I’ve heard a lot of wedding speeches … there is one toast to the bride I will never forget. A few tips to make your words memorable.
As a wedding photographer, one of the perks, or the drawbacks depending on the day, is bearing witness to the “de rigueur” speeches. Weddings are rituals, and therefore several people are usually called upon to say a few words during the reception. The usual suspects are the Father of the Bride, the Groom, and the Best Man. I truly love being at weddings. I love the emotions and sentiments expressed during the traditional toasts. Some speeches reduce me to tears because they are so heartfelt. Some don’t have quite the right effect, for fairly preventable reasons. I thought I would share some perspective as an experienced listener – a listener with a bent for the written and spoken word.
If you are a groom dreading the idea of having to get up on your feet in front of a crowd, take this advice. Cringe-worthy speeches are to be avoided at all costs. While some jokes might be hilarious at your stag party, however strong the temptation may be in the moment to wow the crowd, focus on your new wife and her family and stay away from crass humour. As the person with the camera catching reactions of the bride and her family to the words spoken, I can assure you that the shot of the bride nearly crying because you compared her to the girl that gave you a lap dance on your 19th birthday will not be a keeper.
Public speaking seems to be a bit of a dying art. Amidst all the details of planning a wedding, the speech preparation can be a bit of an afterthought. It surprises me to see many couples trying to write them while they’re getting dressed for the wedding. Every once in a while, however, a bride or a groom completely wows me with their words. Follow these few pointers, and you can do the same.
A great speech or toast is usually a great story. It has a beginning, middle, and an end. And if it’s really well crafted, the end often circles back and connects to the beginning. Really great stories are built on personal experience, so don’t try looking one up on the Internet. If you’re not in the story, no one will find it interesting. For reasons I don’t fully understand, I also feel uncomfortable when it is clear that the person making the toast has spent hours memorizing it. This seems a bit creepy. Someone once said that no one remembers a great speech that was read but everyone remembers the one that should have been. This is a clever way of saying that you need to be familiar enough with what you want to say that it comes off well, but relying on a few notes or cue cards is okay as well. The way to achieve this is to practice a few times, with a trusted friend or in front of a mirror, but not so much that you will look like William Hurt playing Hamlet.
The bride at left could be a stand-up comic. She was telling a great story about her sweet father, who with her mother had four daughters and thus has been the only guy in his house for a long time. You can see from her parents reactions to her speech that she struck a chord!
You can get away with a list of thank yous and a sweet comment about how beautiful your wife looks and how you’ll be happy ever after. That will receive polite applause, but this should be a once in a lifetime experience, so try a little harder. If you’re stumped already, think about how you would write a story. How did you first meet your wife? What attracted you to her? How did the first date go? Something probably happened that will garner a few laughs in the retelling.
Remember you are not aiming to nauseate the audience with sentimentality, but if you can make your mother-in-law cry in a nice way you’ll be a rock star.
Of course, you must talk about your wife. I hope you can answer the following questions. Why are you marrying her? What do you love about her? You are not writing Hallmark greeting cards, so talk from the heart, but from your own heart and not from a quick review of the Valentine’s Day card section in the drug store. You can quote from poetry or literature, but only if it is relevant or connected to your personal story.
If an illustration would help you understand my advice, let me share with you what I believe is probably the best groom speech ever delivered, anywhere, any time. It’s most certainly the best groom speech I and everyone else in attendance had ever heard. The groom followed the simple little rule about telling a story, and he made sure that the end connected with the beginning. He did it with literary flair, but it was also honest, heartfelt, and reduced his bride, his family, and everyone in the room, to tears … in a good way. It went like this … (used with permission)
“The endlessly quoted Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Your soul is often times a battlefield upon which your reason and judgment wage war against your passion and your appetite. Passion and appetite are similar. Both ignore your reason and your judgment, chasing not what your logic sees, but what you cannot ignore”.”
So, he started with a quote from literature. It involves passion and food, which are good topics for a wedding. The word “soul” immediately cued the audience to pay attention in case things got serious. They did. The groom continued:
“But when I look into my soul, it is easy to see the difference between passion and appetite. Your appetites are your body defying your mind, defying reason for what it craves. But your passion, should it be genuine and not fleeting, does not feel as though your body cannot live without, it is not as though the animal, the child, the undisciplined instinct inside cannot do without it. It is the entire universe.”
Okay, so you may be asking why things had to get so deep during a wedding toast. Are you wondering why a groom would wax on philosophically about animal instincts? Hang in there. This is a lesson in how to tell a story, and how to make sure the end makes sense of the beginning. So, back to passion:
“It is as though you’ve been thrown into a river. It is not a force coming from you; it is a force of nature. It is not what you want; it is what the law says. And it is the law of life itself. To lose it would not be to deny you the pleasure of having it; it would be to deny you the pleasure of life. It would be as though you have been broken from life, snuffed out of the universe. Though it may not have the simplicity of logic, or the assurance of reason, passion is as undeniable and self evident as gravity, as any law of the universe.”
And then, after we are all nodding our heads in agreement with the groom’s explanation and following a marvelous pause, he firmly announces:
“Lily is my passion.”
(the whole room swoons, and the story moves forward)
“I remember exactly when, on our second date, I fell in love with Lily. We were on a bench in the Public Gardens, and she had a flower in her hair. It was then that I was thrown into the river of passion.”
(everyone is now in a good way crying)
“Lily and I had a teacher in our first year of university at King’s who taught us that freedom was having only one choice, and choosing it. I cannot explain to you how liberating it’s been, for the last 7 years, to just be washed away, with no control, with love, for Lily.
Since then, my life has only been love. If I’ve ever tried harder, thought clearer, spoke stronger, seen farther, stood taller, it has only been out of love. If I lost everything else, I know, for me, nothing would change. I would still be in the river, having only one choice for my life, and still choosing it. Free. And in Love.”
Need I say more? This groom set a new standard for memorable toasts to the bride. I will never forget it.