Making Your Speech
When it comes to being a brilliant modern best man, John Bowden knows what he's talking about. He's been there, done it and got a crate of tee shirts. He has also written several books on weddings and speechmaking and is a member of the Comedy Writers' Association.
This chapter is not about making a speech or making the speech ... it is about making your speech. In other words, it is about presenting your material in such a way that your unique personality shines through. Did Elvis, Sinatra and Johnny Rotten all sound the same singing My Way? Of course not. The artist makes the crucial difference. So, too, does the speaker.
FIND YOUR STYLE
We are not clones. We are individuals with wonderful imperfections. Whatever individual characteristics you have that are special to you should be nurtured and cultivated and worked on, for it is those personal and unique quirks of appearance, movement and expression that will mark you out as a speaker with something different to offer. And that is never a bad thing.
Sitting at leisure with friends or family, your conversation will be naturally relaxed and chatty, because that is the language of easy communication. When you make your speech, don't put on an act. If you do you will come over as phoney, boring and insincere. Certainly you may need to speak a little louder than usual and make other concessions to accommodate the needs of your audience. Yet the way you deliver your speech should remain unaffectedly relaxed and chatty. Be yourself – but yourself made large.
Casual conversation is not constructed in a literary way. You do not always finish your sentences. You repeat yourself. You use ungrammatical constructions – but you are obeying a different set of rules. You are obeying the rules of effective spoken communication which have been learnt, instinctively, down the ages. Don't abandon them when you speak in public.
You must be audible. If you are not, all else is lost. If there is public address equipment available, find out how it works – if possible get some practice before the big day – and then use it. If there is no sound-enhancing equipment, speak as clearly and as loudly as is necessary to be heard. If the only other person in the room was at the back, you would talk to him or her naturally, at the right level, without shouting or strain, by:
- Keeping your head up
- Opening your mouth wider than during everyday speech
- Speaking more clearly
- Slowing down
If you remember that you must be heard by that same person, at the back, during your speech, however many other people may be in the room, you will make those same four natural adjustments to your delivery.
Give out the right non-verbal messages
We speak with our vocal cords, but we communicate with our whole body. An audience does a lot more than listen to a speech – it experiences it. Everything about a speaker's manner and demeanour contributes to the overall impression that the audience takes away.
So what hidden messages are you giving when you speak? If you are unsure, watch yourself in a mirror, get someone to video you with a mobile, or ask a kind but critical friend what they think. You will probably find it would be useful to work on one or more of the following:
- Stance and posture
- Movement and gestures
- Eye contact and facial expression
While it is vital not to put on an act, it is important to learn to project yourself as positively as you can ... and a positive change made to any one of these areas will also have a direct and immediate positive effect on the others.
Stance and posture
Your stance and posture are important. You are making a fundamental statement with your body. An aligned, upright posture conveys a message of confidence and integrity. In Chapter 1 we talked about your great-great-(and about another 50 greats)-grandfather. He frightened his enemies by inflating his chest, spreading his arms and clenching his fists to appear a macho man. Don't frighten the guests by impersonating him. A friendly, upright open stance is far preferable. When the old boy was being attacked, he would put a shield between himself and his foes. If you cross your arms you will be perceived as defending yourself from the audience. Open arms and open palms are seen as friendly and positive.
Movement and gestures
When your beloved ancestor got into a ruck with the lads in the next village, he would first make confidence-boosting 'bring it on' gestures to them. If any were foolish enough to accept his invitation, he would hold a club above his head before bringing it down with great force onto theirs. Our legacy from this is that, even today, pointing and finger-wagging are seen as extremely hostile gestures. To come over as the friendly and unthreatening chappie you undoubtedly are, you should try to keep your fingers pointing downward.
Eye contact and facial expression
These are crucial aspects of effective communication because they gain and then maintain an audience's attention, create rapport and give you valuable feedback as to how well you are coming over. So look all around the room as you speak. Everyone must be included. If the folks at the back get the impression you are having a private party with your buddies at the front, they will soon switch off.
But you must do more than simply look at your audience. You must use your eyes and facial expression to convey your feelings. It isn't as difficult as it may sound. You do it every day. As always, support your words with looks that convey happiness, optimism, mirth, joy, confidence, sincerity.
There is nothing more captivating than a genuine smile. It shows warmth and friendliness and says, 'I'm really pleased to be making this speech. It's going to be great fun ... and my mate is going to wish he'd never been born.' So smile, smile – and smile again.
Telling jokes and stories
It is exceedingly difficult to discuss technique in general terms, since the telling of funny stories is such a personal business. My only advice is: Be yourself and don't go on for too long. Tell the story logically and get to the meat of the gag quickly.
The precise wording and style of delivery of a joke or story, of course, must be yours, not mine. If you are a naturally funny person, that's great. Give it plenty of wellie. But don't worry if you are not a born comic. You can still win your laughs – by playing it straight. For many of us the best way to tell a joke is seriously. Smile most of the time but act out your gags with deadpan expressions. It's a no-lose approach. They will probably find it hilarious ... if they don't laugh when you expected them to, they won't know they should have.
But we all have some abilities and talents. Don't hide your light under a bushel. Any regional accents or dialects which you can do well (and only if you can do them well) should be incorporated into your stories. A punchline is doubled in effect in the appropriate Cockney or Brummie accent – especially after a straight and serious build-up. The important thing is to be yourself and tell jokes in the way you find easiest and most comfortable.
MAKE FEAR YOUR FRIEND
Fear is nothing to be frightened of. People get nervous because they are afraid of failing, of looking foolish and not living up to expectations. Nervousness is caused by the fear of looking ridiculous to others.
Few speakers claim to be able to speak without any nerves. Most will say that lack of nerves is not only unlikely, it is undesirable. They need the adrenaline to carry them along. So how can you make things easier for yourself? First be assured that excessive worry is avoidable, if you follow these top tips:
Rehearse the beginning and ending until you have them spot on. Rehearse the rest of your speech not to be perfect but to be comfortable. An audience won't expect you to be perfect – in fact they won't give a damn if you fluff a line or two. They are on your side and willing you to do well. However, they need you to be comfortable. If you are not comfortable, neither are they. And if they're not comfortable, they cannot enjoy the moment, however hard they may try.
Why do some actors freeze or fumble on the opening night and pick up an award three months later? It's a fear of unfamiliarity. As days, weeks and months go by, the fear abates, confidence soars and the quality of performance improves beyond recognition. Words become more familiar. Awkward phrases are smoothed out. You suddenly think of a way of saying a stuffy sentence in a more straightforward and colloquial style. At the same time, you will recognise the parts of your speech that hit the spot, the parts that require a little fine tuning, and the parts that are simply not worth including.
Rehearse in the way that best suits you. Some speakers like to be isolated and unheard. Others perform their speeches again and again to a sympathetic friend, either encouraging suggestions from them or requiring nothing more than a repeated hearing, to ease away inhibitions. Once you have confidence in your material and have practised until you can get through it without a lot of 'umming' and 'er-ing', you will be ready to belt it out without a seeming care in the world.
Have the right mental attitude
Tell yourself you are going to make a great little speech. And believe it. The largely untapped power of positive thinking really is enormous. About 85% of performance is directly related to attitude. This may sound like American claptrap. It isn't. Attitude is everything.
A final thought before you stand and deliver (please read it out loud time and time again): Whether you think you will succeed or whether you think you will fail, you will probably be right.