As a natural go-getter, I like to be prepared for things that come my way. But as I get older and more mature in life, I’ve come to learn that there are some things (read: most things) where you won’t be prepared for something you encounter, and you’ll have to find a way to learn it on the fly. For me, one of those things I had to learn was how to deliver a wedding toast/speech.
Over the past year, I’ve been fortunate to be asked to deliver two separate toasts/speeches at weddings for my friends Charlie and James. While both environments were a bit different, the process for which I wrote my speech and the guidelines I followed were the same.
As a consultant, when I have to do something I’ve never done, I tend to gravitate towards processes and approaches that have worked in the past to spur my thinking before developing my own approach. When I started writing my first speech last year I realized how difficult it was for me to start because I didn’t find a ton of other frameworks available. I wanted to share what I’ve developed in hopes that it helps those out there who like to do something similar. While everyone is truly different, and this is certainly not perfect, my hope is that gives you a good starting point for which you can tailor to fit your needs.
The Writing Process
Step 1: Write out EVERYTHING. By Everything, I really mean everything! Sentence fragments, adjectives, real sentences, superlatives, whatever. Brain dump all of your thoughts about the individual onto pen/paper
Step 2: When you think you are done, try to organize your thoughts into a list or some form of bullets, and start reading through the list to see what you like or don’t like. Consider also trying to look for themes/groupings of your thoughts. Here are things to consider adding to your list:
– Stories about the bride/groom from any shared experiences you have
– Direct quotes that you can remember
– Lessons or things they have taught you
– Stories about how they met, or first impressions when you met the bride or groom
– Things the bride/groom has taught you and/or others
– Analogies, metaphors or examples that explain/articulate the bride/groom
– Compliments for the bride/groom
– How bride/groom has positively influenced you and others
Step 3: After reading through and grouping, try coming up with 2–3 key themes that you want to focus on in your speech. Feel free to also start eliminating things that you don’t think make sense or don’t seem to fit with those themes
Step 4: Start writing. Whether it’s in sentence/paragraph form or just done by key bullet points. Don’t worry about erasing, editing, heck, try not to even use the backspace bar. Don’t worry if it’s too long or not coherent enough as you’ll have time to edit later on. In both cases, I’ve actually had more success writing the body of the speech first before going to the introduction and conclusion. Finally, I like to write mine out in paragraph form because it meshes well with my speaking style. Try to determine which is best for you, and go with that approach
Step 5: Once you get a working draft, start by practicing it out loud, and hearing how things sound. From there, you can go back and take out things that don’t sound right or add things that sound better.
Step 6: Once you get a good draft, get some feedback — I recommend going to someone who knows you and also knows the groom/bride. I would be as specific as you can in the type of feedback (ex: does the content make sense, or does the flow make sense) but give them leeway to deliver their thoughts. You want to give them a bit of focus but don’t lead the witness too much. Finally, I don’t recommend going more than 2–3 people of feedback or it will just turn into a never-ending game of revisions.
Step 7: Practice! Practice the material in a manner that is best suited for you. It may mean reading the speech verbatim, it may mean remember certain parts/quotes — people learn and practice differently so you’ll need to think about what is best for you. At the very least, practicing will ensure that the first time you read it will not be when you have to do it in front of a live audience.
It’s Not About You — The day is about the bride and groom first and foremost. I say this because a number of my first drafts I tried to include a lot about my relationship and it quickly became the “Al show” which is not the purpose. If you’re ever in doubt, just remember what the focus is supposed to be on.
Use some self awareness — You know yourself better than anyone else, so dig into that self-awareness muscle and put it to use. Do you operate best when you ad-lib? Consider coming up with a skeleton speech but leave in blank spots so you can think on the fly. Are you a mess without notecards or a written speech? Take the time to write one out and don’t feel guilty for reading your notes. Are you more at ease when you know everything that you’re going to say? Practice in advance! Everyone is different, so find the approach that works best for you.
Develop a style — Just like authors and writers have their own unique writing style, you too will have a style when you deliver your toast. Take time to develop an idea about how you want your speech to be remembered — if you need help figuring out your style think of 3 adjectives you want others to remember you as. Personally, I strive for a blend of inspirational, genuine, and gratefulness, and make sure that the words, stories, body language and non-verbal cues I use convey that.
The Friend/Gramdma Test — When you are 75–80% there I recommend asking for feedback, and getting it from two perspectives, known as the “Friend Test” and “Grandma Test.” First, ask a friend for feedback, who knows the bride/groom well, and get their feedback to the question “Is what I am saying going to resonate with the bride/groom?” Second, ask someone for feedback with regards to the “Grandma test.” For this, ask someone who your trust and get their feedback to the following question; “Is what I am saying going to resonate with someone’s Grandma in the audience?” If you get feedback that passes both of those tests, you’re going to have something that resonates with a wide spectrum of the audience.
Be Who You Are — How you say it is just important as what you say. Said differently, if you speak in a manner that is consistent with who you are, it’s going to make whatever you say that much better. For instance, I’m not a funny person by nature, but people still managed to laugh at things that I said in both speeches. This goes for being sentimental, thoughtful, and anything else. You will be all of those things not because you try to be, but because when you speak in an authentic and genuine voice the words will ring true, and that will resonate with those emotions inside the audiences’ head and heart.
Making Fun of Others — It’s perfectly fine to rib or make fun of the bride/groom, but remember, the majority of the audience won’t have context because they either A) don’t know them or B) don’t know you (or both) If you are going to make fun of someone, try to make it in a way that everyone understands
Understand Storytelling — If there is a way to tie together the start and the finish that really helps conclude your speech and nicely weaves together a coherent story and jabs the listener at the end in a way that makes them go “aha!” It seems small and silly, but people latch on to things like that and it sticks with them. If you need help understanding basic elements of storytelling, I recommend Durate’s book on storytelling as a great starting point.
Everyone gets nervous, but remember this is familiar –Talking about something or someone that you know really well is probably much easier than talking about someone or something you do not know well at all. Remember, you know this topic pretty well! Sure, we all will get nervous, but remember this is not something foreign, but rather, something very familiar.
This is a special day, in which people are already feeling excited and happy. Whatever you say is going to fuel that excitement and happiness. It’s like if you were running a marathon, and everyone else started at mile 1 and you started at mile 10. Instead of having to run 26.2 miles, you only have to run 16.2
Lastly, It’s an honor and a privilege to be asked by someone to deliver a speech so make sure to enjoy it. When in doubt, smile, show gratitude, laugh, and have fun with it! With a little planning, practice, and self-reflection, you’re going to deliver a toast that will serve as a thoughtful and meaningful contribution to a very special celebration.