A British speechwriter has conducted and published a survey that shows that speeches are the most remembered part of a wedding, yet most wedding planners spend nothing on speeches and compose them at the last minute.
As an advocate for speechwriters, I hope this survey results in a huge influx of wedding-toast business for freelance scribes.
As a wedding guest, though, I hope most brides, grooms and their parents, bridesmaids and best men don't hire professional speechwriters.
And perhaps more controversially, I'm okay with them waiting til the last minute to write their speech. (As long as they're thinking about what they want to say long in advance.)
Speechwriters complain about two types of clients: 1. Clients who don't care about speeches, don't participate in their creation, and simply read whatever they're handed. 2. Clients who don't care about speeches until the last days, hours or minutes before showtime.
I'm much more sympathetic with the first complaint. This type of client is much easier on the speechwriter in the short term—but a little soul-killing in the long.
I think the latter type of client, as much of a terror as he or she can be, understands something very important: That no matter how long it's been prepared, a resonant speech has a very important element and feeling of spontaneity. And that's often achieved by last-minute adjustments to the mood of the moment—the speaker's mood, and the audience's mood. Which honestly can't be felt until the day—and which must be acknowledged. Skillfully, and not always subtly.
I was once asked to write some remarks for a family member's wedding. Because I'm the best writer in the family, not the best husband. And my wife and I happened to be going through a rough patch. So I thought I'd draw on some of that grit to write a dedication with gravitas. It's easy to go a little heavy on the grit, in a wedding speech. I went a lot heavy. I wrote a speech that began, "When you go into a marriage, people will tell you over and over that marriage is work. I'm here to tell you they're wrong. Marriage, you will soon understand, is war."
It went on from there, for two pages, which I edited, re-edited and rehearsed.
The night before the wedding, the groom and I went out and drank so much tequila that the last thing I remembered was hurdling headstones in a cemetery.
The morning of the wedding day, I woke up with a tree-bark tongue, and had a look at that speech. The groom was pacing around the room, growing concerned at the amount of time I was spending on the speech. I assured him I was just touching it up here and there. In truth, there were black Xs across each page, and I was rewriting the bastard from scratch.
It took the arrival of the sunny day itself to make me understand that I could not deliver a speech, no matter how thoughtfully conceived, about the difficulties of marriage, at a wedding ceremony.
Now, no doubt I am terribly thick. And that's an extreme example.
But some version of the above goes on with every speech in which the speaker is sensitive to the national news on the morning of the speech, the weather outside, the mood of the audience and the room and the light and the sound. And speaker's own mood, too.
A speaker sensitive to all that will want to make some last-minute changes—if not to the script or the slides, then to his or her wardrobe, to the tone of the opening greeting. And yes, maybe to the script and the slides.
I know that causes speechwriters nightmares. And I know it risks screw-ups. But it's a sign of a speaker who wants to connect—with the people and in the moment. Which is what gives meaning to speechwriting in the first place.
Postscript: I don't remember what I wrote in the midst of that hangover, only that it seemed to go over well—and it definitely went over better than "marriage is war," however true that turned out to be. (The couple is long divorced.) —DM