I have here a letter from Alan in Winston Salem, North Carolina, which reads:
“Hi Sean, my oldest daughter is getting married in a few weeks. It is, of course, customary for the father of the bride to give a toast at the reception. I can’t begin to say how thrilled I am… But I’ve never been comfortable speaking before crowds. Do you have any advice?”
Well, Alan, you came to the right guy. I have been public speaking for years. Before the pandemic I was giving three or four speeches per week at various high-society gigs, such as Rotary Club meetings at Shoney’s, or leading the opening prayer at Monster Truck-A-Palooza.
So I’ve been around.
Plus, I have mucho experience at weddings. In fact, before I fell into the public speaking bit, I was a bandleader in various musical groups. Pretty much all my band did each summer was play wedding receptions. So I have witnessed—literally—hundreds of wedding toasts, and given dozens myself.
I have come up with a few bullet points for public speaking:
1. Check your fly.
You probably think I’m kidding. I’m not. Take my word for it, you do not want to learn this lesson the hard way.
2. Don’t sing. Now, I realize this sounds like common sense, and the idea to belt out a song probably never crossed your mind. But trust me, there are people who sing when they make wedding toasts. I have seen it happen.
You have never known true misery until you have watched someone’s 76-year-old grandmother sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” for a wedding toast even though she couldn’t carry a tune if it were tattooed on her palm.
3. Be funny. Don’t be afraid of humor. A lot of speakers are scared of levity because they equate humor with irreverence. Not so.
I have found that most audiences want to laugh—unless, of course, they are Free Will Baptists.
There is a lot of collective tension among wedding crowds. Think about it. The audience spends all evening being polite, remaining silent, wearing stiff formalwear, attentively listening, suppressing gaseous bodily noises. What these people want is to cut loose. Which is why it doesn’t take much to get them snickering. It’s like popping a balloon—it doesn’t take much.
So make them chuckle, even if the rest of your speech is serious. Because laughter relaxes people. And once everyone else is relaxed, you’ll feel more relaxed, too.
So I cannot stress humor enough. You don’t have to be Henny Youngman up there, but be light. Don’t be one of those speakers who looks like the poster child for constipation.
4. Be brief.
For years I was in a wedding band named “The Dale Earnhardt Experience.” One time we played a wedding in Pensacola, Florida. We had a great bride and groom who loved to dance. The drinks were flowing. People were happy. The night went perfectly until…
The wedding toasts.
Toasts are a contagious disease. After the first toast was given, it was a free-for-all. Nearly all 400 people had longwinded toasts to give.
I remember the best man gave a toast that lasted for 27 minutes. Then the best man handed the mic to Grandpa, whereupon Gramps toasted for another half hour before tag-teaming with the maid of honor to sing “Angels Watching Over Me,” a capella.
The toasts carried on for four arduous hours. I stood in one place for so long that my hind cheeks still hurt.
5. Don’t write your speech down.
I know you’ll be tempted to write your ideas on a notecard and read it aloud. Don’t. It won’t work for two reasons: (a) you’re still going to butcher it, and (b) reading aloud puts people to sleep.
Take “author readings.” In the literary world, event organizers love to have authors give readings. That’s where you’re supposed to read from your book. And in theory, this seems like a great idea. The only problem is: It’s about as fun as an angioplasty. Can you say boring?
No, audiences want to connect with a speaker, not hear excerpts from Hamlet. This same principle applies to wedding toasts.
Your happy couple wants to see your face, and to see your eyes glaze with real tears. So I say give it to them. Speak from your chest. Don’t worry about being articulate or polished. Be nervous, be honest, make mistakes, be heartfelt, weep.
If you love the newlyweds, just say, “Hey, I really love you guys.” If you want the happy couple to know how special they are, say it.
If you want your kids to know the Road of Life isn’t always going to be easy; that there will be obstacles ahead to test their fabric; that when life begins to unravel, Daddy is going to be there, just say it.
Then, wrap things up quickly, sit down, wipe away the tears, resume drinking your beverage, and try to keep a straight face when you notice the bandleader has had his fly down all night.