Fight back against politicians’ boring speeches

Audiences Shouldn’t Have to Put Up With Politicians ‘Bringing Greetings’

I recently paid $50 to attend a preview screening of the movie, Still Alice, about the decline and fall of a woman struck with Alzheimer’s at age 50. Most of my money went to support the event’s sponsors: the Alzheimer’s Society of Ontario, Baycrest and the Women’s Brain Health Initiative.

The film was to start at 7 p.m. But it began 40 minutes late. Not only did executives of each of the sponsors insist on their (equal) time at the podium, but, much like victims of an interminable home invasion,the 500 of us in the audience had to endure “greetings” from three different politicians.

Why do we put up with this?

Why do we view endless speeches as the necessary downside of fund-raisers everywhere?

Because we always have.

But I’m here to tell you we don’t have to anymore. Especially when the preliminaries threaten to ruin the main event.

Let’s start with the charities. I get that they’re grateful and want to acknowledge our support. But when they hog the podium to thank us, and each other, and each government and many corporations, then they each tell us how awful Alzheimer’s is and how they need more support to fight this plague, well…you can see how things can grow very long very fast.

I’d just ask these charities and any charity that holds fund-raising events to ask themselves: Is this the best way to thank your supporters?

How about limiting your thanks time to one minute each (by my clock, the total ‘charity time’ was 15 minutes), then send me an e-mail the next morning thanking me for my support and giving me new information about what you’re up to? Nobody in that theatre last week didn’t know how awful Alzheimer’s is. Indeed, that’s why we bought a ticket. Because we know!

But far more cringeworthy were the politicians’ speeches that followed. There were three of them (I’ll not mention them by name in order to protect the guilty). Together, they took another 25 minutes that none of us will ever be able to get back in our lifetimes.

While they represented different levels of government, and different parties, they were united in their pomposity and emptiness. Phrases like “Our government is committed to…,” or “Canada (or Ontario) is a world-leader in…,” or “Together, we are working in a spirit of cooperation to…,” fell like a canister of nerve gas on all of us.

All three politicians of course dutifully praised the three charities, who they support financially. Then, just in case we didn’t get the message the first three times, they reminded us how devastating Alzheimer’s is.

But something odd happened this time that I’ve never seen at any fundraiser. The politicians all practically apologized for being there. In fact, they were so patently embarrassed by being given pap to read and being forced to be enthusiastic about their pablum, while keenly aware they were wasting our time, that they slipped out of role. In fact, the first politician’s opening words were: “Just what you want to hear, a politician, right?”

But when they were done, we still weren’t. On came the charities again to thank the politicians for thanking them and…finally, the lights went down and the film came on, and dozens of text messages started emanating from the Scotiabank Cineplex in downtown Toronto saying: “Late 4 dinner tonite.”

So why do charities keep inviting politicians to speak? And why do we put up with this whole gong-show?

Because everyone thinks everyone else will get mad if they don’t.

Charities sometimes invite politicians to speak at their events (The Minister! The Prime Minister!) because their power and fame will somehow rub off on the charity and the audience. But more often than not, when a Minister is invited, they will send a non-Minister in their place (as happened at Still Alice). This person has zero power and less fame. The charity can’t say no and the government wants to use every opportunity to get their message across so they too feel an obligation to send someone. Anyone.

But more often than anyone will admit, it’s the government who calls the charity and says: “We want someone to speak at your event.” The charity isn’t going to risk the wrath of one of their largest supporters, so they will always say yes. In other words, they cave. When two or three levels of government wade in, you can’t say yes to one and no to another. Then there’s not just the protocol of who speaks when, but for how long. And it’s a law of political greetings that when a Minister’s office assures you the Minister will speak for only a couple of minutes, they mean eight to 10.

Now polite thuggery has a time-honoured place in politics. But it only works if someone benefits.

Here, no one benefits. Everyone throws up their hands — the charities, the politicians, the supporters — and says “This is how it’s always done.”

But if no one benefits from what all agree is a complete waste of time and effort, why do it?

If you’re in the political backrooms sending your elected minions out with “key messages,” believe me, they’re blowing up in your face.

If you’re a politician eager to polish your ‘brand’, boring your audience to death is not the way to shine.

If you’re a charity wanting to be grateful to your supporters, both public and private, there are much shorter, happier routes to mutual gratitude.

And if you support a charity enough to give them money to attend their event, remind them your support comes with a tiny string: “Don’t waste my time.”

The Toronto International Film Festival has a tradition other charities should emulate: when a politician on opening night drones on and on, the audience simply starts heckling them.

So I say, rise up all you who have been bored dumb by a dreary, dead tradition that sucks the life out of anyone who comes in contact with it.

The next time you’re trapped in its deadly embrace, speak up.

Believe me, it will only take a handful of you to send the politicians skittering back to their corners.

Then word will spread that ‘bringing greetings’ is a high-risk, zero-reward activity for any politician and charity.

Then the event that we paid to enjoy can finally begin.

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