A Beginner’s Guide to Speaking in Front of an Audience
We’ve all had the nightmare. You’re minding your own business in a perfectly peaceful dreamscape when…
A spotlight floods your vision.
You blink in confusion as the audience hushes to silence. Your eyes go wide as you peer out at a hundred faces, all acutely focused on you.
In horror, you realize: You’ve forgotten to prepare a best man speech!
If you experienced that level of panic exactly 10 seconds after you agreed to be the best man for your ride or die, well…
You’re in the right place.
Hi. I’m Aaron Smalls. You can choose to call me Smalls, or A-A-Ron, or just Aaron. Just like the Black Sheep song, “The Choice is Yours”. I’m a professional host with over 15 years of experience transforming run-of-the-mill events into captivating experiences.
I’m here to guide you from “I’ve never given a speech before!” to “Yes, I’d be happy to say a few words.”
Here are seven steps to turn your worst nightmare into a memorable maid/matron of honor or best man speech.
Step 1: Focus on an Authentic Connection
As you prepare for the big day, keep this in mind: It’s not about you.
Sure, you were the main character in your nightmare. But that’s not your role now, whether you’re giving a best man speech or preparing for a big presentation.
People freak out and insecurity rises like my heartrate around J-Lo (that’s a whole other story) because they’re worried about the audience. They don’t want to mess up or make themselves look foolish.
So, I’ll repeat:
It’s NOT about you.
Narrow your audience to one person or one person at a time. Have a conversation with that individual. Make it heartfelt and authentic.
The best man is only speaking to the groom. The rest of us are watching.
A great presenter is only talking to the most sympathetic decision maker in the room.
The person who looks natural in front of a camera speaks to the lens as if there’s an actual human being on the other side.
If you succeed at creating a true one-on-one connection, that authenticity will radiate to everyone else. The crowd will support your efforts and rally behind you.
They’ll laugh as two friends remember a crazy story.
Their eyes will well up with tears as you express how you feel.
They’ll applaud as you toast the happy couple.
If you make it about you and how funny you think you are, the audience will know.
They will sense that you care more about the result of the speech rather than the person in front of you. They will know that you said that joke just to make them laugh.
So be authentic.
Step 2: Know Your Bullet Points
As you’re preparing your letter to your best friend, you don’t need to write the whole speech out.
You certainly can if it helps you prepare. However, to keep your speech sounding natural, you’ll want a notecard of the bullet points rather than a long script. Moreover, in this digital era, if your notes are on your phone, be sure not to stare at it the entire time. Find times to get your eyes off the virtual page.
Additionally, create a structure for what you’re going to say with a beginning, a middle and an end. Then map out the stepping stones from the opener to your first major point to that great story and all the way to the conclusion.
Decide on your strong ending thought. You don’t want to end with, “So, yeeeah… that’s what I wanted to say.”
When people think back on your speech, they’ll remember the beginning and the end. Think of how to wrap your thoughts into a nice little package for your audience (of one) to take with them. This takes you one step closer to giving a best man speech like a pro.
Step 3: Rehearse with an “Audience”
Once you know what you’re going to say, take time to visualize how the speech might play out.
Identify, predict, and imagine your audience. What are some potential reactions to what you’re going to say?
If there could be applause or laughter, you shouldn’t power past that moment. Let the thought land. You’ve got to give those elements space to breathe.
Plan for pauses, and don’t ask a question, unless it’s rhetorical, without waiting for an answer.
Step 4: Walk the Stage
If you can, take time to prepare on the stage or physical space where you’ll be speaking.
Walking the stage creates a sense of familiarity you can rely on during the big moment. It allows you to identify potential distractions.
Notice where the floor is uneven. Observe where it squeaks. Visualize what might go wrong, so it won’t throw off your train of thought in the moment.
Look at the stage from the audience’s perspective. Walk through how you might move around so one group doesn’t spend the whole time looking at your back. Sightlines are important.
Also, practicing in the actual space might keep you from falling off the stage, as I’ve done while spiritedly trying to land a point. Not the way to give a best man speech like a professional.
Thankfully, that stage wasn’t very high up. Nevertheless, it’s still a moment to avoid!
Step 5: Ground Yourself
When you’re ready to speak, stand with your feet shoulder width apart to give yourself a solid base. If your feet are too close together, you’ll distractingly wobble like a buoy in the ocean without realizing it.
Take a deep breath. Ground yourself. And take. It. Slow.
If you’re comfortable moving on stage, walk with intention rather than pacing like a caged lion.
Oxygen is important. Don’t forget to breathe! It’s easy to neglect when you’re nervous, and it’s hard to catch your breath once you’ve started talking.
Step 6: Keep the Mic Up!
I can’t emphasize this enough: Make sure the microphone stays in front of your mouth.
Not by your belly button or your chest. Right in front of your voice.
If your head moves to the right, the microphone should move right, too.
If your head moves to the left, the microphone should move…left, too.
You can spot someone who’s never talked into a microphone before because the microphone stays locked into place while they talk. When their face turns, the mic doesn’t move and their voice fades into nothingness.
If people can’t hear you clearly, they’re not going to listen.
Keep it in front of your talk box!
Step 7: Master the Transitions
Transitions are where most people get stuck. Take time to think about how to smoothly shift from one bullet point to the next. Connect the dots for your audience.
Remember that change is jarring, even within a short story. When going from a funny story to something more serious, give your audience a thread that connects the two tones.
I host events for Cycle For Survival, benefitting the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Often, I have about 60 seconds transition cyclists from an emotionally heavy story to a high-energy bike ride.
I do it by identifying for the audience what hasn’t changed. People need to know what’s changing and what’s staying the same.
So, I might say, “Ashley just shared with us how helpless she feels as her sister battles cancer. I know some of you have experienced that. Sometimes we feel like there’s nothing we can do.
“But we’re all here right now, fighting together. And we’re not helpless! As the next incredible instructors come up, I want you take whatever you’re feeling, whether it’s frustration, anger, or sadness and channel it into this next ride!”
Without a well-prepared mindset of how you’ll change from one segment to the next you’re bound to have a mental trip and fall. And just like a literal trip and fall, there’ll be stuttering and stumbling leaving you regaining your composure while asking yourself if anyone else noticed. (Yes. They did.)
Like music playing during and acceptance speech, I’m going to wrap this up. And just mic that I’ve presented you with 7 simple steps for the next time you need to jump on the mic and give a best man speech or any other presentation for that matter. Remember, it ain’t about you. A good, connected, authentic speech is to one person at a time. Follow these tips and you’ll speak with confidence!
A word of caution though, this may lead to all your friends asking you to say a few words on their big day.