I’ve seen a lot of people read at weddings and funerals. Some have been incredible, some made me cry, a few have made me want to interrupt them and ask if they’re okay. It’s a daunting thing, being asked to speak in front of everyone you have ever known. It’s equally terrifying if they are all strangers but there are things you can do to make your life easier.
Welcome to Claire the Humanist’s Five Point Plan that guarantees1 success if you’ve been asked to do some public speaking at an important life event.
Do you really want to do it?
Does the thought of reading a poem or delivering a eulogy fill you with The Fear? Be honest. I’d be surprised if it didn’t. Does your love for the person who asked you to do the reading carry you beyond The Fear and into the land of Good Times? If so, well done, you can move straight to the next point.
If the answer is ‘nope’, politely decline. The last thing the person who asked wants is for you to be super-stressed to the point of sweaty oblivion. They’ll just ask their cousin Kayleigh instead. She used to dancing and loves being centre of attention AND it will keep their auntie happy so, actually you’ve just solved a massive problem, thanks pal!
Readings vary in tone and language and, like Julian Glover picking the Holy Grail, if you choose unwisely, it’s an instant late 80’s special effects death for you. A good reading is one you like and understand, one you can deliver authentically. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 ain’t for everyone but then again, neither is anthropomorphic schmaltz peddler, Edward Monkton. Find words you think are funny, touching, sweet, romantic, find something you like and go for it.
If you can write it yourself, all the better and this is especially true of eulogies and speeches. DO NOT AI IT. If you do AI it, read through the resulting chunderspeech very very carefully because the robots are weird and nuance is not their friend.
There is a happy middle ground and that is to take an existing reading and adapt it to suit the occasion. You should always give credit to the original author but there’s a lot of fun mileage in ‘an adapted version of…’ or ‘inspired by the works of…’. Bonus points for making the couple feel really special even if you did rhyme Glasgow Fort with being at court.
If you are a professional performer, feel free to act out your reading. If you are a non-acting normal, please don’t unless you want my unfiltered cringe face staring at you throughout.
What you do need to do is practise. Repeated practise is by far the most important tool2 in your pre-ceremony preparations. Don’t be shy about it, don’t mumbleread your reading in your hotel room fifteen minutes before kick-off. Practise reading aloud at the volume you need to achieve. Go louder. Somewhere between a teacher getting the attention of twenty post-lunch Primary Threes and a furious Pipe Major trying to get his squad back on the bus at the World Champs oughta do it.
You don’t need to memorise what you’re going to say but when you practise, you become familiar with the words, the rhythm and emotion of the reading. Poetic muscle memory kicks in. Who knows? You might remember enough to read from memory. Makes you look double clever. There is also the very real chance that you might be more emotionally affected by the words than you anticipate. There’s a lot going on. It’s cute to lose it a wee bit but it will be the practise that will get you through.
Slow the f*ck down
Scottish people speak fast but nervous Scottish people are unintelligible. Calm down and speak slowly. Not Zombieland opening credits slow motion slow, just a slower pace than normal. Try reading this sexy little wedding reading at your normal pace:
There are dreamers, and there are realists in the world.Cam, Modern Family
You’d think the dreamers would find the dreamers, and the realists would find the realists but more often than not, the opposite is true.
You see, the dreamers need the realists to stop them from soaring too close to the sun. And the realists? Well, without the dreamers they may never get off the ground.
If I read this in my normal, everyday information-sharing speaking voice, I race through this in about 13 seconds. If I read it in my special work voice, it’s 25 seconds. Maybe longer.
Break up the reading on the page.
Physical gaps on the paper slow you down.
Pay attention to the punctuation……and use it. To. Slow. You. Down.
Mind at school when your teacher said that a full stop was a breath? Don’t be weird about it, don’t dramatically inhale/exhale like you’re seven and MAKING A POINT. Just take a beat. Your audience needs time to digest what you’re saying so slow the pace, let the words sink in.
Enjoy the moment
From a purely practical point of view, if you’re reading in a ceremony, make sure you have a copy of your reading printed large enough for you to read it. Don’t read it off your phone. It’s not a shopping list.
Speak to the celebrant before the ceremony starts. They’ll tell you your cue, where to stand and any acoustic issues that you might have to deal with. The videographer might want to attach a mic to you and, from the second it’s clipped on your clothes, it will be recording. Prepare to feel very vulnerable when you remember that, mid-nervous pee. Welcome to my world.
Sit at the end of a row. Make your life easier, make it the end at the aisle.
Before you start your reading, look at the people you are reading it to. Look at them and know that every single one of them is looking forward to what you’re about to say/thankful they aren’t you.You are brave. You’re the star, the chosen one, so bring forth your Big Trucker Energy and smash this. Plant your feet on the floor, lower your shoulders, find your space and go for it.
Speak louder than you think. Stop fidgeting. Smile. If you mess up a word or line, don’t worry. Either keep going or breathe and start the line again. Own it.
At the end, the temptation may be to race back to your seat. Take a sec. Bask in the resulting glory and enjoy the applause. You did that. Good job. Also, it gives the photographer a fighting chance to get a photo of you with a normal face. Again, welcome to my contorted trollchops world.
PS Just in case you need it, promulgation is pronounced Prom-uhl-gay-shun. Ebullient is Ebb-uhl-yent. Uhl rhymes with skull. You’re welcome.