A few years ago I was attending the wedding of a beloved family member. She looked radiant and enchanting in her wedding dress. Far too much time had passed since the last time we had seen each other. I was meeting the Groom for the first time, and I’m sure he was a little intimidated considering how some of my family occasionally speaks of me. Never the less I found him to be well-spoken and pleasant.
As fate would have it, his best man was unable to attend the wedding. While this kind of thing could destroy many such events, all of the guests were anxious and willing to throw in their support and understanding. It was a testament to the caliber of people involved that such a beautiful day would not be hindered by such an upset.
The service was fantastic and once complete we made our way to dinner. The food was splendid, and I was enjoying some simple conversation with the people at my table when the new Husband came to me and asked to speak in private. We went to a corner of the reception hall, and there he made a request I was not expecting.
He began by informing me how highly his new Wife thought of me (flattery will get you everywhere sometimes), and he was hoping I might be willing to say a few words. Strange that I know nothing of this man and he was asking me to make a “Best Man’s Toast” for his wedding. I hesitated for a moment and mentioned one of his friends or family might be better suited to the task. However, he told me it would mean the world for his new Bride. He was hoping, as he put it, I could “help make their special day even more memorable.”
Talk about being put on the spot. I hesitated a little longer, but upon his persisting, I reluctantly agreed to do my best. What do I say about a man I have never met, to his family who does not know me, on the most important day of this couple’s new life together?
I went back to the table and sat in silence for a bit longer. I then started to ask questions of the people at the table about the qualities and past experiences of the Groom. They were all too happy to begin spilling all the admirable qualities, and some of the more juicy tales about the Groom. Finally, after some time to gather my thoughts, I stood, tapped on my water glass with the spoon (I think this produces a better sound than any other utensil), and I began my toast.
Armed with my experience as a speaker and the stories shared from some of his family, I tried to relate my speech about the couple directly to the audience. With this, I gave, what I am told, was a successful toast in honor of the newly married couple. I do not share this to brag, but to help. This is not the first speech I had ever given, nor was it the last, but it was certainly the one where I had the least amount of time to prepare.
Today I would like to share with you some of the observations I have learned over the years when it comes to giving a good speech. I am quite sure many people are better speakers than I am. I am also certain this is not the ONLY way to give a speech. I am merely sharing what has worked for me.
First- It is not about you! There’s a reason why this is rule number one for me. I used to take advantage of my chance to be heard to try and hijack a speech and steal some glory for myself. When I finally realized how arrogant and wrong it is to make a speech entirely about me, I made every effort to avoid such talk. Once my focus shifted to a genuine love or concern for others I noticed people like to hear what I have to say. No one wants to listen to someone ramble on about themselves. Stay on topic, and the topic is not you.
If possible try to make the sub-topics directly linked to the people in the audience. No, I am not telling you to “Roast” the people you are addressing. People like to be talked about and admired by others but hate false flattery. Find legitimate and admirable traits of the people in your crowd, and work them into your speech and you will instantly see a positive response. The key again is it must be sincere. No one likes a suck up, even if he or she is on a stage or podium.
Second- Begin on a good note. I have heard it said to “open with a joke,” but in truth, I have found the best way to begin a speech is with a relatable story or testimony. Think back to a time in your own life when you lived or experienced something related to the topic of discussion; then share the experience.
People imagine themselves in your shoes when you are sharing a story. By telling them a tale they not only want to hear what happens next, but they also begin to relate to you. People will be more interested in your version of a “Once upon a time” (do not actually use those words) then they will with “knock, knock,” or some other silly joke. Opening with a joke gets people to stick around long enough to hear the punch line, but then they are gone.
Third- Slow down. I have a tendency to talk rather fast, especially when I am excited or nervous about something. Often when speaking, I go so fast my audience may need more time to catch up. This means they miss parts they should hear, or eventually just gave up and stop listening altogether.
Allow your audience time to absorb what you are saying. Put in the occasional pause, and emphasize key elements of context. You will find people enjoy listening to topics which might not even be very interesting provided they can relate and follow along. All people are thirsty for knowledge in some sense, don’t go so fast your speech becomes like a carrot on a stick in front of a donkey. You want them to eat the carrot.
Fourth- Relate quickly and often. Similarly to the second point, it is important to let your audience know you are an average and relatable person as soon and as often as possible. We listen to our friends much more attentively than we do a stranger. While we cannot build a friendship instantly, we can become more relatable. This will help in other regards too.
First, this helps against the dreaded “Stage Fright.” Even the most experienced speakers often have to battle against stage fright. For me, relating to my audience quickly helps them react in a more receptive way. When I’m getting a powerful and responsive feeling from the crowd, it makes it much easier to keep going.
Next, recovering from a blunder. If I make a mistake and my audience is not relating to me, then the group can be very judgmental. On the other hand, if I am someone who may just as well be a friend from work it becomes much easier for the audience to forgive an error. I just acknowledge my mistake, correct it, and move on. No one is perfect. People know this. If they are relating to me, they are far more forgiving for the occasional and inevitable mishap.
Fifth- Make it fun! I feel I might need to say this gain. MAKE IT FUN, at least the greatest extent the topic will allow. We can all remember our favorite teacher in school. I am confident part of the reason you loved them was they were able to make something enjoyable for you. In a speech one of the most useful tools to accomplish this is humor. The thing is humor can be tough at times. If we try to force it, or if it is not relatable (remember the fourth point?) then it might not work.
I have found the easiest humor to work into a speech comes during the speech itself. When I learned to slow down, I discovered my mind began to have little thoughts jump in during my delivery. Sometimes these are golden apples of humor. People can seem afraid to voice these for fear of being seen as unprofessional. For me, it is far more useful to be a relatable, ordinary, average person, than it is to be a stuck up know it all. Sorry, “professional.”
For example, I was giving a class on maintaining a firearm to a group of students when the phrase “too much lube can be a bad thing” left my lips. Naturally, the context of this topic revolved around mechanical maintenance, but the phrase itself could also apply to other subjects. I paused for a second while a mischievous thought entered my mind. I considered my audience and determined it would not be inappropriate to throw out this little addition, “you know most of the time.” An evil smile, and a little wink for the delivery, and there you go. A simple addition of humor to help keep things fun.
Sixth- Don’t write the speech to death! We have all had to endure it before. Listening to someone just read verbatim some scripted text. If you need to make certain you say everything perfectly it can certainly be beneficial to write it down ahead of time. However, it truly takes a talented individual to deliver a scripted speech word for word and keep it entertaining and relatable (do you see the trends I shoot for?).
Often if I am writing a speech, I may just use notecards with the topics I want to discuss and the order to present them. This way I force myself to speak from the heart and mind instead of a script. This helps me seem more human to the audience.
Let me be clear on this one; I am not saying you should never write a speech. I am saying what works well for me when I “deliver” it, is to use bullet points. There are exceptions when the material must be incredible accurate and there is little room for error, but in such cases the content is often more compelling than the speech itself. There is a fine balance for this, but in most cases I have found people won’t understand what is being said as accurately if they aren’t relating to the material in the first place. Overemphasizing the written part of the speech is a good way to cause this disconnect from the audience.
Seventh- Be grateful and sincere for their time! My last comment is to remember how important someone’s time is. The mere fact anyone is willing to sit there and listen to what you have to say is humbling. I often think about this concept in the following way.
If I give a five-minute speech to a dozen people, then what took five minutes of my life, the audience paid a price of an hour of life to receive. (5min x 12 people = 60min)
Never waste people’s time. If I get any single point across, let it be this one. DO NOT be so arrogant as to presume you are doing your audience a favor by speaking to them. You should be grateful that in a short period you can receive so much value and worth as the audience credits you by allowing you to speak.
On the opposing side, if you think you are not worthy to speak then ask yourself this very simple question. Does God make mistakes? Do you not realize the reason you are being called to be the one who delivers this message is you are the right one to deliver it. Have faith in the Lord’s judgment and even if you cannot believe in yourself, believe in he who put you there.
So on that note, I want to thank you for taking the time to read this article. It is my hope and prayer you found enough value and worth for the time you spent to read it. From the very bottom of my heart, I thank you!