Public speaking horror stories don’t come any better than Gerald Ratner’s fall from grace at the Institute of Directors on 23 April, 1991. He ran a cheap and cheerful jewellery chain, which was an incredible retail success.
He made a speech with a few one-liners of questionable taste, which were given front page tabloid coverage. It resulted in a dramatic public reaction against his shops and the collapse of his business. But if you read his defence in his biography, it sounds very plausible that he could never have predicted the response. He was just throwing in a few tried-and-tested jokes.
Supposedly the Financial Times printed the jokes a few years earlier. Comments like: “Diamonds are a very bad investment – especially ours.”
The ones he actually used in the speech were good for a private audience. The comment that their earrings were “cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich but probably wouldn’t last as long.” And the statement: “We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95.”
People say: “How can you sell this for such a low price?” I say: “Because it’s total crap.”
In a way this is what people want from famous public speakers, the inside story, the insight into how it really is. I’m sure his audience thought he was a hoot.
These days you have to be a lot more careful and with mobile phones and other devices, you can be exposed in almost any context for speaking without due consideration.
Other comment on the speech points out that Ratner’s mistake was to make a 1980s speech in the 1990s. How true. Stirring up envy of Ratner’s ostentatious wealth was a good seam for the tabloids to mine during hard times.
Reading the account of how he put the speech together, asking friends and family if certain things were appropriate, gave me some sympathy for the man who gave the name to the phrase, “doing a Ratner”.