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On The Long Civic Luncheon


We’ve talked a bit about political customs before on here, specifically the one in which an elected official is seemingly required to call every other elected official in an audience by name.

The practice can take a lot of time and woe be the political leader who doesn’t attempt some kind of acknowledgement. Memories are very long when it comes to the perceived slight. That is even if the custom is ignored for reasons like it is July and it is an outdoor event where several hundred people are sweltering in the heat and the speeches need to be short. In other words, humanitarian reasons.

That brings us to our next target: the luncheon that isn’t really a luncheon but a rhetorical marathon where the audience is expected to look interested and clap a lot for longer than anyone can really be expected to do that when the basic message is the same thing over and over again.

I hesitate to do this because the Memphis Fast Forward economic development plan has been an important development and what comes next is very important. And rest assured, we will be reporting on that in greater detail than you will see anywhere else.

That said, the luncheon last week was a prime example but far from the only instance of information overload – food served at what amounted to Woodstock for speechifying with Power Point slides as the light show.

The luncheon drew a capacity crowd of 700 or so people. Virtually everyone in government and executives from a lot of the city’s marquee businesses in a position to make a major decision during the workday were at the Hilton hotel in East Memphis for the event.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam had considered adding another public appearance in the city before he showed up at the luncheon. But his staff decided against it because everyone he might have another event with was going to be at the luncheon.

Everyone who attended got at their table place a well done, very expensive and comprehensive report of the five years of accomplishments by Fast Forward. There was a great video that was part of the luncheon in which business leaders helped by the effort told their stories. That and two or three speeches would have been great. And those at the luncheon would have had some time to network at their tables.

But they apparently couldn’t be trusted to get the message that way and take the booklet home and look it over later.

As we noted in our story Friday which led with some comments Haslam made to reporters before the luncheon, there were twelve speeches – two each by Mayor Wharton and Mayor Luttrell, not counting their appearances in the video – before the luncheon got to its keynote speaker, John Kania, the guru on the “collective impact” concept the next five year plan will embrace.

Each speaker had a set of statistics to run through. Haslam, who spoke just before Kania, also had a set of statistics the organizers had sent to him. But Haslam didn’t go there, much to his credit, sensing that the room of a lot of people seated at tables with their bosses in a lot of cases were nevertheless getting restless.

The speeches began with the first contact of silverware with the salad plates already on the table and they continued well after desert and the cup of coffee after that.

By the time Haslam spoke, some of the other political leaders in the audience were waiting outside the room, talking to each other, catching up on calls and emails, a few even having pictures made with each other.

After Haslam spoke a detectable move to the doors and the parking lot began. By then it was 1:30 p.m.

If you subject people to this kind of treatment as the only method of paying tribute to those who have worked hard and reaching those who can help with the next part of the effort, you might need to have a two hour luncheon in which you speechify them into a stupor. You are unlikely to get them back for another event for at least the next year.

We will be talking with John Kania about “collective impact” and for some of our readers who were at the luncheon it will likely be the first time they have really explored the subject. That’s because by the time he spoke, most of the people left in the room just couldn’t handle another speech – even the one that was supposed to be the highlight of a luncheon that lasted two hours.

The practice of excessive tribute and a speech with Power Point for every single player at the front of the room has got to end. The causes behind the displays mean too much to abuse the valuable time of citizens. And more of those citizens might get involved if they didn’t have to run a lunch time gauntlet of speeches that repeatedly make the same point.

Few of us, reporters included, can make a single event the only event of our work day.