How to plan your wedding speeches

I’ve photographed dozens and dozens of alternative weddings in Newcastle, Northumberland, Durham and all over the North East of England so I have a lot of experience to draw upon when talking about wedding speeches. Even though I’m a hairy 6’ 1” Northern bloke I don’t mind saying that I’ve cried more than once at a wedding speech I’ve been photographing. It’s just as well I have a camera to obscure my red eyes. ‘Crying? No, just got something in my eye.’ Ahem.

One of the funniest and best delivered wedding speeches I’ve ever heard. This was in The Vermont Hotel, Newcastle.

I’ve also laughed at loud at some of the funniest, most embarrassing or just plain well told stories.

How to plan your wedding speeches

The very first thing to think about is whether you want to have wedding speeches at all. If you like going against the flow, shun tradition and rail against the patriarchal origins of wedding speeches you might decide not to have them at all. You could hand write thank you letters, you could print up albums full of messages or you could simply talk directly to your friends and family. Having said all that, most couples I photograph still have speeches of one form or another.

The groom’s speech at Newton Hall in Northumberland

Should you decide to include speeches as part of your wedding day, the next thing to plan is the logistics. Most wedding speeches take place alongside the wedding breakfast, so you just have to decide whether to do them before, during or after the meal.

Wedding speeches during the meal

I’ve photographed all variations and I’ll start with my least favourite which is to have the speeches scattered throughout the wedding breakfast. In an ideal world this serves to add some interest to what can be a long unbroken stretch of time while three or four courses of food are served. It can also make use of some dead time between courses.

Keep your speeches brief and don’t try to be too clever!

The downsides are that no-one really gets a break during the meal, and they even have to time their toilet breaks very carefully. Grouping speeches together can help them flow better from one to the next. By the time the second or third speaker is up, the audience is warmed up and generally more receptive. Breaking the speeches up between the starter, main and dessert means that each speaker has to start from scratch.

If there are timing issues with the food it does mean that some people will still be eating when the speeches start while others might have finished much earlier. Similarly, if a speaker speaks far longer than expected that can have implications for the next course that might be ready to serve but is going cold while your new father-in-law rambles on. You might also have servers walking amongst the tables whilst your photographer is taking photographs.

Don’t feel trapped by tradition. This ‘grooms lady’ gave a fabulous speech at As You Like It in Newcastle

From a purely selfish point of view, it is usually the only time during the wedding that your photographer will get a break. During a typical 8-10 hour wedding I might have been on my feet for 5 hours solid at this point and I could do with using the bathroom, having a bite to eat and checking my batteries. It also gives you, the couple, a break from having your photograph taken!

Wedding speeches after the meal

This is a very traditional time to hold the speeches. Everyone is warm and fuzzy inside from the amazing food and alcohol they’ve consumed and they are sure to give the speakers a warm reception. It’s great for the caterers too, because they will have done their job and there will only be the clearing up to take care of later.

Father and daughter share a tender moment during the speeches at a village wedding in Wylam, Newcastle

That is one of the downsides too. The tables will be littered with dirty plates, empty wine bottles and used glasses. I’m used to composing as well as I can to disguise this, but inevitably some things creep into the edge of the frame or some moments happen where the mess can’t be disguised.

Are either of you sloppy eaters? Haha! If so, you’ll have to hide that ketchup stain on your wedding dress with your bouquet for the rest of the night.

The last thing to consider is how nervous your speakers are. Having the speeches at the end of the wedding breakfast means delaying their speech by a couple of hours. They’ll have a chance to drink too much alcohol or eat to much rich food. For their sake, you might want to have the speeches at the start of the meal.

Wedding speeches before the meal

This is my personal favourite to photograph. In part it’s because the tables are still in pristine condition before the food has been served. Being earlier in the day thee light is usually better, especially on those dark, winter nights in Newcastle. Most speakers seem to enjoy this time too. They can get their speech out of the way and then relax afterwards while eating their meal.

The Father of the Bride cracks a joke during his wedding speech at The Alnwick Garden, Northumberland

The only negative point I can think of is if the food is cooked and ready to go, but the speeches go on longer than expected, leading to cold starters.

Whatever timing you choose, please ensure you tell people what you are planning in advance. I photographed one wedding where I headed off to my car once the starters were served only to be hauled back to the room where the speeches were starting and the guests had to pour their soup back into the pot!

With the timing decided it’s time to move onto the content of your wedding speeches.

Got to make a wedding speech? Here is my advice

Here are my top tips:

  • Keep them brief

  • Make them personal

  • Don’t get too jazzy

  • Slow down

  • Practise, practise, practise

  • Go with the flow

Don’t worry too much about giving your speech. Remember that everyone is there to celebrate you and your love.

Traditionally there are three wedding speeches; the father of the bride, the groom and the best man, but I often see the bride, bridesmaids and mother’s of the bride speaking at weddings too. I think 30 to 45 minutes tops is the limit of the guests attention span for speeches so try to keep the total running time below this. 5 to 10 minutes per speaker is ample time.

I know I hit Google up before my wedding speech, and it’s great for sprinkling in the odd joke or giving you an idea for how to structure your speech but for the love of God please don’t copy one wholesale. You are far better telling personal stories and anecdotes in your own way. Just remember that it will be a mixed crowd in terms of ages and backgrounds so don’t go all out to embarrass anyone with story about the stripper in Amsterdam!

There is good embarrassment and bad embarrassment when it comes to wedding speeches. Try to stay on the right side of the line.

Don’t try to get too technical for your speech. This especially applies to the best man. I have sat through too many speeches that have been spoiled by technical issues with computers and projectors. Assume that the kit won’t work on the day and you’ll have to do the speech without it. If your speech won’t work then rewrite it. Use ‘dumb’ tech instead such as printed out photographs scattered around the tables.

When speakers are nervous they tend to speak more quickly. It speeds up your brain and quickens your pulse and is generally a bad thing. You have far more time than you think you do when speaking in public. Breathe.

The married couple raise their glasses for the best man’s speech

Many people are nervous about public speaking, so having followed all of the previous advice practise your speech. Read it out loud until you know it by heart and then keep practising. Read it to your partner, your dog, your kids. Still have the written thing in your hand (I prefer to see paper or cards rather than a phone in your hand on the photos but that might just be me) in case you forget where you are. Ideally you want to be able to look up at the wedding guests while you are speaking and make eye contact.

My final piece of advice is to just be yourself. Don’t try to tell the best jokes if you haven’t got comic timing. Don’t try to be an extrovert if you are an introvert. If you are sincere and heartfelt then that’s how your speech should be. You might cry, and that’s fine. You’re in a room full of people drunk on love.

Plus, it makes a great photograph!

I have no idea what the groom said in his speech to elicit this reaction!

If you have enjoyed this guide to planning your wedding speeches, you might enjoy my guide on whether you should lose weight for your wedding day.