Much has been written on the subject of public speaking nerves. If I want a suitable quote on this or any other matter, I look first to an American writer and humorist who never lets me down.
‘There are only two kind of speakers: (1) the nervous; and (2) liars.’ (Mark Twain, 1865-1910)
That gem, as true today as it was then, is the subject of a short video I recorded last year for my YouTube channel ‘The Mottoist.’
Like the inimitable
and often-quoted Mark Twain, I said in the video that yes, most
people are nervous when speaking in public. Not all, but most.
There’s even a word for it now, ‘glossophobia’, and we’re
told that 75% of the public suffer from it.
Not just the general
public but stars from every genre of the performing arts. Dames Judi
Dench and Janet Baker. John Lennon. Leonard Cohen. Stevie Nicks.
Henry Fonda. The list goes on.
So back to my headline at the top of this piece, and maybe the key takeaway, from the aforementioned Stevie Nicks (she of Fleetwood Mac, if you’re not into rock): ‘If you have stage fright, it never goes away. But maybe the stage fright is the key to that magical performance.’
The good news: stress is helpful, provided you can manage it.
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I find the subject of wedding speeches fascinating; but for me it’s a part-time project. Therefore, when writing The Wedding Speech Handbook, I consulted many people whom I shall call ‘wedding professionals.’ By this I mean people who have a full-time business providing wedding services. Their input was of great value, especially with regard to the things they regarded as a ‘no-no.’ Here are some examples of ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’ according to those wedding pros. Most of them are covered in a little more detail in Chapter 10 of the book.
Lack of personal context to stories
This was the ‘#1 crime’ reported by professional storyteller Polly Tisdall and it absolutely mirrors my own view. Because humour is so valued in our culture, jokes by a best man have for years been seen as a necessary feature of his speech; but not everybody is a gifted joke-teller. Far better, in my view, to tell stories that feature the bride or groom, how they met, etc. Yes, of course the stories can be funny but the essential point is to make them relevant to the occasion.
And please, please, please don’t find jokes on the Internet. Thanks to that very Internet, a joke that you think is brand-new might well be known to half the audience. And it might also be thought tasteless by the other half. Bear in mind that most wedding audiences are very diverse, especially as regards age. This is one of my major bugbears and it’s well illustrated by the cartoon above, which is by the talented David Lewis.
Not being heard
These days most venues have a PA system available. That’s helpful but it does put a premium on microphone technique, so I’ve included a section on that topic in the book. Fortunately my daughter Madeleine is a professional actor and singer, with plenty of experience of using mics, so she wrote the section for me. There are also tips about choice of microphone types; and for those situations where PA is unnecessary or inappropriate, I’ve also added a section on voice projection.
On PA, a word of warning from photographer Giles Bracher: ‘if you’re going to use a lapel mic (which of course presupposes that there is a sound man on hand and that he doesn’t mind switching the mic over from speaker to speaker) and if you should need to use the loo between the time the mic is fitted and the time you actually stand up to speak (Mother Nature ensures that this occurrence is common), be sure to check that the mic isn’t switched on!’
Failing to prepare properly
Giles Bracher again: ‘My pet hate is speakers who think it’s OK to just turn up and chat.’ In my view, that shows disrespect to the couple, the event and the guests. In our culture the speeches are a big deal at a wedding and a speaker’s preparation should reflect that fact.
Going on for too long Most wedding speeches are between five and ten minutes. However, I have heard horror stories of speeches lasting over an hour. By which time some guests had departed for the bar or the loo, or had dozed off.
Photographer Tasha Park says: ‘keep it short and sweet. Even the best speeches become difficult to listen to after the 15-minute mark’. And venue host Brigid Holdsworth told me about a wedding featuring three garrulous and adoring best men, where the speeches took two hours in total.
The dreaded booze
One or two drinks before speaking is of course a great temptation, but the meaning of ‘one or two’ depends on your constitution. Only you know your tolerance for the stuff, or at least you should. I know some people for whom the first two drinks don’t touch the sides.
I was once doing some work in a cafe and two strangers at the next table looked ideal candidates for my informal research: men in their thirties, extrovert types who wouldn’t object to being quizzed. I asked if either of them had spoken at a wedding recently and both said yes. ‘So how many drinks did you have beforehand?’ The first answered: ‘five or six pints of beer, just to take the edge off’ and the second: ‘I was so nervous beforehand, I couldn’t have faced it without getting hammered first.’
Luckily, most speakers take the matter more seriously. One of my coaching clients, speaking at his daughter’s’ wedding , said that before speaking he had ‘half a glass of wine. I’m a control freak: I wanted to get it right.’ However, at my suggestion he had a reward in his eye-line during the speech: a very large glass of whisky, his favourite tipple, visible in front of him but not to be touched till after the speech.
Hypnotherapist Sharon Stiles told me about speeches at two different friends’ weddings, where the respective best men’s speeches were both ruined by too much drink. See my book for more on that.
Not consulting the other speakers
This is an absolute no-no in the case of multiple best men, which as you’ll probably know has been a trend for some time. But for any speaker, nobody wants to hear the same story twice. Consultation is useful anyway: after all, which of the bride’s father and the groom will thank whom? Best to sort those details out in advance.
Speaking too fast
This is a natural reaction to the stress of the occasion. The remedies: rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Record your voice (you’ve probably got a voice recorder app on your phone) and listen to it! Better still, play the recording to a partner, a friend, your dog.
(OK, I lied about the dog; they are famously poor judges of anything said by their owners. As Aldous Huxley said, “to his dog, every man is Napoleon, hence the constant popularity of dogs.” )
Sherlock Holmes is wrestling with a difficult problem at 221B Baker Street. So problematic, in fact, that he sends an urgent summons for help to Detective Inspector Lestrade. As Lestrade arrives – with a full backup team, having left a crime in progress – Holmes, played by Benedict Cumberbatch on BBC-TV, holds up a slim book entitled How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech.“This is hard,” he says. “The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
If you should ever need to do that “hardest thing” and make a best man’s speech, don’t rush out to your favourite bookstore, be it Amazon or bricks-and-mortar, to find a copy of that book. Sadly, it doesn’t exist. (I say sadly, because that episode of Sherlock went viral and it would have been a fantastic piece of product placement.)
YOUR OPINION SOUGHT … wedding speeches on screen
A good friend told me that it would be an interesting exercise to analyse that now-famous speech, and I’ve decided to ask my readers for their opinions on it … and on other wedding speeches on screen, both TV dramas and feature films.
There are of course millions of real wedding speeches now on YouTube but I’m looking for fictional ones, because I believe that their lessons are more easily remembered. Benedict Cumberbatch, as Sherlock, has millions of fans (aka Cumberbitches), but that’s not the only reason for writing about his now-famous but fictional speech.
The other reason is that the latest series of the drama has just finished on BBC TV – personally I didn’t like the way they developed this last series but that’s just my opinion, though I know I am not alone – so maybe you fans are suffering withdrawal symptoms.
The Sign of Three: solve a crime or two, write a speech
This speech came, as any Sherlock fan will tell you, in an episode called The Sign of Three, broadcast in 2014. Sherlock has been invited to be Dr Watson’s best man, to his surprise and confusion. Simply writing it is, as he tells D.I. Lestrade, “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
Your turn to comment!
So here’s the survey. What do you think of Sherlock’s speech? If you were planning a best man’s speech, what lessons, if any, would you take from it?
Here is a link to a video of the speech, via our old friends at YouTube:
That link takes you to almost the full speech, apart from a section at the beginning where Sherlock reads out the messages from absent friends; or, as he says: “First things first: telegrams! Well, they’re not actually telegrams; we just call them telegrams. I don’t know why. Wedding tradition, I suppose. Because apparently we don’t have enough of that already.”–
This is all fiction, of course; but I think there are some useful lessons that can be learned from it. Do you agree? If so, what are they? And what do you think about what he does at the very start – reading the so-called ‘telegrams’ – which isn’t in this video?
If you want to see that part too, the only version I found on YouTube isn’t of great quality and has subtitles in Dutch; but here it is.
And for a final piece of background, here’s a transcript of an interview with Steven Moffat, who was Executive Producer of the Sherlock series and who wrote the speech, talking about this episode. He says he always wanted to see Sherlock as a best man. (That idea was his, not Conan Doyle’s: in the original novels, Watson marries Mary Morstan between stories, off-screen so to speak). Moffat’s thoughts are very instructive.
Please post your comments: I’ll post mine soon. I will also post links to posts about this episode by other bloggers, so that you can compare your views with theirs.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
That episode of Sherlock? It’s called The Sign of Three.
Other fictional wedding speeches from movies and TV dramas? I’ll be posting in coming weeks about other onscreen speeches. Watch this space!
The world mourns Muhammad Ali; and rightly so. How many sportspeople will have the eulogy at their memorial service given by a former American president? But that is what is about to happen today in Louisville, Kentucky. At his peak Ali was one of the most famous and most recognisable people on the planet; he was loved especially here in the UK, partly for his boxing and partly when we saw his sharp wit on his famous interviews with Michael Parkinson. He may have been untutored but the intelligence was ferocious.
I’m not writing about his boxing, because it’s all been said by people very much more qualified than I. This is about his positive attitude to life and to events, which must have been a contributory factor to his success
We cannot all be boxers, or elite sportsmen of any kind. We can’t all have the ability to improvise humorous replies as fast as he could. But if you ever have to prepare for a potentially stressful occasion – a speech, a stage performance, a difficult meeting – there are two important and practical things you can learn from him.
Firstly, and famously, we remember how he talked about himself: “I am the greatest!” He started doing this before he became world champion. Later in life, when questioned about that phrase, he said: “yes, I said I was the greatest … even before I was.” Some people – especially here in the UK – put this down at first to arrogance but now, I think, we know better than that.
In an interview, Ali said he first got the idea from a wrestler called Gorgeous George, with whom he shared a platform at a promotional event early in his career. Gorgeous George was not a particularly successful wrestler but increased his popularity by telling jokes and saying “I am the greatest!” Ali heard that and immediately began to copy it.
What’s the lesson for us, particularly if we come from a more self-effacing culture? We probably won’t say “I’m the greatest”; but we could at least avoid the ‘self-sabotage’ of saying to ourselves and others: “I’m not much good at XYZ.” If you tell yourself something often enough, your subconscious mind will start to believe it, whether or not it’s true. That’s something that the young Cassius Clay understood very well.
Predicting and visualising the outcome: creating ‘future history’
So Ali was the greatest, and he told himself so. He also used another very specific method of training his subconscious to expect the best, by creating what he called his ‘future history.’
When a new fight was arranged and he attended a press conference to announce it, immediately afterwards he would excuse himself, go up to his hotel suite, draw the blinds, and just sit down and relax, breathing deeply, and create a mental picture of the end of the fight. More than just creating a picture: he even used to predict in which round he was going to win; he would get into that level of detail.
And he would create this picture of the end of the fight: opponent flat on his back; referee raising his own arm; Harry Carpenter climbing through the ropes with a microphone. Then he would freeze-frame that picture and carry it around for the next two or three months until the day of the fight. That was his version of what’s sometimes called ‘creative visualization’ but I prefer the term he himself used: ‘future history.’
So how could Ali’s method be tailored to your needs? What’s your equivalent of that knockout moment? This is where you go back and remember what is your purpose in giving the speech, or whatever performance you have to give. Then you can create your own picture of a successful outcome – by your own definition; nobody else’s. For example, if you’re speaking at a wedding, your picture could be of the smiling bride appreciating what was said, an enthusiastically applauding audience, etc. Those kinds of mental pictures can help you anticipate the day ahead with pleasure rather than dread.
A man who transcended his sport.
Me? I was never a fan of the brutal sport of boxing; but I was always a fan of Muhammad Ali. Like everyone else on the planet, I watched him every chance I got, whether he was fighting or just talking. He dominated his sport, changed attitudes to minorities, and lit up our lives.
I needed what Facebook calls a ‘cover photo’; that’s the one that goes right across the screen. So I went immediately to morguefile.com, my current go-to site for finding royalty-free pictures. Or at least reasonably-priced pictures. I typed in the search term ‘weddings’ (no flies on me, no sir). And sure enough there were many pictures that could fit the bill, because if there is one thing that weddings reliably produce (apart from happy families, I hear you say), it’s lots of beautiful photographs.
The clock face
However, I then found a wonderful photo of a bride and groom silhouetted against the background of a large clock-face. That clock-face was back-to-front, so you could imagine that they had been shot inside Big Ben or some similarly impressive clock. So I downloaded that picture; by the way it was taken by a photographer and digital media blogger called Ricky Ochs, from Colorado, to whom many thanks.
Why do I like that picture? It’s because, when I have a decision to make, I have a favourite rhyme which goes like this:
“I keep six honest serving-men.
They taught me all I knew;
Their names are What and Why and When;
And How and Where and Who.”
(Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling)
Answering one or more of those questions – which are, of course, open questions – usually helps me decide.
Here’s what I take from that rhyme, for anyone who is going to speak at a forthcoming event, particularly a wedding. Of those six open questions, you certainly know the Where and When. If it’s a wedding, you probably knew the time and the place very well in advance. In fact the idea for The Wedding Speaker’s Handbook came about when a friend first asked me to help him with a speech for his daughter’s wedding; it was more than a year before the big day. And that sort of lead time is not uncommon.
So Where and When are questions that are generally set in stone a long time in advance. Carrying that information around for a year or more is a potential source of stress for the speaker. So what can you do to reduce your stress, if you are that speaker? The answer, briefly, is that you have to start your planning process now, because it is never too early to start planning a wedding speech. And the remaining four questions in that Kipling rhyme will help the process.
In summary, the picture tells a story for wedding speakers; but it also tells a story for me personally. For those speakers, it’s this: from the moment that the date and venue for ‘The Big Day’ have been booked, the clock is running. It’s running for whoever is planning the wedding – whether that’s the couple themselves, or their families, or a professional wedding planner, or a combination of the above – and it’s running for the speakers. How will those speakers use the time?
For me the clock is running too, if I’m going to get this book ready for the publishers on schedule. Back to work!
“There are only two types of (public) speakers in the world: (1) the nervous and (2) liars.” (Mark Twain)
Are you in Mark Twain’s first group? If so, you might be interested in the pre-show rituals of singers as a source of warmup tips. There are many good examples but my favourite was Elvis Presley and his famous ‘1000-yard walk’.
When singing at a large venue such as an arena, he would insist that his trailer was parked exactly 1000 yards from the stage. Why he did that, and how his idea could be adapted, are questions worth studying by performers of any kind, including speakers, who have to give of their best at a predetermined time and place.
Performance anxiety: even felt by performers who chose the life
It’s a known fact that many people fear public speaking. It is often done by people who don’t enjoy it but have to do it anyway: it might be a necessary part of their job, the might be the father of the bride, etc, etc. These reluctant speakers might logically assume that ‘all those other types of performers’ are doing what they do by choice, therefore will not be affected by nerves. That is very far from the truth; one hears many stories of famous actors and musicians throwing up in the wings before a performance.
Popular singers: Noel Coward was right
I’m focusing on musicians and I’ve looked at what they do to relax and get in the right mood before a show. I choose popular (rather than classical / opera) singers first, because (a) they are so high-profile we know the most about every detail of their lives; and (b) Noel Coward was right when he said: “Extraordinary, how potent cheap music is.”
Some of the examples I’ve discovered involve alcohol. Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac apparently favours a shot of tequila; and Leonard Cohen used to suffer so badly from stage fright that he couldn’t go on without first downing two bottles of wine. That’s been severely moderated, I’m told, to one whisky. Probably a large one.
A non-booze solution comes from Chris Martin of Coldplay. He apparently brushes his teeth at the last minute, saying “I don’t feel smart if my teeth aren’t clean.” My daughter Madeleine, an actor and singer, tells me that it makes sense from a physical as well as a psychological standpoint, because it can help disperse any excess mucus in the mouth and throat.
Most surprisingly, the booze group did not include Robert Plant, the former lead singer of Led Zeppelin. His unique voice was described thus by Encyclopaedia Britannica:
“Exaggerating the vocal style and expressive palette of blues singers such as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, Plant created the sound that has defined much hard rock and heavy metal singing: a high range, an abundance of distortion, loud volume and emotional excess.”
The owner of that voice, in his dressing-room before a performance, used to drink mugs of tea while ironing his stage clothes. “It gets me in the mood”, he said. Not very rock ‘n roll; but it clearly worked for him.
Elvis’s 1000-yard walk: the reason why
Perhaps the greatest idea, because it doesn’t require a dressing-room or a high alcohol tolerance, comes from Elvis Presley. I imagine that the atmosphere just before one of his shows was pretty hectic, with all the folderol that goes with a world-famous performer and an audience of thousands, including a large entourage. As I said at the top of this piece, when singing at a large venue he would insist that his trailer was parked exactly 1000 yards from the stage.
So what was the purpose of that walk? It was so that he could use the last few minutes before performing as a chance to get his head ‘in the zone’. No interactions, no conversation. Just a solitary walk of just over half a mile.
(Solitary? OK, he was probably surrounded by a phalanx of security men; but I’m sure they were under instructions not to talk to him.)
By the way, I am neither a believer nor a journalist for a tabloid. If I were either of those things I might claim that this pre-show routine gave Elvis the idea of recording the gospel song ‘Just a Closer Walk With Thee’, which he did several times. I don’t think the idea has any basis in fact, which doesn’t prevent it being a good story. “Too good to check”, as the journalists might say.
“Walk around the block”
How to adapt Elvis’s technique for those of us who don’t have a trailer and a large entourage? My advice was as follows: You don’t have a trailer? No problem. Go for a walk around the block. Arrive early, ensure things are set up as you need, ensure you’ve got water available for when you speak (preferably from a glass; but a plastic bottle is better than nothing), then go for a walk around the block.
If you still have time, go round the block again.
And if you don’t like Elvis, or his wonderful 1000-yard walk idea, my suggestion is to choose a musician you do admire, find out what rituals he or she uses to relax and control nerves, and copy them. I’m sure that your role-model would be pleased if they ever found out, because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.