Wedding speeches can be the boring bit that everyone prays will soon be over, or the best bit of the wedding feast, entertaining, moving and celebratory. This article will give you some hints as to how to achieve the second and avoid the dreaded first.
There are many ways to arrange wedding speeches nowadays, from the entirely traditional, to the tweaked traditional, to the completely re-thought. The first decision therefore is for the Bride and Groom to decide what kind of speeches they want and how they are going to happen. They then need to communicate this to the chosen speakers, so they understand what they are aiming for. For example:
The most traditional way of running this part of the event is for the Bride’s Father, the Groom and the Best Man to all speak, in that order. Probably at the end of the meal. There is nothing wrong with this – and it is certainly often popular with the women (who can start on the champagne with no fear of an up-coming speech!) and can be very popular with the men, if a little nerve-wracking. You could spread these out between the courses to break it up. Or you could do it before the food (popular with the speakers who can then enjoy their meal and start on the champagne earlier).
There are various books and online articles that will give you the ‘rules’ for what traditional speeches need to contain, which you can follow or abandon as you wish. And be sure to brief the Best Man very clearly. There is a strong cultural pressure to sacrifice the celebratory possibilities of this speech to a character assassination of the Groom. This usually excludes most of the audience and can cause offence and hurt. Brief very clearly what you want from this speech to ensure that this doesn’t happen. And choose your Best Man wisely.
In traditional speeches: The Father of the Groom gives an affectionate portrait of his daughter and then welcomes her new husband to the family. The Groom thanks everyone for coming and particularly thanks the people who helped make the wedding happen (parents, bridesmaids, groomsmen etc), talks about his love for his new wife, and says some nice things about her family, possibly some nice things about his own family too to even it up. The Best Man gives an affectionate portrait of the Groom, welcomes and compliments the bride, reads messages from absentee guests, and toasts the couple.
A tweaked version might include a few words from the Bride as well. Or from a Bridesmaid. Or a contribution from the Bride or Groom’s Mum. It can be really lovely to hear from both sets of parents. Or to hear a joint Best Man/Bridesmaid speech either from a single joint friend, or from a group made up of friends of each. I recently attended a wedding where the bride and groom co-told the story of how they met (which was a bit romcom) taking it in turns to offer their viewpoint. It was both very romantic and very funny. Tweak away.
Or why not do something else entirely? If your wedding is small enough the whole audience could get involved. Every guest attending could contribute a short memory/unusual fact about the groom, bride or couple. Or a piece of advice. The Best Man/Bridesmaid could host a slide show where every guest has contributed one really awesome picture of the groom/bride/couple with a story attached that they tell when the slide comes up. You could structure this with sections about the bride, about the groom, about the couple, and ending in a toast.
If there’s musical talent throughout, you could do a sung version. If there’s no musical talent, you could do a Karaoke version – with song messages for the Bride and Groom sung by enthusiastic members of the wedding party. The possibilities are endless to find the right thing for you and your wedding, formal or informal.
Whatever you choose, the way for it to be a success is to prepare it well. Try the following steps:
- Think about your audience. Include every different person in your thinking (Bride, Groom, Bride’s family, Groom’s family, Bride’s friends, Groom’s friends). This is to ensure that your speech is inclusive and not cliquey. Primarily everyone wants the Bride and Groom to feel joy. So this is your absolute priority. Looking good personally is at the bottom of your list. Surrender your own needs to those of the two love-birds getting married.
- Think about the emotional journey. In particular think about how you’re going to finish. Are you going to introduce the next person? Raise a toast? Give a gift? Set off a cheer? It’s important to consider the end is so you shape the energy of your speech to result in the quiet sincerity, or table-thumping high that you want to finish on. You want an arc or some kind, a beginning, middle and end with different qualities. So if you’re going to end high-energy, have a quiet bit in the middle, and vice versa.
- Collect your story content. You’re probably going to want to tell a few stories and mention a few peculiarities of the person you are speaking about. It’s very important that your portrait of them is affectionate – but the more accurate it is, the more the natural humour of recognition will lead to laughter. You don’t need to force jokes, trust your natural humour and trust specificity. What is really specific about the person/people you are talking about? Do they have obsessions (a vintage motor-bike, ebay, whisky, bargain hunting)? Do they have character traits (always late, always punctual, obsessively tidy, catastrophically untidy, mad hair)? Only choose things they are either secretly proud of, or that they won’t feel sensitive about. And do not be afraid to gush. It’s nice to have a bit of gentle, humourful teasing, but it’s also great to say how kind, loving, ‘do anything for you’, ‘smartest man in the class’ they are too.
- Collect your practical content. There’s probably going to be stuff you must say – for example the best man usually has to read the telegrams. The groom traditionally has to toast the bridesmaids and thank the people who helped make the wedding happen (or paid for it). Check with the bride and groom about this – and check back if they initially haven’t thought about it.
- Begin to structure your speech. With an eye on the emotional journey, work out what order your stories, comments and practical stuff have to come. You need to start with a story that connects you with the person/people you’re talking about. You might need to say who you are, and something about how you met them (and why you love them). If there’s a funny little story about that, even better.If you share the speech with other people, then you may need to check that these basic tasks are covered. If you share a speech, ensure that the whole range of the speech is covered. For example if the best man speech needs to 1) tease the Groom, 2) celebrate the Groom and 3) toast and celebrate the couple, and if there are three speakers, then they need to split this between them. They don’t all get to tease the Groom. You could end up with a very long speech where nothing nice is said about the couple at all. Not a success. Share it out and cover it all.
- Finish structuring your speech. With an eye on the emotional journey, work out what order your content needs to come in. Think in ‘lumps’ – with a clear idea of the contents of each lump. For example, a Best Man’s speech might be: 1) Intro story, 2) portrait of Groom, 3) welcome Bride, 4) messages, 5) toast. Each section would have content – anecdotes, things you’d like to remember to say, things you have to remember to say…
- Practice your speech. It’s ok to write down a structure, and to jot down good turns of phrase, but the best way of practicing your speech is out loud, with minimum notes. Working with the spoken word, rather than the written word, helps you to explore ways of telling anecdotes, ways to phrase things wittily, how to handle a pause as you search for the right word, and how to avoid waffling. It will prepare you much better than writing the whole thing out long hand. When you have prepared out loud, you can reduce your notes to a few phrases or words that help you to recall each ‘lump’. You may find after preparing your speech through speaking it, you ultimately don’t need notes at all. Do this weeks not hours before the wedding!
And lastly, on the Big Day itself:
- Don’t get drunk. A glass of champagne to take the edge off, yes. Eight glasses because you have to wait so long until it’s your turn, no. Try to convince the bride and groom to have the speeches earlier so you can relax sooner, but until you’ve done it – you need to be broadly sober.
- Check your props and technical stuff. Work out if there’s a microphone and make sure that someone has done a sound check with it (preferably with you around too) so you’re ready to go. Ensure that you’ve looked at the layout of the room and worked out the best position to stand so that everyone can see/hear you. If the room is empty, have a little practice on the mic. If you have any technical stuff (for example slides, music), check it early and don’t let it take over. You are the important thing. Photos and music can be lovely and work really well, but tipsy guests and slick presentations don’t go that well together, so keeping it simple is a good idea.
- Embrace whatever happens. You may forget loads. That’s great, you have accidentally delivered a more succinct version. You may waffle a bit. That’s great, you may stumble across some great witticisms. You may look a bit nervous. That’s great, you will look really sincere. Try to accept and be happy with what happens. Ultimately there is only one part of the speech that you must not and cannot forget, and that is to genuinely and sincerely wish the couple a happy life and marriage, and to invite the audience to join with you to celebrate, admire and welcome them. If you remember that, then your speech has done it’s job. If you do any more, then you can be extremely pleased with yourself.