Anatomy of a great wedding speech: Part art. Part science. All heart.
May 26, 2017
I was raised to believe that if you were asked to speak at a family occasion, you couldn’t just get up there, spout a few clichés and call it a day. Life only presented you with a finite number of opportunities to speak from the heart about the people you loved. When it was your turn, you had to rise to the occasion with eloquence and grace. If you didn’t at least try to find the right words to do justice to the moment, you weren’t just letting down the person you were there to honor. You were letting yourself and your audience down, too.
I still look forward to the speeches, although I’m not sure why, since I’m often disappointed. And yet, at weddings especially, I continue to live in hope that someone will deliver one to make my heart soar. After all, once you make it through the thank you’s, a wedding speech – at least one by the bride or groom – is basically a tale about how two people met, fell in love and decided to spend their lives together. It’s their personal re-telling of When Harry Met Sally.
Nora Ephron, who wrote that screenplay, had more than ninety minutes to play on her audience’s heartstrings. And she was a celebrated writer. You have less than five. And you’re not. So I’m not going to lie. Writing a wedding speech for the ages is hard.
It helps to know a few things going in. Probably the most important one is why you’re there. There’s really only one reason: to tell the person you’re toasting why you love them and what you hope for them. So before you write a word you have to figure out what your feelings are. Then, with as much specificity as possible, and without getting all sacchariney about it, you have to convey why you feel as you do.
That may seem self-evident, but you’d be surprised at how many people I encounter – even those who do public speaking professionally – write from their heads and not from their hearts. Parents, for instance, often think a wedding toast is an excuse to trot out their kid’s résumé. They’re proud. They want to show off a little. I get it. But nobody wants to hear a résumé at a wedding. They want you to make them verklempt. And it’s your job to make them that way.
Vague generalities and clichés won’t get them there. (If you’re not sure what qualifies, throw out your first draft. That’s usually where you’ll find the lines best left on the cutting room floor.) Your audience wants stories, preferably those that ring true and prompt them to smile in recognition. At its heart, every wedding speech is a love letter. Once you understand that, writing a memorable one is really just about the art and the science. It’s a tight form. You have a lot of ground to cover in 750-850 words. If it takes you 500 just to clear your throat, your audience will zone out. And really, who can blame them? As for the artistry of a great wedding toast, that’s a little harder to define. But you know it when you hear it. You know because for those few minutes time stops, and you’re given a brief, privileged glimpse into someone else’s heart.