I was somewhere between shocked and touched, honored and scared shitless. When my best friend of twenty-five years asked me to officiate his wedding, it was unexpected. I began to mentally catalogue the limited number of stories I could share during our conversation. Then I thought about addressing he and his future wife’s closest friends and family on one of the most special days they would ever share together as a couple.
It was nothing short of terrifying.
When reality set in that I actually said “yes,” I worked past the shock the only way I knew how. I began applying the framework I’ve learned as a communicator: research, organize, refine and deliver — with multiple practice sessions along the way.
Did it completely eradicate the heart palpitations as the mic was pinned on my shirt or as I looked out at the rock outcropping the three of us would be standing on during the ceremony? No. But I can’t imagine what this moment would have been without using some specific public speaking and general communication practices I’ve learned along the way.
Fact-finding and background research is typically one of my favorite aspects of developing any communication, but this process was different given my relationship with Zach and Kathy. I knew them, but I didn’t know what they wanted as a couple so an hour-long conversation helped define the basics and general parameters of the ceremony. The rest was up to me — picking up wedding books, poring through millions of potential readings and ceremony structures and weaving in the few must-haves they wanted.
Still fairly terrified.
To paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson (minus his notable range of vices), I don’t recommend my mental-only form of organization, but it has always (mostly) worked for me. I tend to marinate on the bigger, long-term events — what the key elements are, what the elusive opening line should be, what story or stories to tell.
This drives everyone, including myself, crazy until I digitally purge into the nearest word-processing tool. Given the length of time I had to pull this together, it was even worse. Picture a binge session starting at 10:30 p.m. on a business trip days before the wedding. But pressure can sometimes conjure magic. In this case, it gave me a theme to work with, and the rest flowed from there.
My “gathering words” revolved around the concept of stories — how our lives are defined by the collection of stories we create, play an active part in and share with one another. These range from tragic to funny, endearing to mystifying, life-changing to inspiring and, sometimes, all of these wrapped into one. Their wedding was the intersection of each of these sentiments and more — a story we would collectively share together as the newlyweds forge their unique stories after the wedding.
Regardless of the situation, you can find a thread to tie everything together. Beyond adding clarity, this thread also serves as the chopping block by defining what elements you should trim from the story. My theme gave me the freedom I needed to weave in several stories and anecdotes that touched on the people Kathy and Zach are and the important people who shaped their lives in a way everyone could appreciate.
More inspired than terrified.
If there is a disease of hoarding pet phrases or informational nuggets, I have it. One cure I’ve found is reading this nonsense out loud, even if the final form is written. This is 100 times more important when speaking publicly. Phrases you trip over, language that doesn’t sound or feel like you, subject matter that is irrelevant — none of this can be ignored as you read through and/or practice toward the final version.
While much of this happens during the writing process for me, practice sessions with my wife helped me identify what should be trimmed down to a quick reference or eliminated altogether. It also helped me find my voice in the words. My greatest advice to anyone taking center stage is to be yourself, and that starts with making your presentation your own.
Gaining confidence through preparation, pushing fear to the back seat.
With one last practice session at the hotel, I was in wedding-support mode until guests started to arrive at the ranch. Somewhere between painfully slow and too quick for comfort, the sun drifted to the hills. I headed toward the pond to take my place atop the rock, forcing visions of the Nestea plunge from my head. The music started, soon followed by the procession. It was time.
The opening lines flowed into the stories I’d been waiting to share since I was asked to preside over the day’s festivities. And instead of fearing the massive crowd, I met them with eye contact at each line, shifting from them to the bride and groom and back. I paused. Most importantly, I took time to breathe. Creating this pace through these reminders made all the difference between a fear-fueled filibuster and a moment we all collectively shared.
Admittedly, I had a handmade book to reference as a failsafe for the ceremony elements I hadn’t fully committed to memory. But making the words my own as I refined made this more of a security blanket than distraction.
As we completed the vows and I uttered, “By the power vested in me,” the sense of relief was indescribable. I hadn’t screwed up the occasion for anyone, especially those who put their trust in me. More importantly, I felt like I was at my best thanks to the effort and practice put in beforehand and the seemingly simple tips of pausing, breathing and using my eyes just as much as my words to connect with the audience.
No longer terrified. And no longer accepting offers to officiate…