When I apologized profusely, the bride said something like: Oh, there you are. We don’t need you anymore. We did the rehearsal already.
Apparently this is what happens in your 30s: You graduate from the final-exam nightmare to the wedding stress dream. So when I left Washington, D.C., last Friday for a wedding in New York the following day, I triple-checked that I had my bridesmaid dress in hand. Then I spent much of the train ride scribbling out a mess of a speech; when I arrived at the rehearsal dinner, it was a collection of rambling notes about fun and meaningful times the bride and I had shared. It wasn’t in much better shape than it had been in that dream months prior.
I’m a professional writer and editor with a bit of stand-up experience, so I’d be fine, right?
Turns out, I was. Several people came up to me afterward to compliment my toast, and most important, the bride and groom enjoyed it.
But when you’re giving a toast on someone else’s big day, the stress is real. Here’s how to avoid flaming out or blanking on the spot, with tips from some serial wedding guests.
1. If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t give a toast.
“A lot of going to weddings in your 20s is proving your relationships,” says Jen Doll, a Solo-ish contributor and author of “Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest.” She’s given a handful of wedding toasts, but was more enthusiastic about them in her 20s than she is now.
“In your 30s, you just feel more settled in your relationships,” Doll tells me. When a close friend of hers got married this summer, the friend wanted to make sure there was an opportunity for Doll to speak if she wanted. But she didn’t feel the need “to show the world how close we are.”
I love a microphone and will seldom turn down the chance to speak in front of a lot of people. But if you’re not comfortable, don’t feel compelled to say yes.
2. If you are giving a toast, have it just come from you.
Doll recalls a time when she was a maid of honor and wanted two other friends to make the speech with her — to take some of the pressure off. But they weren’t interested in speaking. “If you’re going to give a toast, have it just come from you,” she says; you can’t force other people to join in.
3. The toast shouldn’t be all about you and your relationship with the bride or groom.
“No one cares about you, really,” Doll notes. “You’re part of it because you’re giving the speech, but just make sure that the you that you’re putting forth in the speech is a universal you that other people can relate to — not that time we took a cab and [the bride] puked out of it.”
“It’s important to consider that there will be people at the wedding who won’t want to hear that,” Doll says. “And your friend or your relative isn’t going to appreciate it.”
Now, my messy notes weren’t about wild times with the bride; they were more random memories that needed a theme to bind them together, so I wouldn’t be up there rambling about our friendship. During a bit of downtime in the hair-and-makeup portion the morning before the wedding, I organized those memories into a list of five pieces of marriage advice from a single woman, with specifics about the bride, the groom and what I’ve seen of their relationship. (Hey, if listicles work magic online, they can do the same in the land of wedding toasts, right?)
Since I had those five top-line pieces of marriage advice — including the importance of balancing seriousness and fun; how to be a good friend and anticipate your partner’s needs — ready long before the bride and groom walked down the aisle, I kept my eyes and ears out for anything during the ceremony or on the dance floor that would fall into one of those five categories. That way, I could easily pull out a few examples from the wedding and reception — things everyone in the room had heard or witnessed — and weave them into a toast that anyone there could grasp. (It also allowed me to hit that public speaking sweet spot of prepared plus spontaneous.)
4. Go easy on the inside jokes. And no roasting.
“Nobody wants to sit at a wedding and listen to joke after joke that no one else will get,” Doll says. “Go into it like you’re telling a good story that anyone could understand and appreciate.”
And don’t try to be a comedian. “That’s not your job,” Dolls says. “Your job is to say something kind and generous and keep the mood joyous.”
That also means no roasting: “I don’t like seeing people embarrassed or made fun of,” Doll says.
In my speech, I poked fun at the groom very lightly. As the last toast of the night, I needed a laugh line to get the room’s attention, and I knew he could take it. But my overall tone and message was one that celebrated the couple, highlighting certain things I’d seen in my relationships with them that bode well for their lives together.
5. Keep it short.
Jen Glantz, a professional bridesmaid and ghostwriter of wedding toasts, recommends three minutes tops, which I agree is a good rule of thumb.
Think about it this way: Why would you take longer for a toast than the bride or groom did in their vows?
Good luck out there, wedding guests!