I was on a mission.  I wanted research from the trenches.  So I decided to poll some of Toronto’s top event planners to learn what’s happening out there in the wedding speech arena.  Are couples coming up with innovative ways of entertaining their guests? Are multiple toasts still the norm?  Who’s speaking? Who’s M.C.’ing? Has anything proved disastrous?

Here’s what my people in the know had to tell us, and I thank them for sharing their knowledge:

Melissa Baum, Melissa Baum Events

Rebecca Chan, Rebecca Chan Weddings and Events

Jodi Gagne, Simply Perfect

Karen Garscadden, Karen G Events

Heidi Gruenspan, Heidi Gruenspan and Associates

Lynzie Kent, Love by Lynzie

When it comes to the ideal length for a speech, I was surprised at the variation in responses offered.

The average, and what I personally typically suggest, is three to five minutes.  “Short, sweet and from the heart,” adds Jodi (JG).  Lynzie (LK) has the most tolerance for length, and is willing to go five to ten minutes, but Karen Garscadden (KG) decrees two to three minutes for parents and other toasts, and five minutes max for the bride and groom.

What about the perfect number of speeches?

A wide variation again.  Rebecca Chan (RC) wants to let the guests enjoy their dinner…so no more than three to four.  But JG feels you’re safe with up to five, and LK likes to pepper speeches between courses, with two per course.

How about the top tip for organizing speeches that the guests will appreciate?

It seems big picture planning and avoiding repetition are the order of the day. KG suggests all speakers coordinate to determine who will deal with thanks, honorable mentions, and who talks about the bride and groom and/or guest of honor, while MB warns against speakers repeating the same memory, and about keeping personal stories to a minimum, and relatable to all audience members. To ensure guests are entertained rather than drained from too many speeches in a row, JG suggests spacing them out to ensure a natural flow.

Is there a trend toward creative speeches?

Well…..no.  MB feels most people lean toward the traditional, but KG admits one unique presentation can be fun, provided you have talented family and friends. The event should not, however, be used as a showcase to stage a talent show! JG finds slideshows are still popular, but notices that though they are fun for the bride and groom to watch, the guests seem much less entertained, so beware before you spend countless precious pre-event hours on a task that may not be appreciated!

What trends should be avoided?

KG is no fan of video presentations, and JG admits that clients this year have tried an open mic concept a few times, but since this idea cedes total control to the guests, it can be very risky in terms of the timing and content.

Careful consideration should be given to choosing the M.C. for your event.  You are relying on that person’s judgement throughout your celebration!  So what qualities should you look for?

KG’s ideal M.C. can keep things moving, provide introductions that are short yet meaningful, is able to command attention for the right reasons, be brief, organized and ready to step in and wrap things up.  A good sense of humor is important to JG and MB, but not if it comes to relying on inside jokes, which are a definite no-no.  Oh yes, a loud voice helps, and for JG, it’s all about that hard-to-define charisma.  We all know it when we see it, though!

How about two or more people speaking together?

Mixed responses here.  LK and JG are not much in favor of this idea, feeling there is too much overlap, making the presentation too lengthy.  LK suggests one person speak on behalf of the group, having polled them in advance for their ideas and memories.  JG feels one speaker at a time is the way to go, unless the chemistry between the two is spot on…but cautions she’s only seen it work well once in fifteen years!

But KG thinks a team speech can be effective if it’s well-organized and delivered.  And she has lots of instructions on how to pull it off: “Each speaker should have their own set of notes.  Don’t shuffle back and forth.  Follow the script, so you’re not looking for your place when it’s your turn to speak. And practice, so the timing and banter flows smoothly!”

There was a final question I couldn’t resist asking: is there a single speech that stands out in your mind, and if so, what made it special?

 HG remembers those that have humor with universal appeal, and JG also cites just the right amount of humor, as well as a gift for storytelling.  However, she also mentions one that stood out for the wrong reason:  the father of the bride roasted his own daughter, relating jokes that were simply inappropriate.

So there you have it:  Three to four speeches, each three to five minutes, coordinate to avoid repetition, don’t wrack your brain trying to come up with a creative format if you’re not the creative type, choose a charismatic, organized M.C., avoid group efforts unless you’re sure they will be well-presented and received, and avoid roasting by anyone of anyone!

If humor isn’t your thing, just replace it with sincerity, and your entire agenda will be a piece of (wedding!) cake!

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this lament:  I have a speech/presentation/tribute /introduction/thank you/eulogy/pitch/essay/personal statement) to write, and I JUST DON’T KNOW WHERE TO START!

We’re all in the same boat.  Remember Newton’s first law? You’re going to stay “at rest” or “in motion” unless acted upon by an external force. So to kick start the process, and get yourself in motion rather than stagnating at rest, I suggest interviewing yourself.

If you had the luxury of hiring a speechwriter to write this piece for you, what would the professional ask you?

First, some logistics; the where, when and who.  They’re important, because they will affect how you craft what you’re going to say.

  1. What’s the venue? Where will this presentation be delivered?  If you are speaking, is it in a well-lit conference room or hall with a sound system, or are you addressing a crowd outdoors at a picnic with the sun in your eyes? Good to keep in mind in deciding how simple or complex your sentences should be.
  2. If your project is being  composed and written rather than delivered, is it being read by one person (who has several hundred similar pieces to evaluate in a short time frame) by a board, or is it being published and subsequently available to the public? In other words, does it need to be formal or more casual, and do you need to put all your effort into making it stand out, or are you, for this effort, the only game in town?
  3. Who is the audience? What’s the size (hundreds of people who don’t know you, a couple of dozen you know intimately, or a mix of both?) What’s the demographic? (mostly business, mostly social, mostly family, mostly young, mostly old, or again, a mix of all of these.) Determining this will affect the style of your final product.
  4. Where do you fall in the line-up of speakers/presenters? Are you the one and only… the star of the show? (if so, who are you representing?) Are you the last speaker? (if so, are you expected to be the one who sums up, draws conclusions, and pulls disparate threads together?) Or are you the first speaker? (are you expected to give an introduction to or preview of the program to come? ) Are you somewhere in the middle of the roster? (if so, how to distinguish your message from the others on the program?)

Now, for the content; the what and the why.

  1. What’s your point? Many times, particularly in a speech designed for a social setting, speakers have trouble formulating an effective toast or tribute because they forget this essential question.  You may be speaking about a best friend, family member, or a product, but you should have in mind one major point. I often ask people, “When you walk away from the podium, what do you want people to remember the most?”  Your sister’s generous nature?  Your father’s kindness?  Your product’s cost-effectiveness?  Make sure you state your point, and make sure you repeat it.
  2. Why does it matter? Your point matters to you. Your job is to convince your audience it matters to them too.  If you’ve done that, you’ve accomplished your mission, OR you’ve accomplished the mission of the person or organization that asked you to speak (and represent them!)
  3. How can you best illustrate your main point or theme? Anecdotes, not statistics, are what engage your audience.  They make the subject relatable.
  4. If you’re speaking about a person, try getting at the heart of the matter by asking yourself what you’d most miss if this person wasn’t in your life, or conversely, what you consider his or her greatest attribute. If you’re speaking about a product, a program, or an institution, ask why it will save time, money, energy or be good for the environment.  That’s what your audience will want to know.
  5. Where do you want to end up? Stephen Covey, of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People fame, reminded us to always “Begin with the end in mind.”  If you are lauding an individual who just donated a million dollars to a home for troubled teens, begin by telling that person’s story.  How did they get there?  What inspired them?  Did they start out as one of those teens they’re now trying to help? There’s usually a compelling personal narrative that drives such instincts, and mining it will push your audience’s emotional and intellectual buttons.

Do you have standard questions you ask yourself when you are about to tackle a communication project?  If not, should you be drawing some up for yourself?  And are you willing to share them with us?

This post originally appeared, in slightly different form, on the Write Touch blog as “Interview Yourself!”

Whether you are writing a speech, a memoir, a novel or non-fiction, you’re going to need a narrative arc. This structural trajectory has been with us for over 3000 years; I’m confident it’s not going anywhere any time soon!

The narrative arc is the framework on which your story hangs.  Let’s face it: as soon as you open your mouth, put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard or laser pointer to projection screen, you are telling some kind of story, for story is how we order the world, connect with humanity, and decipher the meaning of life.  It’s also how we influence, explain and inspire. A good story, well told, wields incredible power.

So that your writing can generate that power, let’s break down that standard structure a bit.

Simple, right?  A good story has a beginning, a middle and an end.  Everyone knows that.  But serious storytellers will agree that it is not so easy to start unfailingly with a bang, quickly accelerate the action, insert elements of drama and suspense that raise the intensity and sustain a high pitch of engagement to reach a climax, then level off, and provide an emotionally satisfying denouement and closure.  That’s a pretty tall order! How do you find the best way to tell your particular story?

I’ve been combing the literature on the construction and effect of the narrative arc on all kinds of writing and presentation.  Below are some of the tips, techniques and explanations I like the most.

  • If your story is a journey of change and transformation (as most pieces of fiction are, and most memoirs should be) it may be helpful to begin at the end. What will the ending be? What is its point? Once you determine that, it becomes easier to go back and fill in the details of a chapter-by-chapter outline.  John Irving reputedly never starts a new novel until he has written its concluding line.
  • Speaking of outlines….you need one! It serves as a roadmap of where you’re going, even if you later decide to take detours.  It’s much easier to start the trip if you know what direction you’re headed in. (Many experts advise a basic outline of fourteen chapters, with three or four scenes per chapter.  Then you can start moving things around and expanding, compressing, or chucking some of the initial ideas.)
  • If it’s a speech or presentation you’re working on, what’s your big idea? What’s the overriding concept/thought or feeling you want to leave your audience with? What Stephen R. Covey famously advised people who want to be “highly effective” in life applies equally to those seeking to be highly effective writers: “Begin with the end in mind!
  • Start like you’re jumping on a moving train.”  Instead of agonizing over that all-important opening sentence, start with a scene or incident that is crucial to the action, or something that represents the essential theme or thrust of the narrative or speech, and write that.  It may help to get the creative juices flowing and spark ideas for other critical points or scenes that will then lead you back to where you should actually begin.
  • There are two writing imperatives that may be clichéd, but that I’ve nonetheless found to always apply: WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW, and SHOW, DON’T TELL Following the first dictum ensures that you will write what you are most interested in, what you probably love, and what you would like to read yourself.  The second ensures that you get out of your own way and let the story tell itself.  It avoids an information dump or the intrusion of an omniscient narrator giving the reader a filtered summary instead of letting the characters pull us into the action. For a speech, that translates to providing practical examples that your audience can easily relate to.
  • Remember that stories aren’t about what happens; they are about what it FEELS LIKE when something happens. E. L. Doctorow said, “we are not reporting on the existence of rain, but creating the experience of standing in the rain.”
  • Robert McKee reminds us that we have all told each other the same story since the dawn of time, and that story is called The Quest.“ An event throws a character’s life out of balance, arousing in him the conscious and/or unconscious desire for that which he feels will restore balance, launching him on a Quest for his Object of Desire against forces of antagonism (inner, personal, extra-personal.) He may or may not achieve it.  This is story in a nutshell.”  So reduced to its simplest form, what do all characters want?  The thing that will make them happy. 
  • William Kenower describes THREE narrative arcs. The first is the physical arc:  every single thing that happens in a story.  The second is the emotional arc:  the “trace of every single character’s emotional progress.”  What do they begin believing and what do they end the story believing?  The third, and most important, is the intentional arc:  this is why you are telling the story…the theme, metaphor or message.
  • Kenower also advises thinking of the story as a joke: the ending is the punchline, and the punchline is therefore the intentional arc.  Since the ending is why you told the story, everything you put into the story functions to guide the reader to that ending. Always keep in mind that you are leading the reader (or listener) somewhere.  Where are you taking them?

There are probably as many good techniques for kick-starting effective storytelling as there are successful writers, raconteurs and presenters.  Do you have a set process? How does it start? How do you coach yourself to the finish line when you hit bumps along the way? If you, like biblical Noah, had to choose, what would you ensure made it into your arc?