Wedding Speeches: Etiquette for the 21st century

By | 2nd July 2015

Traditionally, there are three speeches at a wedding reception. The first is made by the bride’s father or guardian; the second by the bridegroom; and the third by his best man. However, this simple pattern assumes that the bride has been brought up by two parents and today over two million people in Britain haven’t.

So now it is perfectly acceptable for speeches to be made by other people as well as – or instead of – the ‘Big Three’ – perhaps by the bride’s mother, by her stepdad or stepmum, by the chief bridesmaid, by the best girl, by a child of the bride or groom, by the bride and groom jointly, or by the bride herself. It all depends on the particular circumstances, backgrounds and wishes of the newlyweds.

Being introduced

Etiquette demands that every speaker should be formally introduced. This is not only a courtesy to them, but also a courtesy to their audience. Some guests may not know who all the speakers are, so it is both good manners and good sense for someone to briefly introduce each of them in turn, giving a little background information about them and their relationship to the bride and/or the groom.

If there is to be a professional toastmaster, he or she will be pleased to read out a short and informative intro for each speaker. If there is no toastmaster, many couples automatically ask their best man to do the honours. That’s fine, but it’s certainly not essential. Anyone can fulfil this role. Perhaps it could be done by the bride’s stepdad, if he is not going to make a speech. Or maybe a particularly self-confident family friend or relative would be willing to do the MC-ing. What matters is that a competent person should be given the responsibility for making all the official announcements and introductions and for keeping things moving on in an interesting and entertaining manner.

When the speeches are about to begin, traditionally a professional toastmaster will call for attention and silence by rapping a gavel on the table, saying something like: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, pray silence for Mr Ben Nevis who will propose a toast to Mr Sydney and Mrs Pearl Harbour.’ If a friend or relative is acting as the MC, he or she could simply jingle a spoon in an empty glass, to gain attention, before introducing the first speaker. This announcement would probably be made in a less formal manner: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, please be silent as Mr Ben Nevis proposes a toast to Mr Sydney and Mrs Pearl Harbour.’ It’s showtime!

Before or after the meal?

Some couples decide to have the speeches before the wedding breakfast. This allows nervous speakers to get their speeches ‘out of the way’ so they can relax and enjoy the occasion. However, most toastmasters and other wedding professionals counsel against this as tight catering schedules can be severely disrupted if speeches go on for longer than intended. Guests also tend to be more receptive to speeches after having consumed a glass or two during the meal. And if there is no obvious highlight at the end of the meal, things can tend to fizzle out as individuals and groups of people migrate to the bar, smoking areas and elsewhere. For these reasons, it is better for the speeches to take place after people have eaten.

It’s a family affair

Given the complexity of many family units and the greater independence of people today, it is becoming more and more common for others to want to say a few words on the Big Day, too. There is no traditional order for these additional speakers because their contributions are a comparatively recent innovation and etiquette has yet to catch up and form a view.

That said, most wedding experts agree that if anyone else is going to speak, it is best that they do so after the groom but before the best man, who traditionally ends proceedings on a humorous high. If the bride is going to speak, she could do so jointly with her husband, or immediately before or after him. Although there is no toasting tradition here, it would seem reasonable that any other additional speakers should propose a toast to bride and groom, and to anyone else they may have spoken of favourably – or at least they should wind up by wishing them all the best for the future.

Another point of etiquette to bear in mind is that if one or both of the happy couple are from different ethnic or cultural backgrounds, it is quite possible that different or additional people may be expected to speak – and possibly in a different order. If you are in any doubt, ask. It is important to get this right. Are there are any wedding conventions and rituals in respect to the speeches that you should be aware of? If there are, there will be scope for a fantastic and futuristic fusion of etiquette, custom and tradition.

The important thing is that the toastmaster, or the person fulfilling this pivotal role, must know in advance precisely who is going to be speaking, and in what order.

Excerpted from “Wedding Speeches and Etiquette” by John Bowden, published by How To Books. Available from good bookshops and Amazon

Words by John Bowden