How to write a great wedding speech

A toastmaster is here to help you, well, master that toast.

A toastmaster is here to help you, well, master that toast

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

The wedding toast is one of the great forms of amateur oratory. Speakers at weddings are chosen because of their relationship to the couple rather than rhetorical skill. This is why the best wedding speeches are heartfelt, humorous, and genuinely moving. It's also why they're the stage for so many public speaking fiascos. If you've never been bored or embarrassed during a wedding speech, you haven't been to many weddings.

This isn't because people are just bad speakers or speech writers. If you aren't used to public speaking or aren't familiar with wedding-toasts as a genre, it's not easy to get it right the first time out. That's why we spoke to Scott Minnes, president of the Advanced Speakers Toastmasters Club in Ottawa. Toastmasters is a club dedicated to perfecting the art of public speaking and, over the years, Minnes has helped coach a lot of people through wedding speeches. He gave us some advice on the content, form, and delivery of a great wedding speech.

Content: Celebrate the couple and let everyone in on it

The purpose of the wedding speech, said Minnes, is to help celebrate the new couple and to help them and the whole audience enjoy their day. Anything that doesn't help to achieve this should be edited out.

One of the most common errors is to try to turn the wedding speech into a stand-up comedy set. "People think they need to be funny and clever in their speech but this isn't accurate," Minnes says. He doesn't think you should avoid humour, but simply that the speech should be about the couple, not showing off the speaker's wit. He also cautioned against telling stories that simply embarrass the person they're being told about. A little gentle ribbing in the service of a greater point is okay, but if the only thing a story does is embarrass their target then it should probably be left out. In Minnes's experience, "The most powerful wedding speeches are warm, sincere, good-natured and well-thought-out." It's a celebration, not a roast.

Another common content mistake is to address the toast exclusively to the couple (or even one half of the couple), including a lot of inside references that only they will understand. Minnes advised us to "avoid the wink-wink inside jokes and comments, they are lame for most of the audience." Remember, the audience includes all of the guests. If your whole speech is about things that they can't follow, it can feel boring and alienating. Personal anecdotes are great, but make sure to make the significance of them clear to most present.

Form: Five minutes, three or four main points

"The toughest speeches to sit through are the ones that go on too long and are not well thought out," said Minnes, "especially if there are a few of them." The wedding toast may seem like an important responsibility. This is your chance to publicly express your love and support for the couple, tell everyone how great they are, and to impart some wisdom and good wishes for the future. You probably have a lifetime of shared memories, and it's normal not to want to leave anything out. But you have to. In fact, you should leave almost everything out. Because if you try to say everything that's in your heart, you'll turn your toast into a party-filibuster that obstructs the important business of eating, dancing and making merry. These people are here for a party. Don't bore them.

Minnes recommends limiting your speech to five minutes. This is enough to give a very powerful speech without losing momentum and the attention of the audience. In order to stick to this timeline, you must also avoid trying to say too much. Take the time to put together a simple logical flow of ideas that is easy to follow.

Minnes proposes the following structure: opening; three or four main points; concluding remarks and wishes. According to this structure, you're only spending about one minute on each part of the speech, so stay brief.

Preparation and delivery

Just as the most tender sentiments can be smothered by poor speechwriting, great writing can be spoiled by poor delivery. Poor delivery comes in many forms: forgetting what you were going to say, rambling entirely off track; reading from notes without looking up; mumbling through the important parts; and others. Good delivery is simple. Speak clearly and as you normally would when addressing other humans. You do it all the time in conversation. However, if you're not a very experienced public-speaker, making a prepared speech sound natural can be tricky.

The best way to ensure your speech goes well is to write it well ahead of time and then practice it out loud as though you were speaking to an actual audience. Better yet, find an actual audience and practice it in front of them to get feedback and to accustom yourself to the gaze of a public. In fact, providing practice and feedback for this kind of thing is one of the main purposes of toastmasters clubs like the one Minnes belongs to. According to him, "If you just practice by reading the speech in your head it won't help much. You need to get used to the sound of your own voice and the expressiveness and rhythm of the words." You also need to get a feel for the main points of the speech, when to pause to let something sink in, what to emphasize and what to say as an aside. This is especially important, Minnes told us, if your speech has some very emotional moments. Practicing ahead of time can help you recognize the parts that will be tough to get through and figure out how best to get through them.

On the day, Minnes warns against drinking too much ahead of the speech. Weddings are fun and public-speaking can be nerve-wracking, but try to keep a clear head and voice until your duties are discharged. Do stay hydrated though. "Otherwise," said Minnes, "your mouth will feel extra dry and you'll feel like you are tripping over your words."

If you're nervous, remember that wedding toasts are the ideal public-speaking situation for beginners. Everyone is there to celebrate and wants to have a good time. Even if you break down in tears mid-speech, they'll probably applaud you. So relax and have fun.

Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.