There are a handful of moments in life you can point to and say, “Ah yes, that’s when I really learned about X.”
Many times it’s something you already know deep down, but for whatever reason this one experience crystallizes the lesson, and you remember it for the rest of your life.
One of those moments for me was when I attended a wedding in England a few years ago, and I saw two different best man’s speeches at the same reception. Why two? Because there were two best men. I guess the groom couldn’t decide so he asked his two friends to share the role.
The interesting side effect of this arrangement was that we got to see two very different approaches to the best man’s speech. It’s not often that you get to see this sort of real-world A/B testing. And in this case the results were dramatic.
They were both funny, charismatic guys. But one guy was definitely the life-of-the-party guy while the other was the more reserved, quiet, witty one. The variable that ended up being A/B tested was not personality, however. It was preparation vs. spontaneity.
The life-of-the-party guy got up first. There was excitement in the air–you could feel the audience preparing for it. He had a big crazy grin on his face (like he often did when he was out at the pub). This was the prankster, the loud-mouth, the jokester. His speech was bound to be brilliant.
But within a minute or so, you could feel the whole room start deflating, as life-of-the-party guy awkwardly rambled, searching for embarrassing/funny/profound things to say about the groom and coming up dry.
The ear-to-ear grin gradually faded and was replaced by a slightly pained, worried look. He was bombing, and not even he expected it. Clearly, he had not spent more than about 5 minutes preparing. He was counting on his own natural presence and charisma to help him spontaneously deliver a rousing and gut-busting speech.
But no dice.
For the 2nd best man (quiet-witty guy), it may have helped that expectations had now been lowered. The sense of anticipation in the room was very different at this point. I think the audience was cautious to get excited after being let down so badly a few minutes ago.
But quiet-witty guy also had a secret weapon: a piece of paper, with his carefully thought-out speech written on it.
He didn’t try to hide the fact that he was reading his notes. He wasn’t going to pretend that he was coming up with brilliance off the cuff. And no one seemed to care that he had a cheat sheet.
Although he started out a little cautiously, he soon warmed up the audience with a brilliant speech that was nothing short of gut-busting.
In between reading from his notes, he would pause for dramatic effect to let the laughter subside. By the end, the audience was–in some cases literally–rolling in the aisles, and quiet witty guy folded up his notes, put them in his pocket and triumphantly returned to his seat.
After seeing the 2nd best man crush it with his speech, I felt a little sorry for life-of-the party guy. I understood where he was coming from. There’s definitely something noble about trying to enchant an audience with a brilliantly ad-libbed speech. We see it in the movies all the time.
And sure, some people might say that reading from note cards or having a cheat sheet makes you appear stiff. In theory, sure. In practice, the audience doesn’t care whether you’re coming up with your speech in real-time or you spent six years writing it. It’s all about what you’re saying and how you deliver it in the moment.
In The Art of the Start, Guy Kawasaki says that ironically, sometimes being prepared with a well thought out speech allows people to sound and be even more spontaneous.
He believes you should practice a speech 25 times before you’re really ready for prime time. 25 times! It makes sense: at that point, the key parts of your speech start to be like muscle memory.
Rather than being a rigid map of what you’re going to say, your speech becomes a safety net under the high wire. It allows you to focus on being in the moment and enjoying yourself. If you want to stray a little bit from your plan, that’s no problem, because you’ve got your speech to fall back on.
Ever since that night at the wedding, I have a new appreciation for what makes a good best man’s speech…or any speech for that matter.
Regardless of how brilliant and hilarious you are, you can’t expect that your speech is going to materialize by magic when you get up and grab the mic. Your results are going to be infinitely better if you’ve done your homework.
And it doesn’t matter if the audience sees that you’ve brought a typed cheat sheet, or if you’ve scrawled some notes on your hand or the back of a coaster. They won’t fault you for having a safety net–they’ll thank you for it.