Hello, gentlemen! Whether you singlehandedly found your way here, or a considerate female friend sent you this article, welcome to Brides.com. (Sorry about all the pink, but hey, it's 2017 and colors are non-binary). First off—congrats, my friend. You've been declared "best man." That's literally the most superlative title ever conceived. Ready to earn it?
You, of course, have many important responsibilities—groomsmen shepherding, alcohol distributing—but there's really only one task that will secure your proud ascension into the ranks of the very-best best men: Speeeeeeeeeech! But if the thought of bromantic PDA has your knee caps sweating, relax. We found you a coach with years of experience delivering well-crafted and heartfelt words to millions of people. Barack Obama did not respond to my DM, but here's the actual next best thing—his former speechwriter David Litt. (Cue all the "It's lit(t)!" jokes my self-respecting editor would definitely not allow in this story.)
"Whether or not he or she means to, basically everyone ends up doing public speaking at some point," says Litt, who penned speeches for President Obama from 2011 to 2016, and recently wrote a best-selling memoir Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years. "One thing that happens when you write speeches for a president is that you become a pro-bono speechwriter for a lot of your friends. So, if someone's getting married, you usually get a call."
We also decided to take advantage of Litt's generosity, and interrogated him with the gumption of a nosy aunt at an open bar reception. Below, his thoughts on (UGH) actually getting started, reading the room, and WWOD—What Would Obama Do?
BRIDES: Have you ever given a best man speech?
Litt: I actually have not, but I've watched a lot of them. I've certainly consulted on wedding speeches, but it's funny—I think I've helped more women than men. I did do a last-minute consultation for a father of the bride who had too many drinks right before. He was a little nervous and was like, "Does this look okay?" But at that point, it’s more of an emotional issue than a rhetorical one.
Can you share any standout best man speeches you've heard?
I was just at a wedding where the best man gave one of the best best man speeches I’ve ever heard. The premise was that the groom was governed by something called “Andy’s law” which is, as the best man explained, the opposite of Murphy’s law. So instead of “anything that can go wrong will go wrong,” the best man went through all these different examples where things had just totally played out in the groom’s favor somewhat unexpectedly. Then, the end of the speech was about how the ultimate example of Andy’s law was finding Liz, his now wife. It was very funny, but also in the end, it was very sweet.
That’s kinda the goal of a best man speech, right? To balance humor and sentiment. Is there such a thing as too many jokes?
Let me put it this way—there’s such a thing as too many bad jokes, and that number is about one. The more you treat it as an open mic night, the less happy everyone involved is going to be. You don’t need to go in thinking, “How do I get invited back next week?" Generally speaking, men think of the best man speech as a funny speech to give because we’re very uncomfortable sharing how we actually feel. But, what makes a good best man speech is the part where somebody shares how they feel. Humor is just icing on the cake.
Ever witnessed a best man getting too sappy, and things got awkward?
I feel like I definitely have. What I would say is, remember the relationship that you’re celebrating is the one between the two people getting married. You’re giving the speech because you can shine some unique light on that relationship. If the relationship that you’re really giving the speech about is the one between you and the groom, you're there—things are awkward.
On the flip side of that, how can guys know if they've ventured too far into jerk territory?
I’ve seen best man speeches where someone thinks, “Oh, my job is to roast the groom.” Unless the groom and the bride specifically told you that’s your job, that’s not your job. The way to think about jokes is that you don’t want people to be laughing at the groom or at the couple. You want people to be laughing because they suddenly know the groom better than they did before.
What about general tips for knowing when and how to censor yourself?
My general rule for wedding speeches is: If you have to ask yourself, “Is this appropriate?” it’s not. And, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t know, ask a friend. If they give you that slightly horrified look, listen to that look.
Speaking of cutting yourself off, how many drinks are permissible beforehand?
Being one drink in works for some people, but being more than one drink in is never a good idea. At that moment when you’re like, “You know what I need? Another couple shots.” That is never what you need.
Do you have alternative tricks for instant confidence?
The best thing to do is practice with a friend. Anybody giving a big speech rehearses beforehand. If you’ve already gotten good feedback from field-testing your remarks with a smaller group, then you’re going to come out on the wedding day comfortably knowing you have a good speech. It's that uncertainty that can be so scary when you're up there speaking.
Let's talk timing. How long should the speech be?
Short. I’ve never been to a wedding where anyone said, “That was a great wedding, but the best man speech was just too short and that ruined it.” Practically speaking, I would say five minutes is the absolute maximum. Three minutes is fine. Also think about it in terms of ideas, right? You can get in one or two short anecdotes, maybe three, and one big idea. If those are good, you don’t need more. There’s no question that if you’re reading this, you’ve sat through a speech that was too long. But when you start writing a speech, you almost never think, “Is this going to be too long?” Instead of thinking as the speaker, put yourself in the shoes of someone in the audience. Think about what they’re looking for, rather than what you want to do.
Considering your audience can be challenging at weddings. Everyone from grandparents to young kids to coworkers are there. How do you read the room and adjust accordingly?
Feel free to ask beforehand, right? When I was writing speeches for the president, we had a point of contact where the speech was happening to say who exactly is in the audience. You can do a smaller-scale version of that. Your POC is probably your friend getting married. But the nice thing about giving a best man speech is that ideally, it's both specific to you and universal to the couple. So, it doesn’t really matter who’s in the audience. They should feel like they know you a little bit, and they know the couple really well, after you’re done.
Should there be any collaboration with the groom beyond asking about the audience, or is everything better as a surprise?
It depends on the groom, and it depends the best man. If generally, you are the kind of person who can be both surprising and appropriate at the same time, that’s great. If you’re the kind of person who has a track record of going a little too far with your surprises, you should be self-aware enough to run this by a third party—maybe another close friend or a friend of the bride. Frankly, at the end of the day—yeah, you want to make sure the groom is happy with it, but you really want to make sure the bride is happy with it.
The most difficult part of any writing assignment is starting it. Do you have a process? What’s the first thing you think about when writing a speech?
Well, I start with stories. You’re not going to just write a speech from scratch. Start by brainstorming stories. Most importantly, what you’re looking for is the theme that comes out of those anecdotes. So, what’s the one unifying idea that ties everything together? Generally speaking, the best way to think about your theme is: Afterward, if people only remember one thing, what’s that one thing? Once you have that, the rest of it flows a little better.
How do you make sure the delivery flows too?
I would say almost never start with talking about how nervous you are. I'd also say just relax. That’s a hard thing to tell someone to do, but to put it differently: Remember, you’re not putting on a show. You’re not performing. You’re there because you know someone and care about them, and you’re sharing that with a bunch of other people. Imagine you're just telling a story to a group of friends, because really you are. Even a great best man speech is not supposed to steal the show. If somebody says, "That speech was nice, but almost forgettable because we were so focused on the bride and groom" that’s a win. You don’t need to be the star.
You're used to writing for the most important person in the room. But in this case, the groom isn’t the one speaking; he’s the one being spoken about. Any advice for not upstaging him?
That’s true. Although I will say that when I wrote for President Obama, one of the things that he really enjoyed doing, and did very well, was telling other people’s stories. I’ve never been to a wedding where Barack Obama was the best man—that would be pretty cool—but I imagine he would be very good at giving a best man speech because despite the fact that he’s a charismatic personality, his speeches are not really about him. They’re about other people. And even if you don’t have the oratorical gifts of Obama, you can still follow that example: Focus on telling someone else’s story and making someone else look good, and of course, you’re going to look good in the process.
If Obama asked you to help him write a best man speech, would you give him any specific notes?
[Laughs] I don’t know. I think I’d mostly be taking notes. I suspect he would be substantially better at this than I would.