This week's problem: Nick's best friend has asked him to be best man at his wedding. But Nick is terrified of public speaking and has a slight speech impediment. He longs to execute a commitment that means a lot to him, but is racked with fear. What can he do?

There's a moment in Nick's life when he just has to ask himself whether he's man or mouse. True, public speaking, even for those who aren't saddled with speech impediments, can bring people out in anxiety attacks that are worse, amazingly, than the prospect of war or cancer, but public speak Nick must, even if he can only blurt out five words.

Why? Because to be offered the post of best man is to be offered an honour, and to turn it down would be dishonourable. He is also, actually, being asked to perform a task that involves much more than public speaking. He is being asked to stage manage the wedding, to be someone who can get his friend to the church on time and see the couple get away after the reception. He is not meant to "come across" at all; he is there only to help the proceedings flow. His little speech - which no one will be very interested in anyway since everyone at weddings only has eyes for bride, groom and champagne - will be a minor part of a major and important role in the event.

But since the speech is the part that causes the raw terror that's making Nick think of turning down the role, he could learn it by heart, he could write a resounding, amusing and rhyming poem which he could read out (rhymes seem to help speech impediments); he could, as he looks at the audience, imagine they are all chickens. He could try practising his talk on one friend, then two. He could try talking it out to himself in a mirror. Private rehearsal is the secret of overcoming any fear from standing up for yourself to public speaking.

He could "feel the fear and do it anyway" - an excellent remedy for any kind of terrifying situation. This means you imagine the worst that could happen - for instance, that he could imagine he's standing up unable to get a word out, then that he starts stammering, then that the audience starts to laugh and hurl bottles at him, and eventually tears him limb from limb. This scenario becomes so hilariously unlikely that he will eventually realise that the worst the guests can do is talk and laugh among themselves while he stands and gropes for a word. He has only to say, "A toast to the bride and groom", and it will all be over. He need only, actually, raise his glass and mime.

Perhaps what is particularly important about all this is not what Nick will be doing for his friendship by accepting, but what he will be doing for himself. Having the courage to take on this job will help him in every other area of his life. He will move on personally; and if he refuses he will stand still. He will also be enormously respected by everyone in the audience who shares the same fears about getting up and addressing a crowd.

One of the bravest highlights of King George VI's lifetime was when, as a mega-stammerer and lisper, he delivered an agonising speech to a public crowd. Forget all the other things he did in his life - accepting a ghastly job, pottering round the bombed ruins of the East End - this really was his finest hour. Accepting his friend's offer means that Nick will be able to develop from being a good friend to being a real king. Call me soppy, but I mean it.

Give them a slide show, instead

There are other ways to "give a speech" without actually having to stand up and have everyone watching you. Why not, for example, collect old photographs of your friend from his earliest childhood (those naked baby photographs or the ones with the flares and bowl haircut will always go down well) up until the stag night, and have them converted into slides and give a slide show instead of a speech. If you are really nervous about speaking, all you need to do is introduce it and then play bits of music which are important to your friend. This sort of speech will be remembered much more clearly than an ordinary run-of-the-mill best man speech and nobody will think that you've chickened out. At the end of it all, all you need to do is a toast.

Madeleine London W4

It's OK to say no

Sixteen years ago I was in the same situation as you now find yourself in. I was asked by an old and close school friend to be his best man and, like you, I was anxious about a slight speech impediment. In the end, I chose to go ahead and do it and it went very well. However, the nervous tension before the event and the nervous exhaustion after the event engulfed far too much of my life to make the effort worthwhile.

Since then, I have learnt that it is OK to say no, and if your friend really values your friendship and in particular your feelings, I am sure he will understand.



Make 'em laugh and enjoy the goodwill

The great thing about weddings is that everyone is willing you to do well, to make them laugh or remind them of past encounters and events. Make the speech clear, concise and everything will be fine. Why not start by saying "John (the groom) didn't want his best man to give away past secrets in case it embarrasses him in front of his new bride so he chose me with an atrocious memory and a speech impediment!" It won't matter what you say after that!



Keep it short and all will be sweet

A couple of years ago I was in the same position as Nick. I too have a slight speech impediment (a stammer) and a terror of public speaking. In my case, the school friend was best man at my wedding when we were 21, 10 years before. I did not know my friend's wife or family at all, and he has a plethora of cousins, aunts and uncles, so I was faced with around 100 strangers. My speech was short (I made a couple of clean jokes at my friend's expense, complimented the couple, and proposed a toast). No one really wanted to hear the sound of my voice, so a short speech was appreciated. Several people even congratulated me afterwards. So my advice would be to accept and remember that everyone in the room will be kindly disposed to you, and your friend would appreciate a few well-chosen and sincere words more than a long oration or a series of embarrassing stories about past exploits. I wouldn't have missed it, despite having a very light lunch!

Andrew Sheffield

A double-take would halve the problem

Perhaps your friend would like to have two "best men" to make his day extra special. You could stand by his side during the ceremony and another close friend would like to tell all the tales and offer a toast to the reception.

I know through a very close friend how the stress caused by the prospect of public speaking can ruin an occasion for you, not only on the day itself but all the previous days. It is best not to put yourself through this torture but it would be lovely if you could be there for your friend.


London NW11

Talk to the experts about public speaking

I suggest Nick contacts the National Association of Speakers' Clubs, which aims to provide ordinary people with basic skills for public speaking. Write to: 3 Leawood Cross, Holloway, Matlock, Derbyshire DE4 5BD.




Dear Virginia,

I'm divorced and 43 with two children in their late teens. For the past 18 months I've been involved, indeed am in love with, a young man of 25.

My children really enjoy his company and he virtually lives round here at the moment. He is now pressing me to get married. It means an enormous amount to him. And I don't know what to do. Would it be right for him?

He wants to try for children but says if we can't have them it doesn't matter. He did have one other relationship before me with a girl his own age, but though they got engaged she broke it off. But when he's 50 I'll be over 70. Would he still care for me then? We get on so well and I have never in my life met anyone so utterly kind, devoted and loving. Has anyone any advice for me?

Yours sincerely, Clem

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate.

Please send any relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, The Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL; fax 0171-293 2182, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own that you would like to share, let me know.