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The bad wedding speech is a movie trope for a reason: It's easy to love someone very much and yet hard to express that concisely, in a way that is relevant to a wide audience, and without getting caught up in the speaker's own emotional baggage. Bridget Jones's Diary, Wedding Crashers and Bridesmaids, among others, all feature versions of wedding or engagement speeches gone horribly wrong.

In real life, I've sat with a mix of amusement and dread while listening to a matron of honor read two typed single-spaced pages -- front and back -- about all the things she experienced when she got married and started a family, only reserving her last line or two to say: "and I wish all of the happiness that I've had for you and your future!" I've watched a father of the bride attempt to crack a joke about his daughter's new husband and instead sound uncomfortably menacing and distrusting of his new son-in-law. I've been in huge reception halls that go embarrassingly silent while an inside joke from a best man's college days with his groom buddy falls completely flat.

Too much alcohol is an easy culprit to blame. But there are other factors at play, many of which can be avoided if the speech-giver can identify them beforehand.

"Most toasts are stories," explains Jane Praeger, who teaches speechwriting at Columbia University and coaches clients privately through her business, Ovid. "It's not any less work than a story you tell in business or in an article. It has to be crafted. You have to know where the story begins and ends, what key points you have to hit. You have to edit out all the extraneous details. People don't do that because they think, 'Hey, this is what happened.' It's basic story-crafting; people just don't know how to do it."

But many people assume they do. Which leads to those cringeworthy moments.

According to Praeger and Ian Karmel, a stand-up comedian and staff writer for The Late Late Show with James Corden, overtelling a story is just as bad as "winging it." Without rehearsing, "there's no story structure," Karmel stresses, and a speech is mostly doomed to fail.

Without rehearsing, without thinking it through, your focus isn't where it needs to be. "You have to internalize all your content beforehand," Praeger says, otherwise you're focusing on what you're saying instead of how you're saying it. And what's most important in the moment is your delivery, along with anticipating that you might have an intense reaction while giving the speech. If you know your material, you're less likely to get tripped up by the emotions of the day.

While lack of preparation is at the heart of many bumbling toasts, psychotherapist and relationship expert Lisa Brateman notes that there are just as many fully rehearsed speeches that fail because of unconscious issues -- such as jealousy, personal unhappiness, self-absorption -- that come to the fore at weddings.

When people hear "so-and-so wants me to make a speech," sometimes they make it about them and the wisdom they can impart on the couple rather than a cute anecdote about the couple or some insight the speaker has witnessed simply by being close to them. Brateman notes that speakers who focus on themselves are inappropriate for the occasion and boring for the audience.

Praeger emphasizes that people giving a speech or toast should step outside of themselves when crafting their remarks -- and keep the audience's needs in mind. A wedding speech "has to transcend," Praeger says. "It has to have relevance and meaning" to people beyond the speaker and the bride or groom.

Inside jokes do not transcend. Brateman feels most inside jokes fail because they are indicative of suppressed passive aggression or possessiveness over a bride or groom, a la the dueling engagement party speeches in Bridesmaids, in which two friends try to prove they're the bride's one true bestie. That kind of speech becomes a statement of: "They asked me because I am the one person who knows them and you don't."

Even something meant to be positive, such as a friend saying a bride or groom is "lucky" to marry their friend, can come off as a dig at the new spouse if it's done in a way that is not fun and light. A joke that doesn't land, depending on the tone, can come across more like a gatekeeper begrudgingly allowing another person into their friend or relative's life rather than welcoming them.

As Praeger teaches her students and clients: "Everything is a lot of work when you want it to be good, whether it's a keynote speech, a wedding toast or a eulogy. If you really want it to be memorable, you have to put the work in." For a wedding toast, that might involve genuine self-reflection, as well as keeping it short. Doesn't matter how good or well-rehearsed your material is if it waxes too long. Three minutes, tops, so everyone can get back to enjoying the reception.

High Profile on 08/12/2018

Print Headline: Wedding toasts burn: How to avoid mishaps

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