Most people will have the honor and responsibility of giving a best man, groomsman, or sibling speech at least once in their lifetime. Since I have had the honor to give all three, I am at least qualified to share with you my experience in the hope that it can make a difficult challenge easier and more meaningful.
Let me preface this by saying I am not a natural born speaker. I can count the number of times I have given speeches to “major” crowds of 100 or more people on one hand. Like most people I am scared of public speaking, and the nervousness shows when I deliver speeches. That said, those five speeches have all received high marks – just recently someone brought up my high school graduation speech, given in 2001.1 By advance preparation I have been able to raise my speech game to a blue belt level.
There are a few key components to the wedding speech – timing, content, preparation, practice, and final delivery. Let’s go into each one of these as they relate to the different types of male wedding speeches. In the next post I will share with you my speeches and the process that led to them.
You should address this before you even begin working out material, as this will frame the rest of your approach, and also ensure you don’t fall into the biggest mistake people make with wedding speeches – going too long. This is pretty simple – as a starting point, best man speeches should be 10-15 minutes, and groomsman/sibling speeches should be 3-5 minutes. It is harder to go too short than too long. To go longer than these upper limits you better be extremely entertaining. If you are a natural speaker/comedian, the groom should appoint you emcee.
Body: with the time target in mind, you can then start thinking about what you want to say. I like to start with the body – the main message/content – and then fit an appropriate intro and conclusion around it. Will you grill the groom on his flaws, tell interesting/funny/revealing stories about him, or shower emotional praise? This all depends on you, your role in the wedding, the audience, and your sense for what the other speakers will say. Align the content with your personality – if you are funny, go ahead and work out some pithy one-liners or retellings of funny experiences; if you are more of a message/ideas guy, frame your speech around a message. Your role will also dictate in part what is appropriate for you to say. Generally the best man will be expected to give a full picture of the groom – stories, praise, poking fun – while siblings/groomsmen can stick to one of the above. You also have to consider who will be listening to you – is the setting formal or casual, cosmopolitan or rural? A formal ceremony may not be the best place to bring out drunken exploits. Also, what will the other speakers be talking about? You don’t want to re-use too much material, and it is better to offer a different style than other speakers, as long as that fits your personality and the occasion. At the Indian ceremony I spoke at as a regular groomsman recently, I took into account all of these things – I am a message/ideas guy, the setting was formal, and I figured other speakers would rehash funny stories and details about the groom. I also sensed from the groomsman e-mails going around before the wedding that the general style of the speeches would be casual and fairly unrehearsed. So I stuck with a message-based speech and made it fairly formal and fully rehearsed. At four and a half minutes, not a line was wasted, and I think the audience and groom appreciated the contrast in style to the other speeches.
Introduction: this is your chance to let the audience know who you are and your relationship with the groom. Unless you are best man, keep the intro short and sweet – state your name and relation to the groom and then get to the content. The best man can have a slightly longer intro, and often it is appropriate for him to thank the families and others for their work in putting on the event. Still, keep this section within a minute, as everyone cares more about the content.
Conclusion: this is where you tie things together or reach the final destination of your speech and call everyone to raise their glasses. It is common and usually appropriate to bring up the bride toward the end of the body or in the conclusion. This is sort of common sense, but this is a celebration of union, so even if you don’t know the bride do bring her up and in a positive light. After you wrap things up, it is customary to ask the audience to raise their glasses to the bride and groom.
Use of humor, stories: my take on these is if you are funny, insert humor liberally; if you are a good story teller, tell stories. I am neither particularly, and make a point of holding back from doing too much of these – anything forced rarely gets the audience’s appreciation. With both, consider propriety when choosing what to say – don’t say anything to disrespect or tarnish anyone.2
Praise/criticism: praise is easier and more acceptable, but criticism is usually more interesting and funny. Pure praise is what bridesmaids often do, and is part of what makes their speeches so marginal. Go with the best of both worlds, and choose content that pokes fun at him but that you can twist into a positive light somehow. At the recent wedding there was a speaker who did this brilliantly when he spoke about how the groom could be a winner, even in failure. He told a story about how the groom got a 54 on a test and was crestfallen, but became exuberant when he found out the speaker got a 53.
You have three main choices when preparing your speech: just brainstorming for an ad lib style speech, bullet points, and fully written. Again this will depend on your personality and circumstances. In each is a trade-off between ease of success and ease of preparation. The ad lib approach is the easiest to prepare but the hardest to pull off – very few people are good at this. The fully rehearsed speech is easier to execute but involves much more preparation. A good middle ground is the bullet point approach, where you think of some major points you wish to share, write those down, and then practice based on those points. This helps avoiding the stilted sound of someone reading off a memorized speech, while also giving your speech enough structure not to wander off into Boringtown or Too-Longsville.
If you are a blue belt or below at public speaking, practice is going to be crucial to your speech’s success. You have to hear how your speech will sound before you can know how effective/funny/interesting it will be. At the last wedding, I probably practiced my speech 20 times, including about 10 just before the event, where a friend described me and another nervous speech giver as schizophrenia patients. This may have been overkill, and impossible for people who have jobs and life responsibilities, but hey I gave those up so I might as well perform when I need to.
Work the crowd before the big speech
This is the first part of your delivery, and it starts well before you take the stage. Whether you are the main speaker or one of the side shows, you likely have at least a couple hours before you actually have to get on the mike. Use this time to shake hands, share some stories about your times with the groom, and get to know the other people at the wedding. By “getting them on your side” you accomplish a number of objectives. First, you ease your own tension by making it feel more like a speech to friends. Second, you warm the audience to you, making it more likely they will laugh and respond positively during and after the speech. Finally, you get more involved in the event as a whole and add depth to the celebration, which everyone will appreciate.
OK, it’s the big moment. You’ve prepared…rehearsed…now it’s game time. What do many people do? Down as many alcoholic beverages as possible and deliver a painfully awful speech that wanders completely from the script, often with the speaker breaking into tears from both genuine feelings of emotion for the groom and from realizing that he is utterly botching it, ending usually in the rough part of Omg-Whens-This-Gonna-End City. The good news is that no one will remember in two weeks time; the bad news is that you failed your friend, and you probably won’t forget that.3
So don’t do that. The recent wedding was my first time giving a speech since giving up the drink, and though it was a bit harder, preparation made up for any edginess. Of course, I still condone everyone to relinquish the binding force of alcohol and redirect their energies elsewhere, but if that is yet out of reach, a couple to ease the nerves can be of help. In the end, if you stick to what you prepared, the worst it can be is average, and the groom will appreciate you getting up and making a fool of yourself for his benefit. And in two weeks, you are still the only one who will remember what you said.
When you finally set foot on stage and the crowd goes silent waiting for your words of encouragement, humor, and wisdom, just have fun. Smiling, laughing, waving of hands is contagious – the crowd will be as “into it” as you are. It’s a rare opportunity in life, and you’ve laid all the necessary groundwork – now let go and enjoy.
Finally, a note on notes – to bring them or not. Ideally, not – it shows the effort you put in and looks more natural. But if you don’t have time to prepare enough to eliminate the risk of getting lost, bring some notes.4 It’s “what chicks do”, but by all means you can give a solid speech with notes (as the best man did at the recent wedding). As for smart phone vs paper, again paper “looks” better but it doesn’t matter that much.
So, to all of you going through the turmoil of laying your psychological life on the line, engaging in something most people fear more than death,5 I raise a glass of filtered water to you – may your speech giving, and life, be blue.6
1 I will try to dig out the text and video for this for giggles, but the last line read “In life there are cupcakes and there is batter. Get baked.”
2 Sorry to my brother for not following this rule at his wedding
3 Actually, I followed this approach for my brother’s wedding and apparently the speech turned OK – though I can’t possibly remember what was said
4 And then use them as a sweat rag as in the header photo
5 Source: Jerry Seinfeld
6 Of course, for those who don’t want to go through all the trouble, you can always outsource the job for a fee – my friend used http://www.greatspeechwriting.co.uk/ to positive reviews
- The Perfect Guinea Pig
- How to Hand Drum