Sunday, April 27, 2008

What Happened to the Simple Wedding Toast?

I attended my niece's wedding over the weekend, and I witnessed the latest sign of the impending apocalypse: the devolution of the wedding toast. For years, the toast was an opportunity for the best man to wish the bride and groom well. No more. Now it is the occasion for a long-winded dissertation on the happy couple's relationship with the best man AND the maid/matron of honor. (More on adding the second speech later.) Today a toast consists of the following elements:
1. How great the respective other party is ("Betsy, you're just great. You are pretty, smart, AND you even cook.")
2. How much the respective other party added to the life of the subject of the toast ("Lyle, you have done so much to make Sylvia a happy person, and I love you for it, Man!")
3. Pointlessly humiliating facts about the person being toasted ("Having gone through four years of college with Phil, I can't believe he sobered up enough to make it through this day.")
All this fun in the space of seven minutes or more. Valuable time that could be spent eating or drinking. Instead it becomes an excuse for drinking in order to anaesthetise the pain of hearing this endless speech.
Plus, we get to hear twice as many tirades, because today it is de riguer for the maid of honor gets to give a speech, too. I am not so traditional or hidebound to think that the toast is strictly in the male domain, but really... must we be subjected to such long oratory? Can't it be an either/or?
If you really want to endear yourself to the guests, try to remember these key points:
* Focus on the bride and groom. Remember, it's THEIR day, not yours.
* Be prepared. You're likely not Robin Williams, pal, and very few people are very good at winging a speech.
* Be brief. This is a toast, not a mini-series.
* Be touching, and I mean legitimately touching, not cloying. Try to create an emotional connection with the guests; they are more like to remember what you say.
* Stay sober. It will not only help you remember what you wanted to say, but it won't embarrass you or the newly married couple.
I once stood as a best man and used these words: "We used rings as symbols of a couple's commitment to each other because it is endless and eternal. We also put the ring on the third finger of the left hand, because it was once believe to have an artery that connected directly to the heart - our symbol for love. In that spirit, let us wish Dick and Diana an eternity of love together."
It's not the "I Have a Dream" speech, but people still remember it after 30 years.

Because it was memorable and not indigestible.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Professional Speaking Vs. the Toastmasters Model

Yesterday I attended a Toastmaster speech competition. It was part of their International Speech competition - the only series of contests that leads to Toastmasters' World Championship of Public Speaking. (The other categories are humorous speeches, extemporaneous speaking, and speech evaluation, but they are limited to championships of much smaller areas). The speeches were all heartfelt and earnest, varying in quality. The first was about living a life of values versus one of acquisition. There was an evangelical feel to it, evoking a preacherlike tone. The speech reflected the solid and sincere spiritual values of the contestant.

The second speech was titled "Double Dutch Queen," a charming tale of competing for a neighborhood jump rope title. It was an exquisite example of storytelling, though the point was not exactly clear to me.

The third speech was about language and speaking ("the toolbox we have called the English language," said the contestant). The speaker was charming in her smile and rapport with the audience, but she was clearly inexperienced as a writer. The content consisted a lot of cliches I have heard over the last 30 years about double meanings of words. Example: citing how Arnold Palmer had good luck in his competitions because, before each event, his wife would "kiss his balls." The audience was clearly uncomfortable with this phrase.

The last speaker gave a speech titled "On an Ordinary Day." She spoke about accepting new challenges. As part of her speech, she took balls out of a box and attempted to juggle them. When she dropped them, it became a metaphor for trying and failing. But she encouraged the audience to keep a-going, as Henry Gibson sang in "Nashville." She subsequently juggled them successfully. (My synopsis doesn't do this charming speech and speaker justice, but you get the picture.)

First place went to the juggler, with the "Double Dutch Queen" coming in second. However, it caused me to ruminate on Toastmasters versus the world of professional speaking. Would any organization pay to see these speeches? I believe the most marketable was the first speech on values, because its theme was universal, while the others were personal. It led me to further consider: What is the ultimate value of Toastmasters? If this is the level of speaking that we can expect from "championship" events, what does Toastmaster deliver?

An important disclaimer: I am not trashing the organization, as I am an active member. In fact, I have won many local championships myself. (District 38, the segment from which I won four championships, comprises 3,000 members from the New Jersey coast to Western Pennsylvania.) However, as I launched my pro speaking career, I turn to the National Speakers Association for development. I am outpacing Toastmasters.

What do you all think? How relevant is Toastmasters to speakers? Are the exercises worthwhile? Are the members doomed to live in amateur land? Or is Toastmasters the perfect organization for those who want to keep up their speaking skills? I'm interested in your thoughts.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Welcome me back and pardon me for breaking the cardinal rule of blogging

Wow, what a mistake that was! More than a month without posting to this blog. I have lots of reasons: mostly my day job, with writing and publishing the annual report, and then writing a video script and traveling to Mexico to shoot part of it. But these are not excuses. I should have been keeping up on this. I believe I have more to say than I allowed myself. There is so much going on in the public arena with the Potential Prezes, General Petreaus, the Pope coming to America, and so on.

There is a lesson there. Mostly, this blog should be a conversation between you and me, and I did not keep up my end of the bargain. This two-way thing we have going between us is the very heart of blogging, a trust. Otherewise there is no raison d'etre (I think that's the way you spell it). But I ask you: What should we do when we don't have much that is worthwhile to say? Should we just go on for the sake of blogging, or should we give it a rest? I'm interested in your thoughts on the very nature of this communication. In the meantime, look for more from me. And please let me hear from you.