missed.

* Catering: don't encourage bingeing. Avoid telling your guest in advance if there are refreshments and if these come before or after the event. That way, you can be sure that your speaker will eat before arrival and the lavish buffet won't be touched. Alternatively, offer sherry and crisps before the event, when the speaker is really hungry after the long drive in unfamiliar territory. The combination of alcohol and an empty stomach can greatly enliven the speech, or will, at least, mercifully shorten it as hunger pangs take hold.

* Preparations: don't let your speaker see the hallstage before the event, or try out the microphones. The element of surprise is what makes award days such fun, and the pupils will find out why pop stars need road crew to test facilities in advance.

* On arrival: make sure your speaker has detailed instructions. These should be delivered sotto voce on the way to the hall as the event begins. Forbid him or her to mention any topics which you think might offend someone and explain how to pronounce correctly the name of the chair of governors. Admit that there might be a demonstration by aggressive parents determined to preservedestroy the school. Or, flatter your speaker by assuming he or she knows everything. That way it is a delightful surprise when they discover that only Year 7 are at the event, and the prepared speech on leaving for university can be abandoned on stage for a quick review of the latest Harry Potter novel.

* Don't insist that the pupils know what their awards are for. This lack of information can provide amusement to a speaker who asks the candidates what they have won and why.

The aftermath

* Getting home: respect your speaker's intelligence. He or she arrived safely and can thus be trusted to find the route home even though darkness has fallen since the event began and there is a hail storm in progress.

* A letter of thanks: don't waste time on this. You need to concentrate on finding next year's speaker.

Angela Thody is professor of educational leadership at the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside. She would like to make clear that any resemblance to actual events, people or places, living or dead, is entirely coincidental

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