Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Coaching a coach for a best man's speech

For a UK-US wedding, Union Jack socks, blue tie,
and cufflinks with image of the first American flag
British speaker coach Peter Botting and I live on opposite sides of our partner desk called the Atlantic Ocean, but when he learned a best man's speech would bring him to Washington for the union of a British groom and an American bride, he asked for my help.

I can guess why Sarah and Matthew, the bride and groom, wanted Peter to speak. He's played a key role in their relationship, and he'd be a built-in speaker coach for the groom. But more than that, Peter speaks with passion, taut language and nuance. He uses surprise, cheeky jokes, and heartfelt insights. He takes his work seriously, but doesn't take himself too seriously. Or at all. Most important, this speech mattered to him, deeply--he's written a Prime Minister's speech at the United Nations General Assembly, but said this best man's speech would be the most important speech he had ever written and delivered. That's a good thing for a speaker, and a challenge.

In Peter's preview post about the task, he notes the expectation that a speaker coach and speechwriter would deliver a spot-on speech. The groom's brother piled on the pressure and said, "If you were a carpenter and gave a crap speech it would be ok. But you aren’t!” Venue and guests were no less intimidating, set at Mount Vernon, estate of George Washington, the first President of the United States, with attendees including political heavyweights working in the Obama White House, the UK Parliament and more. So here's what we worked on together:
Left to right: Best man, photo-
bombing bride, and groom on a
tour of the White House
  • Keeping it simple: Peter's draft speech, sent to me before his arrival, was nearly where it needed to be, and what he said that day was almost indistinguishable from the first draft. His words didn't need embellishment. Peter coined one of my favorite reminders for speakers, "Big ideas don't need big words." It's a riff on one of our favorite authors, Ernest Hemingway, who said, "Big emotions don't need big words." When it comes to speeches at weddings and funerals, the emotion and the event heighten the words without any extras. A simple, heartfelt delivery is best at moments like this.
  • Speaking while emotional: Not crying was high on his wish list for this speech. I get all the easy tasks, right? So I reminded Peter that crying and blushing, once begun in earnest, can't easily be stopped. I taught him my tricks for emotional moments: Shut your mouth, breathe through your nose, swallow, and pause however long you need to. Breathing through your nose is less visible and audible, but provides needed air at the right time and can help interrupt a full-on cry, as does swallowing. Shutting your mouth helps block a sob. Pausing is an underused tactic. If you're midway through an emotional speech, a pause is understood and respected. So are tears, for that matter. Later, I learned that the wedding party was passing around the "breathe through your nose" tip like a plate of hors-d'oeuvres. In the end, tears were shed, and tissues passed, but they didn't derail anyone's remarks. Peter paused a lot. But the room stayed silent. This was all fine--after all, you wouldn't want wholly unemotional speakers at your wedding, would you?
  • Be funny and a little bit risky: You have to balance the tears and emotional moments with humor, in part as catharsis and in part to entertain. And then there's also the goal of yanking the groom's (and perhaps the bride's) chain just enough, then making them feel amazing. In his speech, Peter described his effort, speechwriter-like, to run jokes past the bride and her repeated ruling-out of his choices, which hinted that they were more than a little risky. Noses were tweaked. Dennis the Menace has serious competition here! Personalized humor, rather than off-the-shelf jokes, makes a big difference. But after each joke at the expense of the bride or groom came praise and tribute, lest the best man leave the impression that the joking image was the one the guests should take away. It's a diplomatic touch many best men forget at their peril.
  • Figuring out the job your story has to do: Peter also was to relate a moment when the groom supported his absence from a campaign so Peter could handle his uncle's funeral. His expression, understandably, was somber as he spoke about this dark moment. But every story has a job to do, coaches say, and this one was not just about a difficult time in Peter's life, but a testament to the groom's generosity, loyalty and support. I urged him to end with a smile to give the audience its cue card about how to react--not with tears, but with appreciation. He ended that story with the line, "And that's the type of guy Sarah married today."
  • Thanking people lovingly and not by rote: Peter's speech began with a litany of thanks and acknowledgments, my least favorite way to start a speech, but necessary here. He did the right thing by making them not rote thanks, but individualized and special and funny, peppered with some insider jokes and the sly tone noted above. 
  • Ending strongly: Peter didn't have an ending when we began coaching, but did have a million-dollar anecdote at the end of the speech. He was describing the night Matthew wanted to talk through proposing to Sarah, during which Peter finally handed him a Post-It note that said, "Stop talking and propose to the girl - before she gets her eyes checked." (The anecdote was properly drawn out and hammed up for dramatic effect during the speech.) He ended with: "So now I'm going to take my own advice. And shut up. And propose. A toast. All happiness, Sarah and Matthew." Even with an expert speechwriter doing the speaking, a good coach can contribute to a speech's content, helping with grace notes and transitions and building on the authentic content that's already there.
  • Sharing a secret that captures the feeling of the day: The closing anecdote had something else going for it. I often tell speakers giving wedding speeches or eulogies to share something about the principal that only you and the honoree know--it's both connected and surprising, grounded and exciting. In speeches rife with platitudes and cliches, this kind of content rivets the listener. That worked so well here that the bride turned to the groom in front of all to ask whether it really happened, a priceless moment.
All that preparation was richly rewarded, in part because the wedding party decided to put the speeches during a stand-up reception early in the proceedings, rather than after a meal or while guests were trapped at tables. Everyone was alert and attentive, both speakers and listeners. As a result, Peter spent the rest of the evening getting feedback like, "Home run!" and "The speech!!!" I'm told you could hear a guest say during his remarks, "I need to hire that guy to be my best man!"

Peter turned out to be more than right about the pressure of being "the speechwriter" and "the speaker coach" who'd be speaking, an easy target. Even the staff at the venue told him that his speech was being hyped a lot before it was given. Everyone in the wedding party who spoke referenced it, and he was the last to speak. But the best feedback of all came afterward from the groom's brother: "You're no carpenter."

In the end, I am sure that his speech succeeded not just for its structure, well-chosen anecdotes, cheeky jokes and practiced delivery. This speech was full of heart and honesty, two aspects of authenticity that absolutely cannot be faked. It drew everyone in the room closer to one another and let them feel connected. It was no surprise to me that Peter was told by a guest, "This is the most intimate wedding I've ever attended," even though the crowd numbered 140 people. That's the feeling you get from his speech. For every best man who pulls a stock speech off the Internet, this set the bar very high, indeed.

The speech's ability to forge strong connections also reflected our coaching process. When another speaker coach hires me as a coach, a fellow professional says, in effect, "I need to prepare, and I trust you enough to let you see me prepare," with all the false starts, objections, questions, changes, cold feet, anxiety and other loose ends any speaker might have. We both know all too well what might happen, and the need for help. I've coached a couple of fellow coaches, and have learned that that's what makes this exchange special. When we can help each other be vulnerable, present and emotional, it's a real victory. I'm so delighted to have been able to contribute to this special day, speech and speaker.