Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, famously had this to say when promoting her book, Lean In, about women in the workplace:
Men still run the world. And I’m not sure that’s going that well.
Screenwriters use loglines, authors use quotations, advertisers use slogans and politicians….well, let’s just say sound bites bombard us every day in all kinds of formats and from every conceivable medium, and the best ones are such useful communications tools because…

  • They cut through the clutter and distill the main point you’re making into something memorable
  • They help to drive the audience or reader to the action that you’re compelling them to take

Whether you are speaking or writing, it’s worth your while to take the time to craft something pithy that your audience can take away. And doing so also forces you to clarify and refine your own main ideas to make your writing more effective.

There are lots of techniques and rhetorical devices you are probably already aware of for creating memorable sound bites, but approaching them methodically can help to hone your skills.
For example:

The rule of three: “We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”—Barack Obama, inaugural speech

Repeating words at the end of a series: “And that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”—Abraham Lincoln at Gettsburg

Repeating words at the beginning of a series: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

• Contrasts, Conflicts or Paradoxes: “In our community (of artists), tolerance of intolerance is unacceptable.”—John Irving on the Academy Awards

Rhetorical Questions: “If you can’t get a church van with twelve white folks through (the border), how much worse is it for any person of colour?’- Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale of the Reformed Church of Highland Park, New Jersey

Similes, Metaphors and Analogies: “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”—Gloria Steinem

Tweaked Cliches: ”Familiarity breeds contempt—and children.”—Mark Twain

Unexpected Twists: “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens!”—Woody Allen

Definitiveness or Power: “Go big or Go home!” –advertising slogan

Brevity: “Stand up. Speak up. Shut up.”—James Lowther, British MP

Imitation of a famous phrase: Jane Austen’s “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” might become “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a humdrum speech, delivered in a monotone, will put an audience to sleep.”

As you may have noticed, some of the most memorable sound bites employ more than one of these devices at a time. Repetitions of phrases, whether at the beginning, end or middle of a sentence, typically happen in threes, rhythm and cadence go a long way toward emphasizing contrasts or paradoxes, tweaked clichés are often noticeable for their brevity and punch, etc.

Once you’ve polished and perfected your gem of a phrase, remember not to bury it. If it’s part of an oral presentation, use it for an attention-grabbing opening or a killer closing, and if it’s a visual presentation, get it up on the screen to punch it home to the audience. Pause when you deliver it, to give people a chance to absorb it (and jot it down!)

If it’s included in a written work, and doesn’t belong in the opening or closing, consider giving it its own paragraph, so it stands out from the body of the text. And if someone else perfectly encapsulated your thought, by all means quote it, and acknowledge the writer.

Sound bites require work. Legend has it that Neil Armstrong took six hours to come up with, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” So, take your time, try to appeal to people’s emotions, and consult resources such as compilations of famous quotations and metaphors. (see how that series just naturally fell into threes?)

Go ahead–make a bite. Compose it, polish it, own it!

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…  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!

A friend recently regaled me with details of her attendance, over the long holiday weekend, at The Wedding From Hell.

She had been invited to attend the nuptials of her good friend’s daughter, and had travelled from another city to spend the weekend with the celebrating family at one of the premier event venues in Toronto.

Sounds good, yes?  So why was it The Wedding From Hell?

To start, there were apparently “hordes” of people in the bridal party.  This fact in and of itself isn’t a big issue—so the ceremony takes another five or ten minutes, so what?—but it does have the potential to cause problems later on at the reception.

So let’s get to it…the reception.

It’s an unfortunate fact of life that in this digital age, most of us seem to crave constant stimulation.  Sad but true.  We want to eat (and/or drink) immediately.  We want to “have something to do.”  We want to be entertained.  Sure, we can enjoy drinks and canapes and schmoozing in a cocktail hour following the ceremony, if that’s the time the photos are being taken, but more than an hour is really pushing it.  Then the natives start getting restless.  And cranky.

So the doors open to the banquet hall…or wherever the reception is happening…guests find their assigned places at their tables, as my friend did, and then…uh-oh!  We can’t eat yet?  There’s a welcome, often from an M.C.  a dad, or one of the hosts of the occasion.  That’s okay.  And then there’s another speech?  And then there’s ANOTHER one, which repeats some of the not-so-hilarious-the first-time anecdotes about the bride, groom or both?

Okay.  First course arrives.  Tummies are a bit fuller, so –yikes! Another speech?  Not a short speech, not a curated speech, but a rambling, off-the-cuff monologue from a member of that monstrously huge bridal party, who therefore felt “entitled” to speak to the gathered masses.  Oh, and it seems he’s had a bit to drink during the two hours of cocktails preceding the start of the reception proper.  So he is not really saying anything that anyone is interested in hearing.

When my friend looks around the table, eyes are starting to roll.   People are shifting in their seats.

The next course arrives, but while guests are eating—and conversing, if the music isn’t too loud to prevent it—attention is required for three MORE speeches.  They are not short speeches.  They are not particularly gracious speeches.  In fact, several of them are more about the speaker than the people whose day it is supposed to be.

To my mind, any bride, groom or person who finds themselves in some sort of hosting capacity, should be devoting at least fifty percent of their planning to their guests’ preferences, comfort and entertainment.  Does anyone really want invitees to leave their meticulously-planned celebration muttering, “that was torture!” Or worse “that was six hours of my life I’ll never get back!”

At least at the reception, consideration for one’s guests would suggest the following:

  1. Think carefully about the number of speeches that will be delivered during the course of the celebration. If you were the guest, what would your tolerance level be?
  2. If you and/or your fiancé(e) come from blended families, with perhaps step-parents or step-siblings who you also feel deserve an opportunity in the spotlight, don’t discount that there are other opportunities to give them that honor. Perhaps siblings all speak at the rehearsal dinner, which is a bit more casual, or at other pre-wedding events—maybe even one specifically planned as a thank you to them?
  3. Give a lot of attention to whom will be asked to speak. Though certain people may be very dear to you, they may be unreliable, fearful or simply not up to the task. And though you may feel you are honoring them, it may be an honor they would be happy to forego!  So have a forthright conversation with them and determine their comfort level.
  4. Be firm in limiting the LENGTH of the speeches. When you make the initial ask, you can politely conclude your response with: “I’m thrilled to have you speak on our special day. We’ve asked everyone to limit their remarks to three minutes so there will be lots of time to party.”  And you can remind them of that limit several times leading up to the big day!
  5. Try to stage-manage the content of the various speeches a little if you can. (a speechwriter, if assisting, can do this for you). What you’re trying to do is avoid several speakers repeating the same anecdote or dwelling on the same family legend, which is endearing perhaps to those in the know and can become tedious to guests. For example, you could say to your brother something along the lines of: “Hey, you know the time I got stuck up in the tree and Mom had to call the fire department? Please don’t mention it! I have a feeling Dad’s going to reference it, and we sure don’t need to go there twice!”
  6. At all costs, avoid constructions in your speech which are a laundry list of thank-yous to everyone in your universe who has been kind or helpful. It may be even more meaningful if you take the time instead to write them a personal note and tell them how much they mean to you and how much you appreciate them and all that they have done for you over the years.
  7. I can’t tell you how delighted I’d be NEVER to hear these phrases again in a wedding speech: “You look beautiful tonight! I love you!” Repeating these phrases drains them of their sincerity; they remind me of a stereotypical lounge singer’s mantra: “Thank you guys! I love you!  I’m here all week…try the veal!”  If you really feel someone looks beautiful, take the time to tell them so in person, to their face.  I guarantee they will appreciate the compliment even more.
  8. Make it your goal to be as inclusive as possible, so that every one of your guests feels part of the celebration. So, no “inside jokes” or references, no allusions to other pre-wedding celebrations from which many members of the audience were excluded.

In general, even though it may be YOUR wedding and YOUR day, demonstrating affection and respect for your guests will ensure that you are regarded as thoughtful and gracious.  And you will have avoided that rudest of wedding guest behavior:  friends and relatives with eyes averted and heads down during the speeches, avidly texting their co-conspirators across the table!