I’ve given three wedding speeches, and I’ve been commended for all of them. When my best friend got married, a complete stranger told me it was the best one she’d ever heard. After my brother’s wedding, a relative of my sister-in-law paid me for a copy of my speech!
I spent days preparing the speech for my brother’s wedding, and now that I’m engaged he doesn’t want to give a speech at mine! His reasoning was that I am a writer, so giving speeches is something that comes naturally to me. It’s not. Speeches are their own monster entirely, but I figured since I am going to be giving advice to him, I’ll share it here too…
A little background… My speech class in college was fantastic, though how much I retained remains to be seen. It mostly repeated the same hackneyed advice, which is best learned from practice—not to read my speech from a paper, to make eye contact, to have visuals, and not to fidget (I broke almost all of these rules in my brother’s wedding speech—I’d at least glance up from my paper as I read). But you don’t need to be a professional speaker to give a great speech.
I read a useful book post-brother’s-wedding called Talk Like Ted by Carmine Gallo, which is helpful. She analyzes the aspects of the most popular TED talks. She says that persuasive speeches (I know a wedding speech is not a persuasive speech—bear with me) all include logos, ethos, and pathos—but mostly stick to narratives that provoke emotion.
Ethos: Your ethos is already established by you being chosen to give a speech in the first place, but you’ll want to say how you know the bride or groom. I started with, “Hello, for those of you who don’t know me, I’m Gina, Joseph’s older sister—depending on which document you’re referencing… His old ID from Tennessee says I’m younger, but a very distrusting bouncer is San Luis Obispo has it.”
Logos: You are not technically teaching anything, but sometimes you’re convincing the audience of the qualities of the person for whom you’re giving the speech (I did this), or convincing the audience of the high quality of the bride and groom’s relationship.
Pathos: Creating an emotional connection between your subject and the audience—which is the most important in TED talks—is also the most important in a wedding speech. The way you develop pathos in a speech is by telling stories. Stories allow people to experience something from another point of view (some research has even shown that those who read a lot of novels are more empathetic). My speech was almost entirely stories that showed by brother’s (mostly) favorable traits.
Another post-wedding resource I discovered was the Think Fast Talk Smart podcast, from the Stanford Business School. Matt Abrahams, a Stanford communications professor, interviews speakers and those who study speech to extract the most helpful insights people have. (And it’s from Stanford, so you know they’re right.)
Abrahams always asks his interviewees, “What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?” There is a ton of repetition among the experts.
The biggest takeaway, that almost everyone notes is to know your audience. Think of them as collaborators. Make your stories relatable to them, for them. Know as much as you can about the kind of people they are. Know what you want your audience to feel and to take away. Observe and read your audiences’ responses as you go. Have your visual focus extend to them. Act like it’s an active dialogue between you and them. (If you’re related to the bride or groom, you probably know your siblings’ friends, and the family friends in attendance, which makes it easier.)
Think of it like theater, and know what social role you’re playing. (I chose silly sister—definitely didn’t take myself too seriously.)
Structure your speech, and prepare. Be simple and succinct. Make your message clear for limited attention spans. Revise your speech (Feedback and revision can make it ten times better. I revised my speech three or four times).
Be present while you’re giving your speech. Be attentive to the situation. Be open and empathetic to responses.
Genuinely care about what you’re talking about. Trust yourself. Be authentic—show your personality. Be humorous (if that is authentic to you—but humor does go a long way, and there isn’t a high bar in wedding speeches). Be generous. Be vulnerable and self-aware. Be certain and have conviction. Ask yourself when you were most effective at communicating, and adopt that state. And have fun!
Stand tall and “hold the space” because you’re not taking up time. Speak slowly. Make eye contact because it shows conviction.
Engage the audience first thing. You can ask a question (“Who here has ever met anyone more kind than Mark?”), or you can dive right into something funny or relevant.
Use the three Cs: Confidence, Connectivity, and being Compelling. Also, know your audience; know your intent; and know your message.
Personally, being a little silly, and giving a lot of heart always make for powerful speeches… That, and crying. I have to do an ugly cry during each one.
Good luck writing your speech! You can do it! If you have any other tips, or if you’ve seen any good ones, let me know in my Instagram comments.
You can read my brother’s wedding speech here.