Nothing can make or break a wedding feast more than the speeches. Ideally they will unify a room in celebratory laughter, and even cause a few wet eyes. But misjudged, they can sour the whole mood of the day. And the speech with the highest risk of doing the second, but the greatest opportunity of doing the first is the best man’s speech.
Whether over-confident or under-confident at speaking in public, or somewhere in the middle, how do you approach this highly exposed moment in the middle of what is a profoundly emotional, expensive and high-stakes day?
The secret, as with any public speaking, is in doing your thinking ahead of time and getting your story clear.
Please note – I’m going to write this as if the groom and best man are both male. So please just substitute the genders if your situation is different.
Who are your audience?
One of the worst faults a best man can do is to only speak to the other friends of the groom, at best ignoring all the other guests, at worst offending them. You are there to speak to everyone. In order of importance: the bride, the groom, her family, his family, her friends, his friends. The reason it is that way round (bride first), is that you will be less known to the bride’s connections, so it is more important that you make an effort to connect with them.
This may already give you a way in to your speech. A little story about how you met the groom and became friends (or something from childhood, if you are related) will introduce you to the audience members who don’t really know you yet. It’s inclusive to the guests who have only just met you and let’s us know a little about why you’re the best man.
What do the audience need?
The rest of the speech has to create an emotional journey that meets the needs of all the different sections of the audience. The biggest mistake you can make here is to focus on your needs. Your ‘needs’ might be to be successful, to come across as supremely funny and to not come across as an imbecile. However, your needs are irrelevant! Focus on what your audience needs. Fulfil that and you will be popular and successful, fail to fulfil that and you’ll blow it.
For example (personalise these for the people you know): the bride will want to feel welcomed and admired, the groom will want to feel loved, popular and celebrated, the family and friends will both want to celebrate and admire the couple. They may also feel protective.
Can you see how these needs are completely at odds with the cultural habit we have of encouraging a best man to pick the worst stories he can find about the groom in order to embarrass and humiliate him? A cultural habit that is solely there to meet the best man’s needs/fears about being entertaining? Give the audience what they want, and that is welcome, admiration, celebration and love.
Choosing your anecdotes
Telling a few choice stories about the groom is a common, and lovely way of celebrating him. And a focus on the positive does not preclude some gentle teasing! However, it is very important that you choose your anecdotes carefully. Remember the order of priority of your audience. Can the bride feel welcomed and admired if you talk about previous girlfriends? Can the groom feel loved and popular if you tell stories about parts of his life and personality that he is genuinely sensitive about? It doesn’t matter if it’s a good story. If it treads on the sensitivities (and yes, the groom will feel sensitive on his wedding day, even if you doubt he has a feeling in his body the rest of the time!) of the two main people, then you drop the story. End of. Think harder, ask around and find something else.
Best men can be tempted to find stories where they come out well and the groom doesn’t. Wrong. The groom should come out well, or if you are going to tease, then the groom should be teased about something he’s secretly rather pleased about (being a lunatic at parties, obsessively fit) or at least doesn’t mind (disorganised, always late, over fond of romcoms). Pick your anecdotes carefully and your speech will do its job. But forget what they are for and you will hit big problems.
Think broadly of the journey. And make a list of everything you have to do and say. You will have to introduce yourself. You will probably have to read out telegrams and messages from those not attending. You definitely have to raise your glasses and toast the bride and groom. There will be an arc from the introduction, through your chosen stories which could get quite high energy, down a bit to the business end of telegrams, through to the toast which will probably come from quite a quiet and sincere place.
Think in 5 lumps:
1. Intro: perhaps a story that introduces how you met him and became friends
2. The groom: an affectionate portrait. Let the man know how popular and loved he is as well as teasing a little if you like. Don’t worry about being funny. Affectionate and accurate will get people laughing with recognition.
3. The couple: be nice to the bride. It depends on your relationship with her – you can tease her too – but mostly make her feel welcome.
4. Messages: from the people who couldn’t be here. You’ll probably have messages to read. If there are a lot of people who are a seriously long way away (Australia?) then you can make a tease about their ‘low effort’ in not attending… just be sure it’s a clear tease!
5. The toast: Celebrate. Make sure everyone’s got booze and make a toast. Bring the room together to celebrate.
And once, and only once, you’re secure with your structure, you can get creative. You could:
- Add some slides/photographs to show the development of this fine man.
- Use a comedy structure to elicit stories from the audience. For this, you get everyone to stand and to ‘stay standing if…’ The people remaining standing contribute anecdotes. Examples might include ‘if the groom has ever broken something you own’ or ‘if the groom has ever injured you’. Choose something he does a lot, that he’s renowned for!). Pre-warn a few people with good stories so you know the audience will contribute.
- Do a visual gag. For example if the groom has a mono-brow (and is cool about being teased about it) then chop up a wig and use wig tape to make mini-mono-brows for all the men. If you can get hold of a particularly tragic sartorial disaster from the groom’s student days, bring it out… Again, only if it’s likely to be funny for the groom.
- Buy some comedy gifts for the groom.
- Set up a list of 10 things you may not know about the groom. Research deeply into this. Particularly funny if the groom is one of those people who loves top tens… (as in the novel High Fidelity). Perhaps he was a boxer at school. Smokes in the shower. Takes 3 heaped teaspoons of sugar in his tea. A good mix, from serious to deadly trivial, makes for the most giggles.
- Prepare a song with the other groomsmen. It’s perfectly ok to make a fool of yourself, just not of the groom.
Whatever you choose (and you don’t have to do anything), practice it, and really think it through.
By now you should be in quite good shape with your speech preparation. Don’t bother writing the whole thing out. Think about each section and the choice of words you might say, and jot down the odd really good phrase. Think about how you’re going to start and end each story/section. But mostly practice telling the stories in your head or out loud. Getting used to the spoken, rather than the written word, will make the speech much easier on the day.
Speak from the heart
Mostly though, remember the intention is to celebrate and to let these two people know that they are loved. So speak from the heart and get gushy before the toast. That’s your job. If you only achieve that, then you have still been successful. If you offer a long, funny, inventive dissection of the groom’s character but forget to mention his bride, or celebrate their love, you’ve failed. This one is the whole point.