Giving a speech at a loved one’s wedding can be a powerful experience, one filled with laughter or tears (or both). But with this great honour comes a lot of pressure.
Public speaking isn’t everyone’s forte, and the personal and momentous nature of this kind of event can add to the nerves. But there are ways to prevent major gaffes or awkward moments. The first step is awareness.
We asked etiquette and speech experts to share the biggest mistakes they see people make in wedding toasts. Read on for 15 approaches to avoid (and their advice for getting it right).
Not Preparing In Advance
“When someone says ‘I’m just going to wing it’ or ‘speak from the heart,’ that often translates into a wedding speech disaster,” said Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Texas. “A good speech takes thoughtful planning and practice ahead of time.”
It’s important to come prepared with at least a very clear idea of what you want to say. Set aside time to rehearse it, so you have the delivery down.
“Last-minute panic writing never yields the best material, because to surface the best material, you have to dig deeper than the easy-to-reach memories and ideas you know will go in the speech,” said Victoria Wellman, co-founder and creative director of the Oratory Laboratory. “The more time you can give yourself to start thinking about the content, the better.”
Wellman recommends jotting down thoughts and notes about your loved one and their significant other in the weeks and months leading up to the wedding. Then turn it into a first draft and go through the editing process over time. And of course, practice practice practice.
Rambling On Too Long
“Wedding speeches are often too long,” Gottsman said. “Once someone gets the floor and their initial nerves subside, they tend to ramble on and on for way too long. Keep the speech to a minimum, knowing there will be multiple people to follow your lead.”
She advised keeping your speech around five to seven minutes, though other experts suggest two to six minutes, or three to five minutes, as a solid range. As Shakespeare wrote, brevity is the soul of wit.
Be mindful of the number of speeches planned for the evening. You can also ask the couple if they have opinions on the timing and adhere to their preference.
“Be brief, be brilliant, then be gone!” said Patricia Rossi, a civility expert, keynote speaker and author of “Everyday Etiquette.”
Stealing The Spotlight
“In an attempt to be funny or clever, speakers forget that their five minutes in the limelight isn’t actually about them, it’s about the person whose wedding it is,” Wellman said. “In wedding speeches, everything the speaker says or does must be in service of the bride or groom.”
It’s an honour to speak at a loved one’s wedding, so remember, it’s not about you. Don’t only share anecdotes about a funny thing you two did together. Instead, choose stories that reveal something about the person getting married, or reflections on their relationship with their spouse.
“Likewise, it’s not interesting for the audience to hear over and over again how much you love your friend or family member,” Wellman said. “Instead, tell them something they don’t know about them, and in a way they’ve never heard it!”
Additionally, resist the urge to feel as though you need to upstage the other speakers. We’ve all cringed at that scene from “Bridesmaids.”
Getting Drunk Before Your Speech
No one wants to hear you slur your way through some meandering remarks, so save the bulk of your drinking for after your speech. You’ll have plenty of time for extra champagne and dancing later in the night.
“The speech-giver should stay sober, avoiding the temptation to imbibe generously during the cocktail hour,” said Thomas Farley, an etiquette expert and host of the “What Manners Most” podcast. “Particularly because you will likely have had very little food all day, exercise caution when drinking. You don’t want to be accused of TWI... ‘toasting while intoxicated.’”
Referencing Inside Jokes
While your wedding speech is for the married couple, it’s also for the broader audience of loved ones present at the celebration, so keep their experience in mind. “Don’t make references to inside jokes that no one else understands,” Gottsman said. “It’s annoying to be left out of a joke, when only a few people know what you are referencing. Humour can backfire, and should be used with caution.”
Similarly, recognise the diversity of age and experience in the crowd.
“People forget that the audience for a toast goes beyond their age-group peers ― it is a cross section of generations,” said JP Reynolds, a wedding officiant, author and business communications coach. “Respect that reality.”
Ignoring The Spouse
“Keep in mind: There are two people in every couple,” said Alexandra Levine, the wedding speech ghostwriter behind The Toastess. “Your speech should not be about one person or the other, but rather, about both.”
You may feel like you don’t know your friend’s other half very well, due to living in different places or not getting the chance to spend time together during the pandemic. But it’s important to talk about your friend’s spouse and their relationship, even if just for a small part of the speech.
“This is the trickiest part of a toast ― you start off talking about ‘your’ person and need to end up toasting them as a couple,” said Reynolds, who recommended that you go beyond saying how wonderful “your person” is.
“Make the extra effort to find something to include about both parties so the speech doesn’t feel lopsided,” Levine said.
Looking Down The Whole Time
You don’t have to have your speech 100% memorised, but make sure you’re not reading every word straight from your iPhone or notecards.
“Try to look down as little as possible, because it disconnects you from the audience,” Gottsman noted.
Writing out bullet points, rather than complete blocks of text to read, can help make the speech feel more organic and off the cuff. Stick to printouts rather than electronic devices. And practice the speech many times before the big day.
“Print your speech. Do not read it off of your phone,” said Katelyn Peterson, a professional speechwriter and founder of Wedding Words. “You’ll look disengaged, and the backlight can discolour your face in photos and video. Plus, you don’t want to be distracted by that Instagram notification while you’re reading your speech.”
Not Having A Focus
“People love sharing funny stories in wedding speeches — but sometimes to a fault,” Levine said. “If you’ve been given the honour of speaking, odds are you’ve got years’ or decades’ worth of anecdotes. But including them all, or rattling off a long list of inside jokes, is a common mistake. You want to be deliberate about the material you highlight.”
She advised asking yourself: “What’s the theme of the speech, or the larger point I’m trying to make about the person or relationship?” Then, pick a couple of stories that speak to that message and practice bringing them to life in your delivery.
“The best toasts have a clear thesis,” said Nick Leighton, an etiquette expert and co-host of the podcast “Were You Raised By Wolves?” “First decide what you want your one single point to be, and then your toast should be entirely focused on supporting that point.”
You should also have a focus when you select and tell those specific stories.
“Every story should have a relatable character, a compelling event, and an internal shift,” Peterson said. ”Every story you tell in a wedding speech should be both entertaining and enlightening. If a story doesn’t include these essential elements, remove it from your speech. Keep your stories tight and concise for maximum impact. Include details that serve the goal of your story, and remove details that distract from that goal.”
Relentlessly Roasting The Couple
“A wedding speech should be a sentimental, heartfelt tribute to the couple as they embark on an exciting new chapter of their lives,” Farley noted. “The giver of the speech should remember that this is a toast and not a roast.”
Even if the couple asked for comedy or a light roast, don’t forget the speech is ultimately about honouring them and their relationship. And if they have children someday, their little ones may be watching your speech years later.
“This is not a time to embarrass the bride or groom,” said life etiquette expert Juliet Mitchell, aka Ms. J. “Sure, people want to get a laugh, but not at the expense of the couple feeling embarrassed. They want their wedding to be full of fond memories, not speeches they wish they could forget.”
If there’s a joke or anecdote that you’re on the fence about, stay away from it or ask a trusted friend or relative of the couple.
“Ask the bride’s mum or auntie if you could get their opinion on including that before saying it,” Mitchell suggested. “Or ask yourself: Would I want that said about me at my wedding? When in doubt, leave it out.”
Talking About Exes
When talking about the newlyweds, it’s not a good idea to reference past romances or go into the details of their relationships with exes.
“Whether the guests knew the exes or not, this is not the time to be bringing up SOs from the past,” Farley said. “By mentioning their names, the speechgiver will be dragging negative energy into the room, distracting from the relationship that won the day.”
“Read the room,” Rossi said. “This likely isn’t actually the best time to share that embarrassing anecdote about the bride from college, or mention all of the groom’s previous relationships.”
Revelations that were made in confidence are not fodder for a wedding speech, however entertaining you may find them.
“Whether an embarrassing incident from high school days or intimate details of the newlyweds’ romantic life, if it was shared friend-to-friend on the DL, it should not be uttered for general consumption,” Farley said. “No matter how long ago the episode may have occurred, there is no statute of limitations on keeping secrets.”
Similarly, be aware of relationship dynamics and avoid stirring up drama with other people present at the celebration.
“If you know the bride or groom has a contentious relationship with parents or grandparents or other issues in their lives, stay away from that,” Mitchell said. “Don’t bring any of those relationships into the speech, especially if the other person is there too. This isn’t the time to be bringing up something that’s a sore spot or maybe the other partner doesn’t know about.”
Trying Too Hard To Make It Funny
“Know your strengths,” Leighton recommended. “Don’t try for comedy if that’s not your thing. When in doubt, always lean towards sincerity instead of humour.”
As “Wedding Crashers” taught us, it’s always better to speak from the heart than to attempt a comedy routine that doesn’t land.
Of course, you can still balance your more earnest moments with humour. It doesn’t have to be a 50-50 split, but try to weave together the comedy and the heart as best you can.
“Your speech should be like a tennis match between funny and sentimental,” Peterson said. “Bounce back and forth between playful lines and more serious messages to keep guests engaged.”
Talking About Their Future Children
Farley advised against making predictions about the children you imagine the couple will have.
“While this one may seem innocuous, phrases such as ‘I can’t wait till you have a beautiful daughter of your own’ will be hauntingly sad on the wedding video if the couple winds up struggling with infertility,” he explained. “And it presupposes the couple actually wants to have children, which they may not.”
“Avoid the temptation to use four-letter words and any other language that is not family fare,” said Farley. “Though they may garner a smattering of laughter, they may also offend ― particularly if young children or older relatives are present. Keep things ‘PG’ and avoid the temptation to go ‘R.’”
Leave the obscenities and off-colour humour to more appropriate settings, like the bachelor or bachelorette party. Peterson offered an easy litmus test.
“Avoid jokes that might make the couple or their guests uncomfortable,” she said. “If you wouldn’t say something in front of your grandma, don’t include it in your wedding speech.”
Giving A Toast When You Weren’t Asked To
“Don’t give a toast if you were not specifically invited to do so,” Leighton emphasised.
Many couples would love for more of their friends and family members to make remarks during the wedding festivities, but unfortunately, there are time constraints. Understand that they had to make tough cuts and that you can share your reflections in a nice note, or ahead of the wedding at the bachelorette party or shower.
“Sometimes people do an open mic and ask if anyone wants to say something, but even then, think about whether it makes sense to do it,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes 15 people line up and it takes hours ― way too much time.”