Sherlock’s Toughest Case: How To Write An Unforgettable Best Man Speech

sherlockIt turns out Sherlock Holmes is human after all. The proof? Public speaking torments him as much as it does the rest of us.

Holmes has been unmasking murderers, saving the Crown Jewels, and exposing nefarious secret societies since 1887. He’s traveled to the 22nd Century and battled his nemesis Moriarty on the holodeck of the starship Enterprise (well, Data did in a Sherlock Holmes costume). But his biggest challenge? Writing a speech for John Watson’s wedding.

The recent BBC episode The Sign of Three opens with Sherlock calling Detective Inspector Lestrade away from a crime in progress for help with an emergency. Lestrade arrives at Baker Street to find Homes staring at his laptop screen in anguish.

“This is hard,” Sherlock says. “Really hard. The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.” Then he holds up a pamphlet he’s been studying called How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech. “Do you know any funny stories about John?” he implores Lestrade. “I need anecdotes.”

Sherlock believes he is especially tormented by having to write his speech because of his self-diagnosis as a “high-functioning sociopath” and because he’s not good with people and their emotions. But his experience creating this speech is pretty consistent with what the rest of us go through in a similar situation. We agonize about these important moments because we want to do a good job for the people we love and not embarrass ourselves in front of an audience.

Faced with a challenge that feels insurmountable, Holmes approaches it the same way he would any other case: with research. And apparently How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech is full of good advice because (and I hope this isn’t a spoiler), Sherlock does an outstanding job. He even manages to solve another murder in the process.

Once you take out all the flashbacks and murder-solving distractions, it turns out that his wedding speech is pretty conventional. Of course, every wedding is different and every speaker has to write a talk that suits the specific event, their abilities as a speaker, and their relationships with the couple getting married. But many of the tactics Sherlock adopts would be useful any time you find yourself in the nerve-wracking position of having to prepare a wedding speech.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the text of How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech. But, based on Sherlock’s performance, we can make some pretty good guesses about the advice it offers. My own powers of deduction tell me that the pamphlet’s suggestions look something like this:

Control Your Nerves

Public speaking makes almost everyone nervous. Even, it turns out, Sherlock Holmes. For most people the worst symptoms of their fear come right at the beginning, so it can be hard to get started and find a comfortable rhythm. But taking a few deep breaths, trying to speak slowly, and realizing that the worst will soon be over can help make your fear manageable. One of the great things about speaking at a wedding is that chances are pretty good you know a lot of people in the audience, so it should be easy to pick out some friendly faces in the audience and speak to them.

In Sherlock’s case, his nerves seem apparent as he struggles to write the speech and as he fumbles around a bit at the beginning of his performance, opening with “Ladies and gentlemen. Family and friends. And others….” But this turns out to be part of his plan. More on that in a bit….

(For other suggestions on dealing with fear of public speaking you can look here, or elsewhere on this blog).

Acknowledge Tradition

Are you speaking at a wedding with a Catholic mass or one being held on the beach in Santa Cruz? Both have rules and expectations that need to be followed, but those involved in either one would probably be wildly out of place at the other. Being aware of what everyone (especially the bride) expects from a wedding speech is critical. Are there rituals that need to be performed? How are you supposed to be dressed? What kind of humor is appropriate (if humor is appropriate at all)? Getting it right is incredibly important. The wedding speeches that go most horribly awry are usually the ones where the speakers simply don’t understand the context in which they are being given.

Aside from his formal wedding suit, the main gesture Sherlock makes to tradition in his best man’s speech is his attempt to read the “telegrams,” which he points out aren’t really telegrams at all but notes from loved ones who can’t be there.

“Big squishy cuddles. Oodles of love and heaps of good wishes,” he reads before quickly flipping through the note cards and then tossing them aside in discomfort. “Love, love, love. You get the general gist. People are basically just fond,” he finally summarizes. It may not be the most traditional performance, but at least people in the audience can think Holmes has made an effort.

Personalize Your Speech

When you’ve been asked to give a wedding speech, it should be because you have a close relationship with the bride, the groom, or both. At least one (and hopefully both) of them feel you have personal insight into them and their relationship. If that’s not the case and you find yourself asked to speak at the wedding of someone you don’t know very well, find an excuse to be out of town that day. Quick! Move overseas if you have to.

Every presentation needs an objective, and the objective of any wedding speech is to say something that will please the new couple and that they will remember for years to come. Even more specifically, your goal should always be to say something that makes the bride happy. In the end, she’s really the only one who matters.The danger here is in falling into the trap of talking about yourself too much, or focusing on just the bride or groom. Remember, the whole point of the wedding is bringing them together. You need to show some insight into them as a couple, something that you’ve personally observed.

Here’s where the Watson wedding gets really interesting. After Sherlock has made an effort with the traditional “telegrams,” he starts to personalize his speech. But he goes about it in an unexpected and circuitous way. Instead of talking about what great people John and Mary are and how happy they are going to be, Holmes plays to the audience’s expectations of him. It suddenly looks like he’s bombing the speech as he insults the bridesmaids, the vicar, and says this about the institution of marriage itself:

All emotions–in particular, love–stand opposed to the pure, cold reason I hold above all things. A wedding is, in my considered opinion, nothing short of a celebration of all that is false and specious and irrational and sentimental in this ailing morally compromised world.

Then he follows up with a barb at Watson:

If I burden myself with a little helpmate during my adventures, this is not out of sentiment of caprice. It is that he has many fine qualities of his own that he has overlooked in his obsession with me. Indeed, any reputation I have for mental acuity and sharpness comes, in truth, from the extraordinary contrast John so selflessly provides.

But not even Holmes is insensitive enough to say this at the wedding of a friend and mean it. He’s just playing on the audience’s expectations of him in order to create a genuinely memorable and dramatic speech and….

Do Something Unexpected

Of course, you could just stand up to make a speech, say a couple of nice things about the couple and be done. People make these kinds of speeches all the time. But it wouldn’t last very long, and it wouldn’t be very memorable. If you want to make a really great speech, you need to do something unexpected or tell a story that the audience doesn’t know. This is true of any presentation, really. Your talk has to stand out from all the other presentations people have to sit through if you want it to be truly memorable, and the element of surprise is a highly effective way of getting people to pay attention.

(A caution here. This doesn’t mean that you need to aim to create a speech that could go viral on YouTube. Remember that you’re there to celebrate the bride, not steal the spotlight from her).

Sherlock Holmes certainly excels at providing an unexpected twist with his speech. After seeming to trash the institution of marriage and insult much of the audience, he reveals that he’s been playing the role of “Sherlock Holmes the Sociopath” all along and that he completely understands what he needs to do in order to make a great speech.

“The point I’m trying to make,” he says:

is that I am the most unpleasant, rude, ignorant, and all-around obnoxious arsehole that anyone could possibly have the misfortune to meet. I am dismissive of the virtuous, unaware of the beautiful, and uncomprehending in the face of the happy. So if I didn’t understand I was being asked to be the best man, it is because I never expected to be anybody’s best friend, and certainly not the best friend of the bravest and kindest and wisest human being I have ever had the good fortune of knowing. John, I am a ridiculous man, redeemed only by the warmth and constancy of your friendship.

Sherlock, it turns out, has played up his own deficiencies in order to contrast them with John’s virtues. You can see the light bulbs come on in the faces of the wedding guests as they start to understand that they’ve been tricked. But it’s not something they’re going to be angry or annoyed about. They actually get a great deal of pleasure from figuring out what’s going on. Sherlock’s not so cold after all.

(Letting an audience figure out something on their own is one of the best ways to make any presentation memorable. People like to feel clever, that they’ve accomplished something, and it makes them feel much more invested in any talk.)

Create An Emotional Connection

The final, mandatory, element of any successful wedding speech is to make an emotional connection between the audience and the happy couple. There are lots of things you could do that would be “unforgettable” but still wouldn’t be good ideas for a wedding. Getting falling-down drunk before your speech. Stripping off your clothes as you talk. Making out with the maid of honor at the head table. These things are all overdone, anyway.

But making a wedding speech memorable in a good way requires you to say something that prompts a positive emotional response from the guests. How you do this will be different in every situation because every wedding and every relationship are unique, but it’s critical that you find appropriate emotional content. Otherwise you’re just saying nice things that no one is likely to remember.

Here’s how Sherlock creator Steven Moffat, who actually wrote the wedding episode, imagines Holmes’ thought process in planning the speech and the importance it has for him:

I thought what Sherlock would do is he’d sit there and think, ‘Everyone’s gonna think I’m gonna make a right c***-up of this. Everyone thinks I’m going to screw it up. So I’m going to make them think that, and then of course I’m going to say something lovely.’ And I always thought he’d do it well because he’s a genius and he cares about his mate–he wouldn’t let his mate down.

So what does Sherlock actually say? He makes a direct appeal to the bride and talks about how they share their love for John:

Mary, when I say you deserve this man, it is the highest compliment of which I am capable. John, you have endured war, and injury, and tragic loss—so sorry again about that last one. So know this: Today, you sit between the woman you have made your wife and the man you have saved. In short, the two people who love you most in all this world. And I know I speak for Mary as well when I say we will never let you down, and we have a lifetime ahead to prove that. Now, on to some funny stories about John….

After his initial ruse of being completely insensitive to the feelings of others, the emotional impact Sherlock makes in the end is so strong (and I admit I may have had a tear or two in my eyes) that the audience has to stop him from proceeding with his speech so they can enjoy the sentiment as he tries to rush ahead and tell the funny anecdotes he’s collected.

Make Them Laugh (Optional)

When people start thinking about giving a wedding speech, often the first thing they worry about is being funny. And Sherlock does too. His initial response was to call in Lestrade and beg for funny anecdotes. But, while some of the best wedding speeches certainly make people laugh, humor should be entirely optional. It is sincerity that is required for a great wedding speech.

Remember that a wedding is not an open mic night or your chance to practice a standup routine. The spotlight on this stage should stay fixed on the bride and groom. If you have funny stories to tell, great, as long as they help the guests get to know the bride and groom better. If you have to search hard for funny anecdotes, however, it’s probably a sign that you shouldn’t depend on humor. And don’t try to be funny if it doesn’t come naturally to you or you have a hard time remembering a punchline. Much better just to be genuine and tell a good story.

Unfortunately, we may never know what, if any, anecdotes Sherlock came up with since the wedding party doesn’t give him a chance to tell them. I suspect, though, that he may have been trying to generate some during the disastrous two-man bachelor party he tried to orchestrate for Watson.

Solve The Murder (Sherlock Only)

Chances are pretty good that you will not be called on to solve a murder, so there’s really no need to over-prepare for this situation. Probably best to leave the sleuthing to the professionals anyway and spend your time coming up with the right stories for your wedding speech. Now that you know How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech, it should be easy.

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Effectively Using Humor In Your Presentation

“As an icebreaker, let’s all share one interesting thing about ourselves. I’ll start.”

I once had a boss who was a terrible speaker. He would stammer, lose his train of thought and sweat profusely, even when he was only talking to a couple of people who were his employees. It was excruciating for everyone.

Then one day he adopted a new tactic. Someone must have suggested that telling a joke at the beginning of the meeting might help break the ice and make everyone more comfortable. The problem was that my boss seemed to pick the jokes randomly from a children’s book. They were jokes about giraffes walking into bars, conversations between electrons and neutrons, awful puns. Even worse, they didn’t help him relax at all. He was still so tightly-wound that he’d stumble over the punchlines and have to start over again, prolonging everyone’s suffering.

Some people just aren’t funny and shouldn’t try to be, but my boss wasn’t one of them. He was a warm, friendly guy who was pleasant to hang out and have a drink with. The mistake he made with his jokes was that they had absolutely nothing to do with what we were talking about at work. They were completely lacking in context and made him seem disconnected from what we were doing there. When it comes to humor in presentations, context is key.

Humor can accomplish a lot in your presentations. Making people laugh helps them relax and makes them more likely to agree with what you say. It entertains them so they don’t resent being there and helps them pay attention. Most importantly, humor helps you build a relationship with your audience that will endure long after your presentation itself is over. Getting an audience to laugh and like you can be critical to getting them to believe in what you have to say. But all of these things depend on telling the right kind of joke.

Humor is a really tricky thing. Saying something that other people find funny requires that you share common experiences, opinions, language. Think about how hard it can be to understand a joke that’s been translated from another language. A lot of the time it’s just futile. And humor doesn’t even have to be that “foreign” to fail. We all have cultural, economic, even regional differences that impact what we find funny. Do you laugh at redneck jokes? Kathy Griffin? A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Whatever you enjoy there’s someone out there who feels just the opposite.

Figuring out what kind of humor will work with an audience can be a huge challenge, but it’s worth the effort. When you can tell a joke that makes an audience laugh it immediately signals to them (whether they realize it or not) that you have something in common. And when they feel that you have something in common they are much more likely to be persuaded–which is the point of any presentation in the first place.

The more specific the kind of humor you can target at an audience the better. I’m always pleased and appalled by the geeky kind of jokes you hear at industry conferences, the stuff that no one else would ever understand but is hilarious to a small group of people. When I used to teach software like Microsoft Word it was the jokes about styles, fonts and “Jason tabs” (don’t worry if you don’t understand know what a “Jason tab” is, no one expects you to) that struck me as incredibly cliquey. But every group and industry has their own equivalent. Which is a good thing because being able to deploy them shows that you know your audience and are part of the same group. You’re one of them. If you’re looking for a joke to tell, start with what the specific group you’re addressing has in common. The geekier the connection the better.

Telling a funny story is even more effective than telling a joke. Stories are much more memorable and allow you to more fully develop an idea. If they’re based on your own experience they’re also much less likely to get screwed up since they don’t require a punchline. If you’ve chosen your story well your audience will easily be able to relate to you and what you’re telling them.

If you’re looking for a humorous story, one of the best things you can do is to describe a mistake you’ve made. One of the problems with jokes is that they’re usually at someone else’s expense and can sometimes seem mean. But telling a story about one of your own failings shows that you’re human and gives the audience something to relate to–chances are they’ve made mistakes of their own. And storytelling allows you to tell them something about yourself and make a personal connection in a way that isn’t self-aggrandizing. But the best thing about using a humorous story about making a mistake is that it comes with a built-in narrative that you should be able to remember easily because it happened to you. There’s no punchline to remember. Instead you can offer what you learned from your mistake, which is a much better takeaway for you audience than any joke you would tell them.

Humor can be a powerful weapon in your presentation arsenal, but don’t just tell a joke to tell a joke. Whatever you do, don’t go to the library and pick a random one from a book. Take advantage of the live format of your presentation to find your own humor that fits the context of your talk and works to create a relationship with your audience. Find an appropriate joke or tell you own story. But remember that it’s not just having a joke that’s important, it’s how your humor helps you relate to and persuade the people in the room.