Some people regard public speaking engagements and trips to the dentist with equal terror. I’ve done both in the space of 48 hours, and I’m still alive.
Emceeing a wedding and getting a root canal are both filled with anticipation, a few shots of necessary nerve numbing substances, and the willingness to keep one’s mouth open for an extended period of time. The similarities likely end there, and I’m guessing, that you, dear reader, would like to know more about the wedding than the dentist.
I’m no stranger to public speaking, and I’ve been using my voice to address groups of people since I was shorter than a podium. From zealously playing teacher (much to the chagrin of my sibling students) to instructing a crowd of 1,000 students and their overjoyed parents on the joys of leaving highschool, the microphone and I get along just fine. I’ve also had plenty of unamplified practice, from drill sergeantry in Air Cadets to leading groups of eight year olds on horseback down perilous backcountry trails, but I try not to pull out that voice unless there’s a dire crowd control emergency.
My mouth, however, doesn’t always have a smooth working relationship with my brain. From a disastrous high-school fashion show where I mistakenly pronounced the collection, “Crystal Night” with a German accent, to a hilarious-in-retrospect class presentation where I came across as an old, old woman who hated television and all its ensuing evils, I’ve had my share of verbal gaffes.
The wedding reception was free of such missteps, although I’d still only give myself a B+ overall.
I stumbled a bit at the beginning, and fumbled a joke about Germans and synchronized watches, which, in retrospect, was probably a good thing. I let the stress of the father-of-the-bride seep into my own lack-of-confidence, and having him rush up to me telling me that I either needed to have a different voice entirely or use two microphones simultaneously almost made me lose my nerve completely.
Being an emcee is a significant responsibility – and although you could buy this guy’s book and find some pretty standard advice, I thought I’d add my own counter-cultural advice to the mix. I have the maid of honour’s permission for this little tutorial, as after the reception she dubbed me a professional and said I could start charging for my services. I’m going to go ahead and take that as a compliment. This little guide, then, is especially for those of us who have been mantled with the responsibility of emceeing a wedding, but don’t really want to tell fart jokes.
Rule #1: Don’t be the star of the show, or blah, freakin’ blah
Seriously. Have you ever been to a wedding where the emcee won’t stop talking about themselves, like the time they broke their leg, or broke up with someone? Nobody came to the wedding to learn more about the master of ceremonies. The less you talk, the better. The more you allow the show to continue smoothly, interjecting and guiding the proceedings with the understanding that you want to be the man or woman behind the curtain, and not having the audience wishing eagerly for your final curtain call, the better. I sincerely hope that no-one remembers exactly what I said, unless it prompts them to reflect on the loveliness of the bride or the overall happiness they felt.
Rule #2: Don’t expect a captive audience or, let the peanut gallery be itself
I am usually seated at the back table at most weddings I attend. I’m not sure if this is because I was, until recently, in that awkward yet fun category of single gal with nothing to lose and relegated, therefore, to the distant cousin/single friend from work table, or because the happy couple knew that I am a die-hard commentator. I love to whisper and jest, poke my fellow guests in the ribs and mutter some bon-mot, and generally cause a bit of a ruckus.
So when I’m up at the podium, I know that I’ll never have everyone’s complete and utter attention. And instead of going hard-core math teacher on the assembled crowd, I gently reminded them that the speakers and presenters deserved their respect, and left it at that. I did threaten once to “use my school teacher voice” and got a good laugh out of the mock-spectre of detentions, but I know instinctively that there are members of my giggly/witty/rowdy tribe that compulsively whisper, and the way to win them over is not through heavy-handed warnings rumbled into a microphone. It merely has the effect of making everyone feel like children, and usually just adds fuel to a heckler’s fire. Rather, the better thing to do is be entertaining, give a shout-out to that back table, and get on with the show.
Rule #3: Hold your schedule with an open hand, or, keep calm and carry on
I honestly could have lit my reception schedule on fire and it would have at least kept me warm. But continuing to pretend that everything was well in hand, and surreptitiously re-arrange things to suit the changing moods of the bride and groom, the angst ridden in-laws and the inevitable time creep that a wedding reception brings with it is one of the most important things an emcee can do. I wasn’t very good at this in the first half-hour or s0 – still timid/people pleasing enough to ask the question, “What do you think?” was a bad idea – it only made the wedding party nervous, and the scheduled speakers feel uncertain. Their whole focus is usually on the one presentation/speech that they need to deliver, not where and when in the schedule they’ll best fit.
Once I started simply telling people what to do, things went much more smoothly. I wasn’t bossy, just quietly confident, letting the affected parties know what was coming up, quickly cutting and rearranging events to suit the weather, the photographers, and the changing mood of the crowd.
Having a demeanour that exudes, “I have a plan, and we’re going somewhere good,” even if you had to scrap your original schedule, helps you pilot the fickle, fun and free-flowing waters of an unpredictable event like a wedding reception. Even if that means you have to fudge a little – appearing to have a plan allows you to smoothly cut that unnecessary swing-dancing lesson with confidence, or break it to the aunt from out-of-town who wants to share a diaper story that she can share that with the couple in a card, rather than onstage.
Rule #4: No sex jokes or, TMI!
I know this is a hotly debated topic – and it’s certainly a hot one. But we’re in the modern era of too much information, not the bygone days of tribal ritual and public executions. Sometimes the elephant in the room needs to be quietly herded to the back and fed lots of soothing punch, not paraded about, dripping with tassels. Everyone knows that the happy couple will have some sort of wedding night. Everyone knows that there may be some awkwardness/passion. In fact, joking about a couple’s sex life at a wedding is probably the most predictable, boring thing you could do as an emcee. It also shows that you haven’t got a very original imagination, or that you’ve put very much thought into what might be entertaining.
I heard a story of a couple recently being utterly embarrassed at their reception by a heretofore discreet emcee who blindfolded them both and made them feed each other bananas. It was a memorable occasion for all the guests, but everyone wished they could forget.
So forget it. There are myriads of funny, interesting and honouring things to talk about, like first dates and the time the groom left his emergency brake off, and destroyed the grandparent’s garden shed, or the bazillions of mosquitoes being the first ones to their very own human buffet table while the rest of the guests wait to eat. Just look around you and you’ll find a whole roomful of material unfolding before your eyes.
Rule #5: Allow yourself to fail, or you can’t please all the people, all the time
I remember clearly freaking out while planning my own wedding, wondering how I could make every single guest have the best night of their lives. That’s right, all 120 of them and their emotional well-being were completely resting on my over-responsible shoulders.
My husband reminded me once again, in the middle of emceeing this wedding, that I really couldn’t do that anymore. I had been fixated on one particular guest, an acquaintance from years back, and couldn’t seem to make her smile. In fact, she looked my way with a mixture of surprise and disapproval. (Perhaps the salmon kebabs didn’t agree with her palate…)
And I am a wooer – I’ll try to win over the one person in the room who isn’t paying attention, who doesn’t like me, who could care less.
But this wedding wasn’t about me, or my need for affirmation, at all. My job was to simply weave together an entertaining evening, diplomatically weeding out the unnecessary, deftly avoiding the disastrous, and above all, reminding everyone why they were still there, fending off mosquitoes and small talk. To help family and friends say goodbye to one way of relating, transition from treating the happy couple separately, and get used to the notion of seeing and celebrating them together.
Which may have meant that I was completely forgettable, and, one can only hope, the stars shone ever more brightly on those two dear friends of mine, now married.
My absolute favorite moment? Listening to the birds, nature’s airborne party-crashers, sing magnificently throughout the entire ceremony. They had no name cards, no place at the table, no wedding favours. And yet they contributed effortless beauty and atmosphere to the occasion, anonymous, joyous choirs.