Speech Tips from a Pro Toast GhostWords by Wendy Dennis
Photos courtesy of Amy Thompson Photography
I ghostwrite a lot of wedding speeches, so I’m used to receiving panicky emails from people a few weeks before the wedding. Usually their speech has been on their minds for some time. Often they’ve compiled copious notes. But none of them have actually written their speech, and nothing strikes more terror into their hearts than the prospect of embarrassing themselves in front of a roomful of family and friends.
Since most of us only remember two kinds of speeches: the ones that make us cry and the ones that make us cringe, the stakes are high. Today they’re even higher since your speech will probably wind up on YouTube the next day. The last thing you want to do is blow it, especially when guests have traveled from afar to hear what you have to say. But fear not. If you follow a few rules, you’ll have a much better chance of making a speech people will remember for all the right reasons.
Handle Humor with Care
You know those wedding speeches where someone tells a story so wildly inappropriate you can feel the whole room recoiling? Maybe the best man says how thrilled he is that the groom remarried since he could never stand his ex. Or the bride’s father remembers the first time his little girl went poo-poo on the potty. Or the groom takes a passive-aggressive shot at his new father-in-law. You don’t get laughs by embarrassing someone or making “jokes” about how much the wedding cost. You do it by telling a story that gently pokes fun at the person you’re toasting and affectionately reveals a truth about who they are. Choose your stories wisely, make sure your audience is in on the joke and avoid attempting a stand-up routine unless you’re Amy Schumer or Louis C.K.
Keep it Short
Your job is to move people and make them laugh – not to drone on until people want to poke their eyes out with a fork. To avoid triggering a stampede for the exits, keep your speech to three-to-five minutes or 850 words max. Thanking everyone, saying what you want to say and hitting all the right notes is a tall order, especially in a few minutes, so you have to keep things moving. (Nobody said writing a great wedding speech was easy. If it were, we’d have heard a lot more of them.) You can write longer on the first draft. After that, it’s a matter of honing, polishing and getting rid of the clichés. (“You were always there for me” is a perennial offender.) I’m not kidding about 850 words. I know it’s a big day, but consider this: the Gettysburg Address is only 272 words.
Don’t Make it About You
One of the biggest mistakes rookies make when they give a wedding speech is talking about themselves instead of the person they’re supposed to be honoring. But here’s the thing: nobody cares about you. They care about the person you’re supposed to be toasting. If you fall in love with the sound of your own voice, not only will you turn your audience off; you’ll have failed at your job. Just because someone handed you a microphone doesn’t give you the right to bore people to death. Save your philosophizing for Facebook, where your audience can at least block your feed.
Speak From the Heart
The purpose of a wedding toast is to speak from the heart about someone you love – not rattle off a laundry list of the person’s achievements. Nevertheless, I can’t tell you how often I have to steer parents away from making a speech that sounds as if they’re reciting their kid’s résumé: Lily has an MBA. Josh worked for Habitat for Humanity. First of all, your audience probably already knows that stuff. But even if they don’t, they’re not interested in hearing it. They want to hear something that will tug at their heartstrings. So before you write a word, think long and hard about why you love the person you’re toasting. Then share a few telling details that illustrate why you feel as you do. You only need a few. But they have to be ones that will leave your audience totally verklempt.
Wendy Dennis is an award-winning journalist, bestselling author and ghostwriter who is on a mission to rid the world of terrible wedding speeches. To learn more, go to wendydennis.com.
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