Last weekend I had the honour of being Best Man at a university friend’s wedding. It was a beautiful day spent in the sunshine of St Albans and then in the low-ceilinged, close comfort of the oldest pub in England, Ye Olde Fighting Cocks.
As Best Man I had a certain number of duties to carry out, with the speech amongst the most highly anticipated by those attending the celebrations. For those unfamiliar with what is expected here, the Best Man’s speech is traditionally the last of the speeches and the point in proceedings when thanks and sentimentality give way to humour and a raucousness that sets the tone for the night ahead. For weeks beforehand, people had been asking how I was getting on with it, noticing my terse response (“getting on just fine thanks”), and reassuring me that there was plenty of material to draw on. The expectation that it be funny was pretty inescapable.
I lecture statistics to 150 students on a regular basis. Over the past few years I have managed to overcome my hatred of public speaking and relax into these one-sided conversations on t-tests, ANOVAs and regression. One of the luxuries of speaking in front of large audiences as part of my job is that I know what it feels like and I know how to deal with the mechanics of getting my words out of my mouth in quite an intimidating situation. There are even moments in lectures now when I notice that I’m in a flow state, enjoying the fluidity of speaking about something I know well. For this reason, the prospect of getting up in from of over 100 boozy partiers and speaking about a good friend was not what I found intimidating. The expectation that I make them laugh, now that was scary.
I know that to speak well, I need to prepare (I have written about the routine I go through for important talks here). This is exactly what I did for the Best Man’s speech. The result was one of the most exhilarating experiences of performing in front of an audience I have ever had – the audience enjoyed themselves and I had a tremendous time. I didn’t have to buy a drink for the rest of the evening! Here is what I did to get into that position.
1. I reassured myself with the knowledge that, in standing up in front of lecture theatres full of students, I am paid to do something very similar to this. The major difference between lecturing and speech-giving was what the audience expects of the content. I knew that I was expected to offer toasts to thank various people, but whom exactly? To help with this googled the running order for content within a Best Man’s speech. By chance I found The Art of Manliness’ 10 Steps to the Best Best Man Speech, from which I got some suggested running order information, but much more importantly, I was reassured by the insistence that I ought to be myself. I have never wanted to stand up in front of people to make them laugh, but I do nonetheless enjoy making small groups of friends laugh when telling stories in the pub. Bearing this in mind allowed me to feel comfortable in not trying to ape my favourite comics, but simply allowing myself to find my inner story-teller and let him speak to a larger group of friends. This was the me I tried to be when writing the speech in advance of the wedding.
Write and Practise the Speech in Advance
1. Write the speech beforehand. Write it out even if you’re not going to read it. I always write out important talks so that I can practise my phrasing and I edit them to whatever worked best after each run-through. Thus, I start with a script in rather broken spoken prose, which is edited into something that sounds natural by the time I’m done with it. Over the course of practising I learn what I want to convey in each sentence so that I can say it in any number of ways, off-script, by the time I get to delivering it to an audience. I know that this is a matter of personal preference, but this is what works for me and I could never deliver any speech or talk without practising it a few times first.
2. When lecturing or giving talks, the transitions between slides are often tricky points. My Best Man’s speech had similarly tricky transition points where I moved from toasts to anecdotes or from one story to the next. Scripting these transitions as part of scripting the entire speech gave me an idea of how to move on as seamlessly as possible.
Work on Timing
1. Don’t out-stay your welcome. I can’t over-run my lectures because students will start leaving. They have other places to be. Weddings guests probably won’t leave, but they won’t applaud you for going on and on either. Silky, a stand-up comedian attending the wedding spoke to me as we were sitting down to dinner. He gave me the following advice: “If it’s going badly, get off quick. If it’s going well, get off quick.” In other words, keep it short. Before I started writing the speech I was aiming for about 10 minutes. Run-throughs lasted about 13 minutes (an acceptable timeframe according to the groom, whom I had asked about this beforehand). If you’re running to a tight schedule, practising the speech will give you an idea of whether or not you need to remove content.
2. Comic timing is a little harder to work on. This is something I have rarely had to worry about in lectures (I tend to play them straight) and I’m not sure how I would go about practising comic timing other than by doing this sort of speaking more. Something that threw me off a few times was that people started tittering before I had delivered the punchlines. The audience expect you to be funny and they want you to feel comfortable, so they will laugh when you give them an excuse to. This made me fluff a line or two. It is something I will be more mindful of should I ever have to do this again.
Logistics and Planning
1. Know your AV equipment. I delivered the speech into a hand-held microphone. I had seen the first speaker struggle a little with microphone distance so I was determined to be careful of making the same mistake and, in the end, delivered my speech with the mic resting on my chin just below my lower lip. It probably looked weird but I managed to get through the whole speech without any microphone dropout. (In future I will have a go on the amplification equipment beforehand so I can work out something a little more elegant.)
2. Coordinate toasts and readings with other speakers. When you are delivering a lecture course, you want to avoid not covering important material (dangerous for exams) and duplication (boring). The same is true of wedding speeches. The night before, the groom and I had discussed who was giving which toasts so that, by the time I had finished, everyone who needed to be thanked would had been thanked. Had we not had this conversation, the groomsmen would have gone without a toast – an omission I’m glad we avoided. On a related note, I also opted to read a short passage to the bride and groom to close my speech. It was only at the wedding service when one of the passages I had been considering for my own speech was read that I realised I had got lucky the choice I eventually made. If you are doing something unconventional like reading a passage during your speech, have a quiet word in the groom’s ear to ask what readings they have planned for the service well in advance.
The three points below target a specific aim, being funny, which isn’t a priority for me when I lecture. I don’t make much reference to lecturing below because these points are specific to my experience of the wedding speech situation.
1. Despite the pressure, being funny is not the be-all and end-all. Having typed “Best Man’s Speech” into Google, I was surprised to find the first auto-complete suggestion to be “Best Man’s Speech one-liners”. I don’t use the slides my course textbook publishers give me when I lecture, and I would be similarly wary about using jokes about other people to portray my relationship with the groom. What I wanted to do above all else, was to paint a picture of the groom as I know him. Having said this, such is the pressure to be funny that I’m not surprised people google jokes for use in wedding speeches, or end up telling embarrassing stories from the stag do. Again, the Art of Manliness article delivers reassurance:
What gets people in trouble is attempting to be funny by sharing some embarrassing story or cracking some lame joke about a ball and chain. It usually comes out horribly and no one laughs. It’s okay to share a humorous anecdote, but not one that gets laughs at the expense of your friend and his new wife and embarrasses them and their guests.
This advice set the tone for the stories I wanted to tell. I wanted those in the audience who knew the groom to see him in the jokes I was telling and for this recognition to be funny in and of itself. I also wanted to capture a range of experiences I had with the groom, from those that were funny to those that were sad. The sadder moments would act as points from which to rebound back to laughter, but would also help the audience understand what a lovely thing it was for the groom to have met the bride at the time he did.
2. Avoid in-jokes. My university friends would invariably ask if I was including their own favourite university story of the groom. Many of these stories were very funny, but only in the context of the many in-jokes we shared as a group of close-knit friends. I largely avoided these references because I wanted to appeal to as many in the audience as possible. Those that I did include were equally viable as terrible puns or cultural references, which the university crowd found funnier because of their shared history of appreciating them.
3. Enjoy the format. I was in the privileged position of speaking to an audience who expected me to make them laugh. When writing the speech I experimented with jokes, tweaking wording, timing and structure. I eventually settled on a narrative that in the end called back to humorous stories about the groom to illustrate how normal the bride is in comparison. I have seen comedians using and even explaining this device to great comedic effect, and incorporating it into structure of my own speech gave me a sense that I had actually written a funny speech. This is undoubtedly an aspect of the Best Man’s speech that I would not have thought to focus on had I been preoccupied by the prospect of public speaking. My experience of lecturing allowed me to build on its commonalities with giving a Best Man’s speech to embrace and ultimately enjoy the format tremendously.