The Science of Giving a Great Best Man Speech

Use psychology to avoid embarrassing yourself and everyone else.


Congratulations! You’ve been granted the honor of acting as best man for a lucky guy. He just stood with his new spouse, up in front of all their friends and family, as they exchanged heartfelt, intimate vows of lifelong affection, perhaps the most either of them has ever publicly revealed about themselves in their entire lives. Now your job is to diffuse all that seriousness and gravity. No big deal, right?

Fortunately for you, giving a short, funny speech that is mildly embarrassing but also warms everyone’s hearts is not that difficult to do if you know how to game your audience — and yourself — with science. For simplicity’s sake, Inverse has broken down the psychological of a great best man speech into a few actionable items. Good luck!

Keep it Short

We might have short attention spans, but don't worry: Your audience is certainly more attentive than goldfish.

Flickr / Annie Roi

There’s a lot of conflicting scientific information out there on human attention spans, so it’s hard to know how to use it to time a good speech. For example, a 2015 study by Microsoft reported that the human attention span is a mere eight seconds — one second worse than the notoriously inattentive goldfish! Meanwhile, a study by British insurer Lloyds TSB generously put the mark at five minutes. These studies aren’t just confusing — they’re also quite dubious, as they were funded by companies with obvious commercial agendas.

While there’s no hard time limit on human attention, more reliable research suggests that shorter speeches are generally better and that keeping your audience engaged often comes down to simply being interesting. A 2016 review in Advances in Physiology Education on the available literature, for instance, showed that there’s no strong evidence for an ideal lecture length in universities and that students’ attention spans seemed to depend more on the teachers than on the students.

So, if you’re engaging and interesting, go ahead and talk for five to ten minutes — any more is just a cultural faux pas. But if you’re not, it’s probably best to keep it as short and sweet as possible.

Play to Your Strengths

We can't all be Buster Keaton. Don't try to be funny if you're not funny. Your audience will appreciate it.

Flickr / twm1340

Are you funny? Then be funny. Are you not funny? Then don’t try to be! It’s easy to get psyched out by film depictions of hilarious, heartwarming speeches that have flowing but concise narrative arcs and even thematic motifs, but not everyone has a screenwriter to put words in their mouths. Psychologists instead recommend playing to your strengths, which they say will increase your confidence and help take your mind off any anxiety you might have around speaking publicly.

In a 2014 paper on paradoxical psychotherapy in the Journal of Psychology & Psychotherapy, psychiatrist Khurshid Khurshid explains that patients who focus on their areas of strength tend to experience fewer negative symptoms of psychological distress. Taking a cue from this research, stick to your areas of knowledge. If you’re nice, be nice. If you’re a dork, be a dork. This is not the time to stray past your comfort zone.

Don’t Be a Jerk

Don't be a jerk. Nobody should remember your raunchy speech more clearly than they remember the ceremony.

Flickr / andybullock77

This may run counter to what some people have told you, especially as movies like The Hangover 2 have glorified speeches full of raunchy humor and embarrassing stories about messy college hookups. Research suggests, however, that this type of tale probably won’t go over well with your audience.

In a 2013 study in the International Journal of Humor Research, researchers found that people were a lot more critical of sexist jokes when in workplaces than in comedy clubs. A wedding reception is neither of these, but it stands to reason that the formal setting of a wedding, with a wide mix of attendees — including friends, family, and, potentially, coworkers — isn’t the best place to recount embarrassing stories from the groom’s sexual past before he met his one-and-only.

Further, a 2015 study, published in the same journal, determined through an analysis of disparagement humor on American Idol that telling embarrassing stories about a person makes them an easy target for further derision and can make others view them as “inferior.” This is not a good look for a groom on his wedding day, when all his closest people have come together to celebrate his union. So be nice.

Read the Room

If people are getting weird at the wedding reception, feel free to go a little wild. But if it's a more somber affair, maybe avoid the dirty jokes.

Flickr / Harvey's Wish

More important than anything is that you pay attention to your audience as you give your speech. Are people frowning at your jokes? Are they raising their eyebrows at your strip club story (which we told you not to tell in the first place)? If you’re getting these cues, this might be your sign that it’s time to dial it back a notch.

Various studies on social norms, whether on acceptable college drinking habits or dietary choices, have shown that people are bad at guessing what the people around them think and feel about a situation. The best way to correct that is to gather more accurate information about how those people are actually responding — and react accordingly. If you’re concerned that your speech might be getting too risqué or too boring, take a look around the room to get a feel for what people are feeling. If you see smiles and nods, keep on trucking. If you don’t, then maybe it’s time to wrap it up with a compliment.

This is far from an exhaustive list, but hopefully, it’ll get you started. With the collected wisdom of psychology research, you’ll be on the right track. Still, it probably won’t hurt to run your best man speech by a friend before the big day — just in case.

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