Summer is upon us and with it, Wedding Season. Soon any number of barns, synagogues, hotel ballrooms, tents, churches, back yards, banquet halls and gardens will be turned over to the trampling feet of wedding parties and their guests. In a culture which has stripped away the old rituals in so many places, the fundamental theatre of the marriage ceremony persists: the officiant, sober but cheerful; the bridesmaids and groomsmen, awkwardly doing their duty; the best man or best woman, trying to remain a source of serenity; the caterer, forcing out cheer with each platter of chicken couscous or plate of roast beef.
Weddings demand of us what we seldom deliver in daily life. The casual dress up; the sexy tone down; the loud go mute; the silent speak. People who do not dance will dance. People who seldom cry, will cry. Women will shiver in little dresses and men will sweat in unwelcome neck ties; little girls will scamper about in bustles and little boys will untuck their shirts. Somewhere in the wedding party, someone’s heart will break a little that he didn’t get the bride; someone else’s heart will break a little that she isn’t the bride.
And some people will have to give a speech.
Just as I have in the past been a wedding singer, so too have I served the role of wedding speaker. Whether as best man, or droll man, or even as bridegroom, it has fallen upon me to “make a few remarks.” It is my sense that this duty has fallen to me at weddings, as it also has at funerals, because I’m pretty good at it. By “pretty good” I mean first that standing up in front of a large group of people to speak does not frighten me. I started doing it as the “emcee” at school assemblies in grade six and well, I’m still doing it in my work, in my teaching and in other venues. Truth be told, I am more at ease speaking to a large group of people about some important topic than I am speaking to one person. I can say important things to a group that I will never say to you directly. So I do.
Now, the willingness to do something doesn’t make one “good at it” in terms of what is said or how they say it. If you ask me to play goalie for your road hockey team, I would enthusiastically say “yes!”, after hugging you and thanking you for the opportunity. But then there would be the problem of stopping tennis balls from entering the net. When “Billy Jean” comes on at a dance, I am immediately prepared to demonstrate my Moonwalk. But that willingness absolutely has not translated into an ability to execute.
But where my Moonwalk crumbles, I think I am “good at” the speech thing because I like it, and because I have learned a few things about how to do it. The really important thing to remember (and I say this below too) is that this is NOT ABOUT YOU. Indeed, if you want to be interesting even in conversation, the easiest way is to let other people talk about themselves. In a speech, you have to do all the talking. All the more reason then, that it not be, overtly or implicitly, about you.
And so I humbly offer, to a world desperately in need of them, David’s Ten Rules for a Decent Wedding Speech, with an added bonus rule at the end:
1 Keep it short. This is an unfriendly way to begin my advice to you, but it is crucial. You begin a speech with a huge fund of good will – everyone REALLY wants the speech to be good and they’re giving you the chance. The way to lose that good will is to go…on….too…long….You have a choice to be memorably good, forgettably dull or worst of all, memorably terrible. Which shall it be (here’s a secret: even if a speech is bad, if it’s short, at least it isn’t bad for long).
How short? That’s easy: an absolute maximum of five minutes! Preferably three. The most important message you will ever deliver takes three seconds to say (try it out loud: “I love you” – see how easy that was) so how many seconds do you really need?
And how do you know it will go less than three minutes? See Rule # 7
And how do you keep it short? Follow the rest of the rules.
2. Do not make it about yourself. The word “I” will crop up, no question. But when it does, transpose immediately back to the subject of your remarks (not you, unless you are the bride, and if you are the bride, talk about your new spouse or your mom, not yourself). In general this means avoiding humorous anecdotes about the camping trip you took five years ago, when you this and that and blah blah blah. It was funny then, it was special then, but unless it illustrates some profoundly important point about the Happy Couple, leave it out.
3. Say something that actually matters. Your speech will mean something to the Happy Couple if you make it about them, and in particular, something deeply personal about them. Were they friends first before falling in love? Did they find each other after mutual stretches of loneliness? Have they lifted each other up, helped each other out, let the other be the best she / he can be? You know what I mean.
4. If you’re going to be funny, be funny. As my beloved and preternaturally wise child said when she was little, “Trying to be funny, is not funny.” You get a few free chuckles at the start, and polite smiles thereafter to your lamest attempts at humour, but honestly, unless you’re really funny, don’t be funny. Besides, being funny is a function of wit, and wit rolls out of people naturally (or it does not). If you often coin memorable bon mots and leave ‘em laughing, hey you’re a natural, go for it baby. But don’t over-estimate your charm. Wit- especially the dry, cutting kind – can be lethal at a wedding.
5. Theme words. Can you capture your speech in two or three words – words that, after your speech is over, will be memorable and meaningful to the people dancing and drinking and chatting? The last speech I gave (admittedly, at a funeral not a wedding) keyed in on the word “gifts” – the gifts we were given by the one we had lost. Don’t be mannered or phony about it – you might only use the word once or twice – but it’s a word (or two or three) which expresses neatly the thing you want to say.
Of course, the other reason I want you to think about some theme words, is to get you to actually think about what you want to say.
6. Use a song: no, don’t sing to them (unless you want to sing to them – it doesn’t matter how bad you are, if it’s ten seconds or less, everyone will like it). But I mean use a song for an idea, for a rhythm, for a tone. You can pull lyrics out of it (“you will walk in fields of gold”) but only lyrics which the Happy Couple will recognize and understand the meaning of. You will be surprised how this can improve any piece of writing.
7. Go slowly. You might think that “keep it short” and “go slowly” are contradictory commands. They’re not. Speaking slowly gives each word impact – you can say more with a few words delivered gently and deliberately, than with a barrage of words and ideas. Pick your theme, have a key word or two, maybe a tune in your head, say it slowly, and it will be memorable. It will also be intelligible – rushing words makes them blur together, and people at weddings have varying degrees of hearing loss and you’re competing with the noise from cutlery, plates and God knows what else.
Here’s the Big Secret to making wedding speeches: people are listening. Give them a chance to listen, to hear what you’re really trying to say. That means taking your time, and only saying a few things, because basically once you get past two or three key messages (anywhere, a wedding or a court room) they start thinking about their uncomfortable shoes or wondering if something is in their teeth.
8. Edit. Write it, read it, read it aloud, stop. Wait. Think. Go shopping, have a coffee, kiss somebody, whatever. Then when you wake up in the morning, read it. Change it. Hopefully, shorten it. You don’t need all the clever stuff you first thought of. You need to focus. You need to edit.
9. Practice. You probably think because you’ll have notes, that you don’t need to read it aloud. This is a fatal amateur mistake. Read it aloud to yourself, as many times as possible. Get to the point where you start to hear it in your head. What’s going to happen on Wedding Night is that you’ll start to talk, you’ll have your notes but your hand will drop to your side, you will gaze at the Happy Couple (whom you love) and the words are going to come out of you. It won’t be perfect, but because your written version was short, you’ll have some room to spontaneously expand it.
Editing and practicing: in other words, give the preparation of the speech far more time than the delivery of the speech. Like 100 times more.
10. Talk to the Happy Couple, not about them. This is extremely important. Aim your remarks at the Happy Couple, look at them, think about them. You can talk “about” someone by talking “to” someone, you know – “Maria, you’ve had good advice for me our whole life. Now it’s my turn to give you advice and all I can think to say is, marry Tony – and you’ve already done that!” This is personal (Maria is wise), sentimental (hearkening back to their shared childhood), complimentary of the other spouse (Tony is totally hot, after all) and kind of cute. It doesn’t try to be funny, but it might be funny.
And the last, special rule:
11. Look at them, really look at them. I said this before, but I will say it again and for a different reason. It is hard to be serious. It is hard to be earnest. It is hard to let down our guard, to risk tears forming in our eyes. But you want to be real, you want to be authentic. To be authentic, to say what you really feel, requires that you feel very brave or very safe. You can be both, by focusing on the person in the room whose special day it is, whom you love. Let their feelings for you give you the safety you need, to express yourself.
Aside from just being yourself, these words
can be the most beautiful gift you will ever give them.
It’s worth a little work. They’re worth it. You’re worth it.
Here’s a perfect example of a song which has the right rhythm and feeling for a wedding speech. In fact, when you listen to it, it is almost is a wedding speech: