My friend Jon has to write a speech for an upcoming wedding and asked that I write this post giving my insights into writing speeches, on the strength of having written a single best man’s speech, assisted my brother in the writing of a second, and having a good head for generic forms. Given that curriculum vitae I would understand if you took the following with a grain of salt.
Assuming that I’m not speaking as the groom (or, I guess, the bride), I would start by planning for roughly four components: prefatory material, anecdotes about at least one of the bride and groom, commentary on the marriage to come, and a through-line. I think the most important thing, after making sure the anecdotes are appropriate to the spirit of the occasion, is to ensure the first three parts (prefatory material, anecdotes, commentary on the marriage) cleave subtly but surely to the through-line.
I would begin by looking up who or what I’m supposed to toast. There are certain traditions governing this; it’s good to check with the bride and groom or the MC to find out whether they are planning to keep to these traditions or if they have other expectations. (For example, the father of the groom, if he speaks, typically welcomes the bride to the family.) These obligations will form a part of the prefatory material.
After this, I would start either by gathering together anecdotes about the bride or the groom (whoever I’m closest to and am expected to speak about) or by choosing a good through-line. I prefer doing the first because I have a harder time picking anecdotes than finding a theme, but if you have quite a lot of anecdotes about the person, you might be well-served doing the second. Whichever I choose, the anecdotes should illustrate some characteristic about the subject (the bride or groom) which I think will work well in the marriage—for my brother’s wedding, my through-line was how his capacity for patience opened him to experiences of wonder; for my friend’s wedding, my brother’s through-line was friend’s inclination to creativity and imagination. If you want to gather anecdotes first, then choose more than you need and see what through-line emerges from them; jettison any that don’t contribute to that through-line. If you begin with the through-line, then you’ll need to choose anecdotes which support it.
For instance, when I wrote the speech for my brother’s wedding, I began with three anecdotes. When he was barely more than a toddler, we saw a fawn while we were having a picnic and he picked some grass to hand-feed it; to my parents’ great surprise, the fawn approached him and ate from his hand despite having equal quality grass all about it. When we were both small children, he was very shy and would hide from relatives and friends during most parties—even his own birthday. When we were nearly teenagers, he would suspend hummingbird feeders from the bill of a baseball hat, or would hold them in an outstretched hand, and wait stock-still for nearly an hour for a ruby-throated hummingbird to feed right before his face. Seeing that two of these anecdotes showed his faith that patience would result in worthwhile experiences, that such an attribute would contribute well to a marriage, and that such an attribute may well have been learned as he dealt with a turbulent, dictatorial older brother, I rejected the anecdote about shyness and planned the speech around this idea, my through-line.
At about this point, I would start actually writing. It is probably best to open with something funny and segue into the toasts; certainly that was more appropriate to my brother’s wedding and to my brother as speech-giver. Since everyone is expecting anecdotes, you can get away with moving from the toasts to the memories rather abruptly; it is a conventional and anticipated shift and won’t take anyone by surprise, though of course if I can find a graceful segue from one to the other, then I’ll use it. After telling a few stories, I would move on to the couple: telling how they met, or how you first met the other half of the pair, is a popular way of introducing that shift. At this point, I am no longer looking to the present ceremony (as in the prefatory material) nor to the past (as in the anecdotes) but rather to the future: I would confine my remarks to the happiness (or humour, or courage, or success, etc.) I anticipate the couple will have together as a consequence of what every trait I chose as the through-line. These remarks also serve perfectly well as a conclusion, if you are inclined to think in those terms.
I’d like to make a few remarks about cleaving to the through-line. You do not need to announce this through-line in advance, nor to hit everyone over the head with it in each section. Subtle connections are best. My favourite technique is one I suggested for my brother’s speech: the use of an echo phrase that appears once in the first anecdote or set of memories and once in the comments on the marriage. So, for my brother, I suggested something like these two lines:
What I remember most about [the farm and property where we spent a lot of time together as children] was a world of imagination, creativity, and wonder.
I am sure that together you will make a life of imagination, creativity, and wonder.
Echo phrases are usually more memorable, and therefore echo better, if they have a measured cadence and appear at the end or beginning of a sentence. While the echo phrase does not have to completely contain whatever the through-line happens to be, it should evoke the most important part of it.
This more detailed approach outlined above comes from a few principles about what makes a wedding speech enjoyable to hear: wedding speeches are best when short; wedding speeches are one of the few cases where sentimentality, nostalgia, and naïve optimism are not contrary to good taste; all writing is best when its parts contribute to a coherent purpose. I think the wedding speech is a particularly interesting genre because it is one of the few at least quasi-literary forms that most people will, sometime in their lives, be called on to write or perform; since the only other one I can think of would be the eulogy, it is likely the nicest such form. Perhaps its popularity, as well as its ceremonial context, is what makes it such a conventional and well-defined genre; for most people, writing is easier when the expectations are many, consistent, and clear.
Please feel free to add recommendations or criticisms in the comments section.