Saturday, 17 July 2010

Unaccustomed as I am - ten tips for best man speeches

I was recently commissioned to do some writing. That's not nearly as high-powered as it sounds; a colleague asked me to help her husband with an upcoming best man speech. I did so, they were delighted and in return a charity got some money. This went under the category of A Very Good Thing Indeed.

The idea of public speaking strikes fear into the hearts of otherwise fairly level-headed people at the best of times. Then add in the emotional maelstrom that is your typical wedding, with all those potential pitfalls for the unsuspecting speaker. Perhaps it's no surprise that those called upon to speak - whether best man, groom or father of the bride - often get nervous about the whole idea.

So here, free gratis and for nothing, are some hints and tips for aspiring best men.
  1. Timing is everything. A good speech should be like a skirt. Long enough to cover the important items, but short enough to maintain interest. Thank you, I'm here all week. Those three pages of densely-typed A4 might not look like much in your hand, but once you've ploughed relentlessly onto page two, hitting the ten-minute mark, and still haven't mentioned the radiant bridesmaids, you're in trouble. You'll notice heads dropping all over the room. Keep it short - everyone will thank you for it.
  2. You are not Billy Connolly. Neither are you Michael McIntyre, Rich Hall or any other professional comedian. (Unless you actually are of course, in which case, hello Big Yin!) You don't have to cram your speech full of gags. Light-hearted and easy-going works most of the time, not joke after joke after joke. Unless you're 100% confident and adept, you will fall down the first time one of your lines doesn't raise the roof. And it certainly will, unless you...
  3. Know your audience. This is not the Embassy Club. It's a wedding and there is almost certainly going to be a range of ages from kids to oldies. Play it safe, chaps. Your ten minutes worth of carefully-crafted riffing about the groom's personal habits is not going to play well with Great Aunt Edith, especially if she's going to be asked by the pageboys to explain some of the words later on.
  4. Remember, they're starting off on your side. It's a wedding. The congregation have seen two people getting hitched. Relax and enjoy yourself (not too much though, see point 5), you're amongst friends. People are in a good mood and they're looking to you to maintain their high spirits. Well, apart from Cousin Deirdre in the corner, who still hasn't forgiven their Kevin for what he said about our Tracy at Chantelle's christening do in 2008, but there's no pleasing some people.
  5. To drink, or not to drink? Some best men think a little Dutch Courage before they get on their feet will help them through. I'm not a huge fan of this approach - having witnessed a wedding breakfast many years ago where the best man was leaning like a galleon in a force ten gale. It wasn't pretty. Wait until you're finished, then fill your boots.
  6. Say good things about the bride. Fellas, I can't stress this one enough. She is the most beautiful bride we've ever seen. She's the best thing that's ever happened to the groom. She will be the making of him. All of the above might be patently untrue. She might be the one thing coming between you and the groom's weekly beer appreciation evenings. It doesn't matter. This is not the time or the place. Get this wrong and people will be rushing the top table, flaming torches and pitchforks in hand.
  7. The groom: roast gently for several minutes. People will be expecting you to point out the groom's foibles. The endearing habits, the minor irritants. But it's not open season. This is not the place to open up about his past drug use or what exactly happened with that exotic dancer in Riga during the stag weekend. There a subjects you can cover, and some you can't. Past girlfriends? Do. Not. Go. There.
  8. Practice. It's one thing to write a heartwarming, gently amusing speech that hits the mark. It's another thing completely to say it out loud. So say it out loud to yourself. Record it if you can, or press-gang a third party to listen. Those sentences that seemed fine on paper might be awkward when it comes to saying them aloud, and it's best that you discover this before the Big Day, when you've still got time to make corrections. While we're on this subject, a quick note about notes. No-one is expecting you to know your speech off by heart. Notes are fine, but if you're already used to saying these words, you'll know where each bit goes and won't need to bury your nose in your crib sheets.
  9. Old faithfuls. We've all heard the same lines. "Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking..." (dangerous - this is meant to be ironic and if you die on your backside it will haunt you). "If I could just say a few words, I might make a better public speaker... "(it wasn't funny in the 12th century when it first came out). It might seem attractive to rely on these, but they're just a little formulaic. Speaking of which...
  10. Do your research but do it right. A quick Google shows thousands of sites offering wedding speeches, and it's perhaps tempting for the nervous best man-to-be to sign up and download a cookie-cutter template speech. As approaches go, it's just about OK, but I would avoid it if possible. Apart from anything else, a lot of them are on US sites, where they do things a little differently to the UK. Say what you want to say (bearing in mind tips 1-9 above) and you'll rarely go wrong.
And if all else fails, I'm open to offers.

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