Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Five Tips for the Best Wedding Speech Ever

All aboard the weddin' train!

Recently, I gave a wedding toast that went well. But while I got lots of compliments from people who thought it was an effortless triumph -- "it's so hard to do these things, and you rocked it" -- the truth is, I was absolutely, utterly, completely, shaking-in-my-dress-shoes terrified, to the point where I was having debilitating nightmares the week before and might have passed out from fear had it not been for several Scotches during the cocktail hour.

Which I guess makes me an expert on these things now.

And so The Bashionista, of whom I am a generous patron (and who shared a hotel room with me at said wedding), has asked me to provide a sort of primer on how to write a wedding speech. I suggest you ignore everything I say, especially since my own speech's success was more dumb luck than proper planning, but here goes anyway:

1. Keep it Simple, Stupid.

So this is where I would have failed hard, had it not been for an 11th-hour assist from Mama Marrone.

I decided, to my peril, that Geoff (the groom) had asked me to give the speech primarily because he wanted it to be the Most Epic Toast Ever Given In The History Of Mankind. The sort of speech that would end up on YouTube, go viral, and set the standard not only for wedding toasts to come, but for graduation speeches by luminaries at the finest institutions, the inaugural addresses of future presidents and perhaps the opening lines uttered by a human being to the first alien visitors to land on planet Earth.

Plus, he only asked me to give the speech two weeks before the wedding, during his bachelor party in New Orleans, so the pressure essentially turned me into an OCD madman.

Oh, and did I mention I can't handle anxiety?

Because I was scared to death, combined with all my misconceptions about Geoff's motives (and adulthood in general), I decided a two-person skit -- complete with hilarious banter and virtuoso-level back-and-forth riffing -- was the only way to approach this. Having another person up there with me would take a lot of the pressure off, plus said person could catch me when I keeled over halfway through from the terror and/or the crushing silence of the audience.

Not only that, but it would allow me to tell certain stories using a second voice -- in some cases Geoff's -- in order to really drive home the punch lines and turn a run-of-the-mill speech into an unforgettable farce.

Instead, what I ended up with -- after multiple edits and even a rehearsal session -- was an unmitigated disaster, which at the time I thought was artfully conceptual and brilliantly hilarious.

Then I read it to my mom, and all of the subconscious fears I had about it were suddenly realized. She put into words exactly why I was so afraid of giving it -- it was too long, not geared to the audience outside of Geoff, too much about me and not enough about them ... and way too effing complicated.

So I rewrote it the night before I left for the wedding, and to my astonishment, much, though not all, of my nervousness dissipated. I told quick, easily digestible stories -- a tongue-in-cheek list of reasons I can't stand Geoff, building up to the reasons I love him -- and kept it super short. Bingo!

I suggest you do the same. I know you've seen awesome dance numbers on the Internets, but unless you're a professional choreographer and the wedding party are all Alvin Ailey alumni, just say a few words and give the couple Broadway tickets as a wedding gift.

2. Keep It Clean, Asshole.

One of the byproducts of being asked to write the speech halfway through the bachelor party was that the first draft was so raunchy it would have made The Aristocrats blush.

It got toned down considerably in the editing process, but when I rewrote the damn thing at the last minute, I took nearly every off-color story out.

Thank God I did.

Not only would it have been entirely unpleasant for everyone involved, but any doubt that it might have been a destructive force was removed when Geoff's dad, who was so gracious and flattering to me in the days afterward, specifically thanked me for not going blue.

The jokes would have been perfect in New Orleans. They would have been tragic in Connecticut.

Leave them out. As much as you want to be edgy, a wedding speech isn't the time. (If you're Ron Jeremy's best man, all bets are off.)

3. Don't Ignore the Bride.

Or the groom, as the case may be, though the bride is even more crucial. I started my speech as if I were speaking directly to the bride, and I addressed her specifically throughout.

It helped, of course, that Brianna has become a friend of mine as well, but that's only an added bonus in my case. And, please, don't just mention the other spouse -- bring them and their relationship into it. Wish them well, tell the crowd why they're such a great couple, yadda yadda yadda.

It helps if you believe it, but that's not essential.

Marriages need a few white lies now and again. So do wedding speeches.

4. Have a Friend Like Geoff.

Obviously, this part is a bit out of your control. But the point is, Geoff and I have essentially been writing this speech together for 16 years. I tried to make it into a grand production, but reading my final speech to a room full of explosive laughter made me realize for certain that all I needed to do was share the stories, boiled down to just their inherent humor -- without any added bells and whistles.

Most likely, if you're in this spot, you have at least one or two good stories to tell. My speech was a list -- we were college roommates and have been friends ever since, so I had to leave a million stories on the cutting room floor -- but yours can just be one signature story, or even two shorter ones.

And if you're a girl and it's your sister instead of your college roommate, make 'em nice and emotional and chick-flicky. It's a wedding -- you can get away with being schmaltzy for once in your hipster existence.

And real tears? Even the cool kids will blush.

5. Brevity is the Soul of Wit.

And wedding speeches. This is very much related to Tip 1, but different enough to merit its own place.

And it's probably the most important suggestion I can make, too.

Leave them wanting more, or at least not wanting less.

My first speech was so long I'm embarrassed to describe it, full of peaks and valleys and wordy clauses that look great on paper but weren't worth the time or effort needed to choke them out in front of a big group.

Suffice it to say my final speech was probably still a bit too lengthy -- but it was at least two-thirds shorter than the original.

The bottom line? People want to hear a nice, funny, touching speech -- but they also really want to start boozing it up and boogying down.

So don't be John Lithgow. Let the kids dance already!

Matt Marrone, an editor at ESPNNewYork.com, also writes a bi-weekly column for the geek gaming site Unwinnable.com. You can follow him on Twitter http://twitter.com/#!/thebigm


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