Thursday, March 5, 2015

Talk About the Talk: Margot Bolon's maid of honor speech

(Editor's note: In this new series, Talk About the Talk, I'm asking speakers I've worked with to share their perspectives about giving big or important talks. Margot Bolon is a writer/editor for Aligning Forces for Quality, a health care quality initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. When she participated in a training workshop I did for the AF4Q staff on presentation skills, Bolon decided to work on this speech and gave us a preview of its content. I shared with her this article about why women's speeches at weddings have been traditionally non-existent, and this post about a similar task, coaching my friend and fellow coach Peter Botting for a best man's speech. Bolon here shares her perspective on the talk prep and delivery, with useful tips based on her experience. I think she handled it--including the mishap with the microphone--just right, and I'm delighted to have a real-life example of a maid of honor's speech on the blog.)

When my friend Jill asked me to be her maid of honor, my mind jumped right ahead to the day of her wedding—would I be giving a toast? In my mind, maid of honor equated to public speaking. How could I possibly fit in every tidbit and morsel of dirt I had on Jill, after ten-plus years of friendship, and her fianc√©, Patrick, who I’d also known for more than three years?

I had plenty of ideas, but no focus. Luckily, my office offered a training with Denise four weeks before the wedding. I had observed Denise lead other trainings, so I knew I should already be practicing. I felt like I was already behind schedule. In the past, I had erred on the side of practicing less, rather than more, when giving graduate school presentations and the like. I had also picked up that shorter and punchier is generally better in toasts, which gave me comfort.

Use the rule of three: I started scribbling out ideas long-hand during the workshop. One element I wanted to make sure to include was the story of Jill and Patrick’s first three dates, which dovetailed nicely with Denise’s “rule of three” in public speaking. The rule of three dictates that three elements is an important rhetorical structure. Three is not too few, and not too many, for the human memory. After the first date, Jill waited a while to hear from Patrick, but then ventured a text—otherwise, there may not have been date two. Before date three, Jill came down with food poisoning, but Patrick gamely came over with Gatorade to nurse her back to health. I got to inset a quip about “in sickness and in health” into my toast.

Practice: I found it awkward to practice my speech while staying still, so I would try to recite it or try out different phrases while I went for a run or walk in the evening. I think this helped with fluency, and finding the words that worked best for me.

Remain calm: The day of the wedding, the other bridesmaids and I gathered at Jill’s apartment to get ready. The air was thick with the smell of hairspray when I pulled my friend Leslie into the bedroom to check my speech and make sure it didn’t strike her as tone-deaf or off. My recommendation is to skip this step. I thought my speech was funny, but as I bumbled through it awkwardly, Leslie did not crack a smile. I said “You didn’t laugh!” Her perfectly reasonable response was “I was trying to pay attention!”

Even with disaster: I was nervous about speaking, but I knew my physical reaction and nervousness would subside once I got going. I remembered to smile to ease my tension, both before and during the toast. In the middle of my toast, the microphone cut out. Luckily, it was at a moment that only built up the drama—before I got to the part about the third date. I actually did not feel any panic, but I’m sure the poor disc jockey did, fumbling with batteries. I leaned against the DJ stand and tapped my foot to play a bit to the audience. It felt like an hour until I had a microphone back in my hand. “So, third date,” I said, and the wedding guests laughed. I don’t know if there is any way to plan for these contingencies, but by the time the mike cut out, I was so enjoying my delivery that I didn’t let it faze me. I really delighted in describing a small, illustrative slice of my best friend’s relationship.

Come to my pre-conference workshop at the Spring Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference in Cambridge, UK, this April. What goes into a TED-quality talk will help speakers, speechwriters and conference organizers understand how to craft and deliver a talk in the style of TED, whether you're getting ready for a TEDx conference or just a presentation in this popular style. Go to this link  for more details on what's included, as well as a significant discount for readers of The Eloquent Woman. The workshop is on 15 April, and the conference is 16-17 April. Please join me!