To be the Best: a by-the-numbers system for writing your ‘Best Man’s speech’

Wedding snap

He’s finally done it.

Your Brother/Cousin/Best mate/other has taken the plunge and proposed to the man or woman he loves. You’re one of the first people to find out, as he excitedly explains to you that he’s getting hitched and he wants you to be his Best Man.

Caught up in the moment, you exuberantly agree. Some moments later, you start to think about what it actually means: organising a Stag Night, which will be a logistical pain but probably quite rewarding… and giving the keynote speech to the assembled guests.

You may be the sort of person who relishes this opportunity, who has a thousand ideas for a memorable address and who is unfazed by stepping into the spotlight. Congratulations! This article is not for you.

However, if you’re perhaps:

  • A little bit intimidated by the idea of speaking to all those people
  • Unsure of what’s expected of you
  • Feeling lost because you have no idea where to start

…then fear not, you’ve come to the right place.

Don’t panic

There is a simple, 5 step process which will take you from a standing start to a memorable speech, regardless of your Groom, your audience, or your experience in public speaking.

This post will walk you through the formula, which is distilled from the combined wisdom of all the smart, funny people I’ve had the privilege to talk to about the subject over the years. Their golden nuggets of advice have helped me write a bunch of speeches with friends and colleagues – now they can help you do the same.

For simplicity, I’m going to refer to the happy couple throughout as the ‘Bride and Groom’ – but this guide will work for any shape of relationship, provided the participants have asked you to play the role of a Best Man.

Step 1:  Know your mission; know your audience

As Best Man, you have to take the Groom on a journey.

When you stand up, the Groom has just finished making his own speech. Traditionally, it will have been heartfelt and emotional, containing a tribute to his  Bride which will have reminded everyone just why they turned up to share in the happy day. He will be on the mountaintop.

You have to take him from that mountaintop, all the way to the abyss.

You can lean him out as far as you like over that bottomless pit of humiliation, until in the mid-point of your speech you are holding him suspended only by his metaphorical hair… provided that, by the end, you can set him back on the mountaintop.

The "hero's" journey

The “hero’s” journey

In practical terms, this means that you’ll fulfill the expectations of the audience by telling stories which may provoke laughter and have the Groom squirming in his seat, but you won’t share anything that could do permanent damage to his relationship with the Bride or her family. You will skate close to the thin ice, but you’ll never allow yourself to go crashing through it.

To help you judge how far is going to be far enough, it’s a good plan to chat to the Groom about the Bride and her family. Get a sense of who they are and how they talk to each other. If they’re a little mischievous and enjoy a risque joke, maybe you can get away with some off-colour gags; if they’re more reserved, perhaps it’s not a good idea to divulge exactly what happened on that infamous holiday to Ayia Napa.

Getting back to the mountaintop requires a switching of gears.

Once you’ve embarrassed the poor guy enough, it will be time to start reminding the guests that the Bride has not, in fact, been sold a pup. You’ll talk about his admirable qualities, the reasons why he’s been a good friend – and extrapolate those into reasons he’ll be a good husband. Don’t be bashful: he must have something going for him and, even if you never allude to it again, now is the time to spell it out for the world.

Finally, it’s traditional for you to say something(s) nice about the Bride. Good options include complimenting her appearance, considering she’s likely to have invested a lot in looking good for the day; explaining the positive impact she has had on the Groom since they got together; and reassuring her that many years of happiness lie ahead.

Oh,and for total clarity: never, ever insult the Bride. A brave Best Man who enjoys a great relationship with the lady (say, that of a brother and sister), might gently tease her, but only with affection and only if he has nerves of steel. One remark has the potential to sour your whole contribution to the day: I counsel you not to risk it.

That’s the basic framework. If you keep it in mind, it will greatly simplify the writing of your speech and boost your chances of hitting all the right notes.

Step 2: Get his mates in on the act

If you sit down with a blank page in front of you and expect yourself to cook up funny anecdotes, that’s more likely to produce high blood pressure than great results.

Humour is best harvested from its natural habitat: good-natured banter between friends.

Invite the Groom’s best friends to join you for an evening and help build the speech. Even if you don’t know the people involved tremendously well, it’s likely that they’ll be flattered when you ask them to participate in the Best Man process – everyone likes to play a part in the big day. In my experience, a table in a quiet pub or the living room of your house with a few beers are ideal settings, but your judgement about what will relax the group is best.

Once you get everyone together, you need to start collecting their stories. Before you begin, make sure you have the essential piece of equipment: a smartphone which can record voice notes. Trying to scribble down material, amid laughter and fast-paced chat, is a thankless task and you’ll inevitably lose key details; just as importantly, actually capturing the tone of a person’s voice or a memorable turn of phrase can be really valuable when you are planning your own delivery.

Seriously, don’t leave home without it.

You also don’t want the conversation to meander so much that it’s difficult to draw out specific information when you come to review your notes. To get around this, create a list of general discussion topics you want to cover; these will likely be a bit different for every Groom, but I include my most recent list for reference:

  • Earliest memories of the Groom
  • Strangest things the Groom has done
  • Funniest situations you’ve been in with the Groom
  • The Bride and Groom: how they met each other, how you met her, how they are together

If you keep the atmosphere one of reminiscence and fun, you should have no problem getting enough ideas to build a great speech. Make sure to share your own stories on the topic as you go – this is a great time to record them, as input from others will doubtless bring back things you would otherwise have forgotten.

Step 3: Identify your themes

Once you have a wealth of shared memories to browse through, it’s time to review them and pick up any underlying themes which can tie a speech together.

With the right links, your speech will be turbocharged

While it’s certainly an option to simply tell the 5 best stories about the Groom, this approach is much less satisfying than one which links entertaining anecdotes together to highlight aspects of his character. Done well, a themed speech will have those closest to the Groom nodding their heads in recognition – and on occasion, teaching them something they didn’t know!

As you look for themes, it’s worth bearing some key questions in mind:

  • What does this tell me about the Groom?
    • What common behaviours or attitudes of his does it highlight?
  • How many other stories support this interpretation?
  • Can I use the common thread to say something positive about the Groom?
    • Specifically, if I use it to take him to the abyss, will I later be able to flip it around and get him back toward the mountaintop?

If a theme ticks all of these boxes, quickly double-check – is it actually interesting enough to feature?

For example, if the Groom is obsessively clean and tidy, it might be easy to mock him for it and later to point out that it’s not all bad, but that subject matter can be very flat if not well-delivered. Don’t invest your energy in a theme if it’s not likely to be good fun.

Step 4: Plan a Gambit

How are you going to give your speech a shot in the arm that helps it stand out in the memories of the guests? Simple: you’re going to run a Gambit.

In the context of the Best Man’s Speech, a Gambit is an unusual maneuver which introduces an extra element to the speech, enhancing the experience for the audience. It can take the form of a simple prop, or a musical interlude, or a series of film clips, or really any theatrical flourish which you will be comfortable delivering.

Of all the steps, this one is the most open to interpretation.

If you have uncovered a strong enough theme in Step 3, you might extend it into a Gambit. If, for instance, the Groom is a Teacher, you might:

  • Wear a mortarboard hat
  • Arrange to have a small blackboard set up on an easel before you speak
  • Deliver the speech as a lesson on ‘how not to behave if you want to meet a decent woman’, taking him to the abyss with details of his dodgy histroy
  • Conduct a recap section near the end in which you counterbalance the rum stories with positive observations, setting the Groom back on the mountaintop

By combining a couple of simple, relevant props and fitting the style of your delivery to the theme, you’ve created a little bit of theatre which chimes with a major element of the Groom’s life: the perfect Gambit.

This is too much theatre. Any less is fine.

Of course, there will be situations in which you can’t uncover a theme which naturally inspires your Gambit. In these cases, a good alternative is to impose a strong, generic theme and fit your anecdotes into it. A good example I’ve seen executed is the ‘Photoshop special’:

  • Arrange to have projection equipment set up before you speak
  • Accompany your speech with a slideshow, filled with images relevant to the stories you are telling
  • Have the images Photoshopped, so that the Groom’s face is superimposed onto a range of unlikely characters and dubious situations

Although this is remarkably simple as a concept, it can be truly hilarious if you invest the time in finding the choicest images. Other strong generic ideas include creating an audience participation speech using a Pub Quiz or Game Show format, delivering your speech as a poem, or singing a song. Your comfort with each of these will vary based on where your personal talents lie.

One final option is to pull a stunt, in order to get a reaction from the audience. This is difficult to do well, because you must be conscious of not overstepping the mark, but I do know of a famously teetotal individual who faked swigging from a bottle of whisky to calm his nerves… and created a significant frisson of humour and excitement, which was only heightened when other diners at the top table tried to relieve him of the bottle and were rebuffed.

My recommendation is only to try this approach if you have an idea which you feel very good about – and which you are sure won’t cause offense.

Before we move on, a word about logistics: if you’re planning something which involves props, needs equipment to be set up, or has any special requirements, try to visit the venue ahead of time. Introduce yourself, talk to the people who will be running the reception and give them a general idea of your plans; they’ll be able to steer you on what can and can’t be accommodated.

Armed with superior knowledge about the theatre of operations, you’ll be able to tweak your strategy, or even discard entirely segments which turn out to be impractical. Make  a list of the things you’ll need the venue team to do for you, share it with them, then check in again on the day before the wedding so you’re certain that they have things in hand. Even the best of Best Men can end up in a bad spot if his props go missing, or his wireless microphone runs out of battery.

Step 5: Prepare to deliver

Now for the hard part…

Except it’s not hard. Here are the reasons why:

  1. You know your mission, to take the Groom on a rollercoaster ride out over the Abyss but land him safely back on the Mountaintop.
  2. You’ve considered your audience and included points you think will tickle them, while deleting anything which you think will offend.
  3. You’ve done your research, involving his friends and gathering a wealth of stories from which to select your material.
  4. You’ve planned a resonant theme, which will bring your speech to life.
  5. You’ve created a memorable Gambit– and you’ve made sure that the necessary background arrangements are in place to help it go smoothly.

With that level of detailed planning, you’re in better shape than most people when they stand up to speak.

Although it’s hard to be believe, you’ll be even more prepared than Boy-scout-falconry-man.

But you’ll have one more weapon in your arsenal: practice.

In the week leading up to the event, try to grab a small audience of sympathetic people to whom you can deliver the speech in full. Any of the Groom’s friends who were helpful at the research stage, your own close friends or your partner are ideal candidates.

Don’t just do it once, run it again and again. Stop at the end of each section and ask your audience for feedback:

  • Which stories are the strongest?
  • Which parts of your delivery are working best? What are the strong turns of phrase – and do they have any suggestions about how else you change anything that isn’t quite working?

Once you’ve got through the full speech and you’re becoming fluent at delivery, ask them:

  • Does the speech flow?
  • Would they change the order of the segments?
  • Is there anything else they would like to suggest that might improve the speech?

You’ll learn a lot about the strengths of the speech by delivering it and hearing the opinions of your audience. You’ll also have a few days to change things up if your practice session reveals a problem.

This is also the point at which to decide on whether you will be using notes. All speeches are better without notes, but few people will expect you not to use them, so you have a lot of flexibility.

If you do decide to use notes, I recommend a series of small cue-cards with written prompts, which you can hold in your hand; these will keep you on the right path but ensure that your exact phrasing is spontaneous. There’s nothing worse than watching someone read from a sheet of paper without ever looking up.

If, after all your preparation, you’re still nervous… consider this:

  • Everyone listening wants you to succeed. You’re part of the celebration that they’ve all bought into and they want to keep the good vibe going. They would laugh even if your opening was a bit shaky, so the fact that you’re actually bringing a brilliantly-rehearsed powerhouse means that you are home free.
  • Everyone will appreciate the work you’ve put in. It’s apparent, even to the most casual observer, that there is a difference between a Best Man who stands up without a plan to ramble drunkenly for 5 minutes and what you are about to do, which is the culmination of several weeks’ planning. The guests will be impressed; the Groom will think you’re an absolute champion for working so hard to enhance his day.

You’re ready

When you have followed this system through, you will find yourself in the top 1% of most prepared public speakers. Everyone is willing you to succeed, you have planned to succeed… so you will.

You’re going to be brilliant: believe it. Let your inner rock star come out to play. Oh, and enjoy the drinks people are going to be buying you after ‘that awesome performance…’

It won’t look like this when you ace your speech. But it will bloody well feel like it.

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