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  • Holly Blum, The Word Whisperer

Speechwriting Secrets: Funny or Sentimental?

When it comes to special occasion speeches, one of the most common questions my clients ask is, “Should my speech air on the side of funny or sentimental?” The answer isn’t always black and white. When determining which is best for you, consider these three questions:

1. What is your style?

As the speechgiver, you have a good sense of your speaking style. Do you consider yourself to be funny or witty by nature? Are you frequently cracking jokes? Are you charismatic when you are speaking in front of a crowd? If so, then make your speech more humorous. Opening a speech with a good joke is a great way to break the ice with the audience. Infusing jokes throughout the speech is an effective means of keeping the crowd engaged and laughing. But make sure that your jokes don’t cross the line and offend anyone, especially the guest of honor. Humor is a delicate dance; you’d be surprised at how quickly jokes can become mean-spirited. Think tasteful—not ridicule.

On the other hand, humor isn’t for everyone. Do you frequently botch punch lines? Are you more known for your serious side? Are you emotionally sensitive? Are you comfortable freely expressing your feelings? If so, then heartfelt is the way to go. Speaking from the heart can go a long way in making a lasting impact on the guest of honor and the guests themselves. But don’t overdo it. There is a difference between expressing your love and gratitude for someone and quoting Shakespeare’s sonnets. Keep it simple—you don’t want to sound pretentious or lofty.

2. Who’s the recipient?

Think carefully about the intended recipient of the speech. If you’re the best man and the groom appreciates humor, go for it. But make sure that the bride has a sense of humor too. If she is easily offended, tread carefully before poking fun. If you’re toasting your parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, think about what will resonate most with them. Are they more light-hearted and jovial? Or are they more serious and emotive? When you decide which direction to lean toward, you’ll be in a better position to tie your thoughts together.

3. What’s the occasion?

Different occasions call for different tones. In general, rehearsal dinners tend to have lighter, funnier speeches than weddings. The bride and groom and guests are typically more relaxed the night before than the day of the wedding. With Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, the parents’ speech on the bima tend to be much more heartfelt and serious than the toasts given at the party. Milestone birthdays, anniversaries and retirement parties tend to be more of a combination of humorous and heartfelt.

The bottom line is that there are times when it’s appropriate to be humorous and times when it’s less so. Similarly, there are times when sentimentality should take center stage and times when the tone doesn’t have to be as heavy. When in doubt, think carefully about your style and preference as the speaker and how you will best connect with the audience. And remember that striking the right balance between humor and heartfelt is usually a winning combination.

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