The whole word was watching last weekend when Justin Johanssen really stepped in it.

The best friend, and best man of James Matthews, Pippa Middleton’s new husband, delivered an off-color, tasteless and offensive speech at the almost-royal wedding that was likely intended to be funny. But apparently, his banter was not well-received. The upper-crust crowd at the Middleton’s mansion in Bucklebury, Berkshire, sat in grim-faced silence as Justin reeled off quips that went from bad to worse the longer he dominated the microphone.

If a best man’s speech is in your future this year, it might be helpful for a refresher on what’s expected of you.

First, if you have been chosen to serve as someone’s best man at an upcoming wedding, that’s because someone considers you to be the BEST person for the job.  And with honour comes responsibility.

Just be thankful we’ve come a way since the good ol’ days. Back then, the original duty of a “best man” was to serve as armed backup for the groom, in case he had to resort to kidnapping his intended bride away from disapproving parents. The “best” part of that title refers to his skill with a sword, should the need arise. You wouldn’t want the “just okay” member of your weapon-wielding posse accompanying you when you set out to steal yourself a wife, would you?

The best man would stand guard next to the groom right up through the exchange of vows–and later, outside the newlyweds’ bedroom door– just in case anyone should decide to attack, or a skittish bride should try to make a run for it.

Huns, Goths and Visigoths are said to have taken so many brides by force that they kept a cache of weapons stored beneath the floorboards of churches for convenience.

So, nowadays, no swordsmanship or weaponry skills required. But you do have the duty to have the groom’s back on his special day. That said, certain obligations you’re expected to fulfill are just common sense.  No need to tell you to show up on time, be of good cheer, be helpful, serve as a go-fer if necessary, keep the rings safe, calm a jittery groom, etc.

But when it comes to delivering your best man’s speech, or toasting the happy couple, it’s deceptively easy not to measure up to your duties if you disregard some obvious pitfalls:

  1. Best to avoid mentioning exes- -especially if you’ve had a previous relationship with the bride…or the groom!
  2. This is not YOUR day. So try not to upstage the groom—or anyone else in the wedding party.
  3. Remember, this is not a “guys-night-out” type of audience, so not the venue to insult/demean/bad-mouth the groom.  Johannsen’s quip about “buttock-clenching” during the first dance was rather lewd for an audience of society guests.
  4. Resist the urge to respond to hecklers argumentatively. It won’t end well!
  5. Many people are not naturally funny, so don’t try to be a comedian if you’re not one.  Johannsen’s honeymoon joke about “going to Bangor for two weeks” was crude, and in bad taste. Sincerity trumps subjective humor  and questionable taste every time.
  6. Not the time to speak negatively about the bride, or the future in-laws. Yes, there is some debate about whether Johanssen ACTUALLY compared Pippa to the groom’s pet spaniel, Raffa. But really, why go there at all?  Pippa was a beautiful bride, and every bride in the universe works hard to look her best on the most important day of her life, so why ruin it, even if only in jest?
  7. Someone has put their trust in you: the groom may have told you things in private he does not wish to share with everyone he knows best in the world! Keep his confidences! And watch your language!  Johanssen’s implications about gay bars and “lads’ nights out” could have been dispensed with.
  8. Even though you have a close relationship with the bride and groom, resist the urge to pepper your speech with inside jokes. The remaining 99% of the audience, who are not in the know, will not appreciate this.
  9. Avoid giving advice in areas in which you have no expertise: if you’re single, no sage words about “handling” a spouse; if you’re not a parent, no lessons on how to raise a child!
  10. Rehearse! Rehearse! Rehearse! No winging it. You have been entrusted with an honour. You’ll be thankful if you can acquit yourself honorably by preparing a speech or toast that you can deliver confidently and sincerely.

Oh, and one for the road.  You know this already.   Don’t drink too much before you deliver that speech, not to relax, not because you’re sure you know it well enough.  NOT FOR ANY REASON. Save the shots for later, once your formal duties have been performed! Then you can have one for the road! (But then you can’t drive!!)

Though Johanssen might be maintaining a stiff upper lip about the reaction to his speech, which received global negative press, his bad taste and bad judgement will not soon be forgotten.  Don’t pull a Justin Johanssen if you’re delivering a best man’s speech.  Put your best foot forward instead!

If you have your own cringe-worthy examples of inappropriate best man behavior—word or deed—that you’d like to share, we’d love to hear them!

Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, famously had this to say when promoting her book, Lean In, about women in the workplace:
Men still run the world. And I’m not sure that’s going that well.
Screenwriters use loglines, authors use quotations, advertisers use slogans and politicians….well, let’s just say sound bites bombard us every day in all kinds of formats and from every conceivable medium, and the best ones are such useful communications tools because…

  • They cut through the clutter and distill the main point you’re making into something memorable
  • They help to drive the audience or reader to the action that you’re compelling them to take

Whether you are speaking or writing, it’s worth your while to take the time to craft something pithy that your audience can take away. And doing so also forces you to clarify and refine your own main ideas to make your writing more effective.

There are lots of techniques and rhetorical devices you are probably already aware of for creating memorable sound bites, but approaching them methodically can help to hone your skills.
For example:

The rule of three: “We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”—Barack Obama, inaugural speech

Repeating words at the end of a series: “And that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”—Abraham Lincoln at Gettsburg

Repeating words at the beginning of a series: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

• Contrasts, Conflicts or Paradoxes: “In our community (of artists), tolerance of intolerance is unacceptable.”—John Irving on the Academy Awards

Rhetorical Questions: “If you can’t get a church van with twelve white folks through (the border), how much worse is it for any person of colour?’- Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale of the Reformed Church of Highland Park, New Jersey

Similes, Metaphors and Analogies: “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”—Gloria Steinem

Tweaked Cliches: ”Familiarity breeds contempt—and children.”—Mark Twain

Unexpected Twists: “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens!”—Woody Allen

Definitiveness or Power: “Go big or Go home!” –advertising slogan

Brevity: “Stand up. Speak up. Shut up.”—James Lowther, British MP

Imitation of a famous phrase: Jane Austen’s “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” might become “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a humdrum speech, delivered in a monotone, will put an audience to sleep.”

As you may have noticed, some of the most memorable sound bites employ more than one of these devices at a time. Repetitions of phrases, whether at the beginning, end or middle of a sentence, typically happen in threes, rhythm and cadence go a long way toward emphasizing contrasts or paradoxes, tweaked clichés are often noticeable for their brevity and punch, etc.

Once you’ve polished and perfected your gem of a phrase, remember not to bury it. If it’s part of an oral presentation, use it for an attention-grabbing opening or a killer closing, and if it’s a visual presentation, get it up on the screen to punch it home to the audience. Pause when you deliver it, to give people a chance to absorb it (and jot it down!)

If it’s included in a written work, and doesn’t belong in the opening or closing, consider giving it its own paragraph, so it stands out from the body of the text. And if someone else perfectly encapsulated your thought, by all means quote it, and acknowledge the writer.

Sound bites require work. Legend has it that Neil Armstrong took six hours to come up with, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” So, take your time, try to appeal to people’s emotions, and consult resources such as compilations of famous quotations and metaphors. (see how that series just naturally fell into threes?)

Go ahead–make a bite. Compose it, polish it, own it!

I was on a mission.  I wanted research from the trenches.  So I decided to poll some of Toronto’s top event planners to learn what’s happening out there in the wedding speech arena.  Are couples coming up with innovative ways of entertaining their guests? Are multiple toasts still the norm?  Who’s speaking? Who’s M.C.’ing? Has anything proved disastrous?

Here’s what my people in the know had to tell us, and I thank them for sharing their knowledge:

Melissa Baum, Melissa Baum Events

Rebecca Chan, Rebecca Chan Weddings and Events

Jodi Gagne, Simply Perfect

Karen Garscadden, Karen G Events

Heidi Gruenspan, Heidi Gruenspan and Associates

Lynzie Kent, Love by Lynzie

When it comes to the ideal length for a speech, I was surprised at the variation in responses offered.

The average, and what I personally typically suggest, is three to five minutes.  “Short, sweet and from the heart,” adds Jodi (JG).  Lynzie (LK) has the most tolerance for length, and is willing to go five to ten minutes, but Karen Garscadden (KG) decrees two to three minutes for parents and other toasts, and five minutes max for the bride and groom.

What about the perfect number of speeches?

A wide variation again.  Rebecca Chan (RC) wants to let the guests enjoy their dinner…so no more than three to four.  But JG feels you’re safe with up to five, and LK likes to pepper speeches between courses, with two per course.

How about the top tip for organizing speeches that the guests will appreciate?

It seems big picture planning and avoiding repetition are the order of the day. KG suggests all speakers coordinate to determine who will deal with thanks, honorable mentions, and who talks about the bride and groom and/or guest of honor, while MB warns against speakers repeating the same memory, and about keeping personal stories to a minimum, and relatable to all audience members. To ensure guests are entertained rather than drained from too many speeches in a row, JG suggests spacing them out to ensure a natural flow.

Is there a trend toward creative speeches?

Well…  MB feels most people lean toward the traditional, but KG admits one unique presentation can be fun, provided you have talented family and friends. The event should not, however, be used as a showcase to stage a talent show! JG finds slideshows are still popular, but notices that though they are fun for the bride and groom to watch, the guests seem much less entertained, so beware before you spend countless precious pre-event hours on a task that may not be appreciated!

What trends should be avoided?

KG is no fan of video presentations, and JG admits that clients this year have tried an open mic concept a few times, but since this idea cedes total control to the guests, it can be very risky in terms of the timing and content.

Careful consideration should be given to choosing the M.C. for your event.  You are relying on that person’s judgement throughout your celebration!  So what qualities should you look for?

KG’s ideal M.C. can keep things moving, provide introductions that are short yet meaningful, is able to command attention for the right reasons, be brief, organized and ready to step in and wrap things up.  A good sense of humor is important to JG and MB, but not if it comes to relying on inside jokes, which are a definite no-no.  Oh yes, a loud voice helps, and for JG, it’s all about that hard-to-define charisma.  We all know it when we see it, though!

How about two or more people speaking together?

Mixed responses here.  LK and JG are not much in favor of this idea, feeling there is too much overlap, making the presentation too lengthy.  LK suggests one person speak on behalf of the group, having polled them in advance for their ideas and memories.  JG feels one speaker at a time is the way to go, unless the chemistry between the two is spot on…but cautions she’s only seen it work well once in fifteen years!

But KG thinks a team speech can be effective if it’s well-organized and delivered.  And she has lots of instructions on how to pull it off: “Each speaker should have their own set of notes.  Don’t shuffle back and forth.  Follow the script, so you’re not looking for your place when it’s your turn to speak. And practice, so the timing and banter flows smoothly!”

There was a final question I couldn’t resist asking: is there a single speech that stands out in your mind, and if so, what made it special?

 HG remembers those that have humor with universal appeal, and JG also cites just the right amount of humor, as well as a gift for storytelling.  However, she also mentions one that stood out for the wrong reason:  the father of the bride roasted his own daughter, relating jokes that were simply inappropriate.

So there you have it:  Three to four speeches, each three to five minutes, coordinate to avoid repetition, don’t wrack your brain trying to come up with a creative format if you’re not the creative type, choose a charismatic, organized M.C., avoid group efforts unless you’re sure they will be well-presented and received, and avoid roasting by anyone of anyone!

If humor isn’t your thing, just replace it with sincerity, and your entire agenda will be a piece of (wedding!) cake!