Photo Credit: Shoreshotz Photography
It’s that daunting time of year again... wedding season. And that often presents a daunting proposition: A speech. Gulp. Outside of snakes and spiders, public speaking is one of the scariest things people encounter. But rest assured, I’m here to help you out with some tried and true tricks from the field and some crucial dos and don’ts for writing and performing that wedding speech. I’ve been the groom and the best man. I’ve given away the bride and even been the officiant a few times, so I have practiced what I preach. And I’ve learned from both my mistakes — and my successes. Here are the top 15 dos and don’ts.
Be Yourself. It’s either your wedding or you’ve been asked by the nearlyweds to speak about them; they wouldn’t have asked you if they didn’t deeply value your friendship and trust you, so here’s an opportunity to shine for them — as yourself.
Talk About the Couple. Use your specific, personal experiences to your benefit and incorporate unique, unexpected or quirky details, but avoid too many inside jokes or “you-had-to-be-there” references. The assembled want to hear about what you have to say about the newlyweds — not about that time you and your friend went to Vegas.
Start With a Bang. Start with a catchy opener or joke, if you can tell a joke — and have an appropriate one. Otherwise, leave the jokes of questionable taste for the bachelor or bachelorette party (or the bathroom). For example, as I was writing my first wedding speech as an officiant, I came up with the “best” joke with which to open. In my most sonorous of voices, I would intone, “Dearly beloved… and Adam,” which would have gotten some rolling laughter from those who were not fond of Adam, the bride’s stepfather. But given that he was footing the bill for this extravagant affair and the joke was truly in poor taste, that one wound up on the cutting-room floor.
Tell a Story. The best speech is a story with a beginning, middle, and ending that focuses on the couple. For example, my favorite opening line from a speech I gave 20 years ago as a best man was this: “When Fred and I jumped on a motorcycle and traveled from his mother’s house in New Jersey to his new apartment in Los Angeles, mere blocks from the Pacific Ocean, we both knew he had gone west to seek his fortune. Neither of us could ever have imagined that fortune would be Lizzy.”
Thank Participant. Give thanks to those who should be singled out for their contributions and participation. This should include family, dear friends, those who have travelled far or with difficulty. Don’t forget those who couldn’t make it due health reasons, travel restrictions, or other serious or family concerns.
Say it in Five Minutes. Short and sweet is best, as less truly is more in this scenario. Leave the crowd wanting more. Five minutes is ideal.
Practice with a Mirror. Practice the speech in front of a mirror, as well as for a close enough friend who will be honest with you. In the case of the officiant’s speech, I strongly recommend rehearsing the speech for the actual couple. On the special day, you don’t want anything that is going to come out of your mouth to stick in their craw. Also, they probably won’t hear much of what you’re saying during the actual ceremony other than when addressed directly, as in, “Do you?”
Print it or Put it on Index Cards. Remember, don’t try to memorize your speech unless you’re an actor. Write it. Print it. Give a second copy to that trusted friend who won’t misplace it. Better still, try this: I write my speeches out on index cards in a spiral notebook. If you have ever watched a wedding on a sitcom, you know what can happen with a stack of cards. With the cards on that spiral, you can’t lose one, you can’t disarrange them and, if you’re speaking from a podium, you can see two at a time. Attached together like that, there’s less flipping — and less chance of losing your place. Another reason I like the smaller, stockier index cards is that, if you’re nervous and your hands are shaking, it will be far less noticeable with the cards in your hand than with a big piece of paper quaking like a flag flapping in the breeze.
Toast the Couple. Always remember to toast the bride and groom at the conclusion of your speech.
Use Gimmicks. They have all been used before. If there is a quote from a poem or from a religious text that enhances what you’re already trying to say and it’s wedding-appropriate, that’s fine. But don’t just sprinkle in lovey adages and flowery quotes without a specific, personalized reason.
Curse. The “something blue” should not be your speech. Don’t curse or be crass — even if you’re known for it.
Google it. Never Google your speech. It won’t be in a search engine. But, if you are at a loss for words or want your speech to sound more polished than you think you could do on your own, do hire a writer to assist you.
Memorize it. Write your speech out and practice it, but don’t try to memorize it unless that is truly your forte. You’ll risk sounding stiff, insincere and lifeless.
Get Drunk. Or even tipsy before your speechifying. One drink prior is acceptable and perhaps even beneficial for your nerves. Take that second drink with you for which to toast the newlyweds. It will be a great reward at the conclusion of your speech for a job well done.
Wing it. Finally, a word to the wise on “speaking from the heart” (aka “winging it”): Don’t. You just read this piece and perhaps it all makes sense to you, and yet, you’re probably going to stand up there this June with little more ammunition than a glass of champagne. I know who you are. I was once you. Even a speech written in haste on a train, on the back of an envelope, can be fantastic. A speech written in champagne bubbles cannot. Without something written out to keep you on point, you may go on, and on, and on… well past the five minutes you should spend as the center of attention.
Armed with these tips ahead of time, your preparation and practice will ready even the most nervous or frightened of you for the big day of speechifying. And, as I mentioned before, there’s no shame in hiring a professional wordsmith to help you say exactly what you mean to say. Even if you get help writing the speech, you’ll still need to tell the writer what you’re trying to communicate and provide him or her with the stories he or she needs to write a clever narrative. And, ultimately, your tone of voice, body language and overall delivery will be the most personal touch you add to a brilliant wedding. Enjoy!
Brian Mazo is a Professional Writer of Personal Things at HelpWriteThis.com. He had his first column in a sports collectibles magazine at the age of thirteen. Since then, he has graduated from NYU Film School, had a few movies produced from his screenplays, and has written for a number of newspapers and magazines. He recently published a collection of short stories called, “A Rose by any Other Name,” and is currently working on a novel entitled “Live Fast! (Die Out of Town).” Mazo lives in Minneapolis, Minn. with Thurman, a Russian Blue cat.