In this column, professional speechwriter Chandler Dean provides partly satirical, partly genuine “How To” advice focused on a hyper-specific subcategory of speeches—from graduation speeches to wedding toasts to eulogies, and all the rhetorical occasions in between.

- - -

So your best friend or sibling or child or cousin or a second-tier friend has asked you to give a toast at their wedding. In one sense, you should be honored—because you’ve been deemed one of the best people to put words to the exhilarating feelings associated with this unforgettable day. In another sense, you should be horrified—because you will be one of the last things standing between hundreds of travel-weary reception attendees and dinner.

But you can meet the moment and let the caterers mete out the meal, if you make these sacred vows:

Address the elephant in the room.

This could be literal if the groom opted for a traditional baraat. Otherwise, the top of your speech is a great moment to endear yourself to your audience by speaking to what everyone is thinking. Once, I gave a speech at a wedding where the bride and groom were clearly perfect for each other but had gotten engaged very quickly, and most of the friends of each spouse had only briefly met the other. So I began: “When I think back to when I first saw Jeremy and Katy together, I remember it like it was five months ago.”

Whatever is interesting or unusual about the day—as long as it’s not a sore spot—is good fodder for your intro. I’ve always wanted to be at a second wedding where someone opens their toast with “Welcome back, everybody!” But you should probably show more restraint than that. Speaking of restraint:

Resist the profound urge to begin the speech with the phrase “For those of you who don’t know me…”

This is a useless, time-wasting phrase—right up there with “as you may or may not know” or “a little bit about me” or “let me begin by saying.” Just get straight to the point. No need to divide the crowd into the competing interest groups “those of us who know you” and “those of us who don’t know you.” We can all find a way to keep up with the complex backstory that you are the groom’s friend. That said:

Assume that nobody knows anything about you.

This is not the time to make obscure references to that one legendary road trip you took with the happy couple when things got really crazy—remember that? No. I don’t remember that. I met them at work. Save the inside jokes for the guestbook, where the audience is truly just these two people. Your job is not to convey to everyone else how close you are to the newlyweds—it’s to use storytelling to help everyone else feel a little bit closer to them. With that in mind:

Make it about them, not you and one of them.

For some reason, many wedding toasters treat the occasion like their loved one is receiving a lifetime achievement award. The father of the bride spends the whole time talking about how awesome his daughter is, and maybe the speech ends with a wacky cameo appearance by her wife. You can start your speech by talking about your relationship with the person you know better, but that’s just exposition. The day they met the love of their life is the inciting incident. And I don’t know if you’ve watched a movie lately—they’re really good, I recommend—but they tend to put the inciting incident at some point before the final act. In other words:

Find something—anything—positive to say about the other spouse.

Look: I get it. Maybe you don’t really like this person. Maybe you barely know them. Maybe you’ve met them hundreds of times, but your dynamic has never evolved past “How are you?” “Good, how are you?” “I’m good!” “Good, good.” “Good to see you!” Maybe you had to double-check how to spell their name when you sat down to write this toast. It does not matter. You’ve gotta say something.

In some ways, this is the most important aspect of your speech. Everyone already knows that you love your sister. What we don’t know yet, and what is therefore most interesting, is what you love about her husband. And in any form of speechwriting, you’ve got to be cognizant of your headline—the part of your remarks that will make news. People. Love. Learning. Secrets. So delight us with an observation about your loved one’s loved one that we haven’t heard before.

If you’re in a bind, you can always hit ’em with a compliment that’s really a compliment to the other person. “One thing’s for sure: you make my brother happy.” But ideally, you’d find something a little more substantive to say that reflects your firsthand experience with the lovebirds. And if you haven’t had such an experience yet:

Perform relationship reconnaissance.

One time, a dear friend asked me to be his best man, and I was thrilled to accept. But we had an unconventional friendship that mostly took place online—and as a result, I had never met his bride-to-be. So I made sure that long before the wedding, the three of us got together so I wouldn’t be meeting her for the first time on the day of. Boom: now the speech could be about what I learned that day at the Cheesecake Factory, and not about my and the groom’s shared admiration for Norm Macdonald. Sorry, not just about my and the groom’s shared admiration for Norm Macdonald. This reminds me:

Tell a story! One story.

In the spirit of “show, don’t tell,” you would do well to avoid listing a bunch of adjectives about how great, awesome, kind, nice, loving, caring, generous, gracious, and synonym-loving these two sweethearts are. Instead, try to come up with an illustrative story about the two of them that demonstrates those qualities. What was the moment you realized they were a perfect match? Or at least a tolerable match? Get in, tell the story, give us a sentence about what this experience taught you about their relationship, wish them well, raise your glass, and get out of there. A toast should not last longer than it takes to make actual toast. That’s why it’s a toast and not a roast—and on that note:

If you’re the best man, try to express some earnest emotion for once in your life.

Ironic detachment is out. Hazing the groom is out. Authenticity is in. It’s fine to make some light-hearted jokes about your buddy, but you’re here because the groom has identified you as the friend he trusts and cherishes most in the world—it would be good to give some kind of indication that you enjoy his company. On the other hand:

If you’re the maid of honor, try to scale back the earnest emotion for once in your life.

Seeing someone moved to tears when their best friend gets married can be a beautiful thing. But it’s a delicate balance between happy tears and “Is this lady gonna be okay???” tears. Remember that this marriage is not, first and foremost, something that is happening to you. But your speech is something that is happening to us. Finally:

Don’t forget to imply that this wedding is a good idea.

Ultimately, you’ve been tasked with publicly endorsing this union. You’re using your credibility as someone who is close with at least one of these people to wish them a long, happy, prosperous life with the other one. So, if you’re struggling to come up with a conclusion, you can fall back on a beautiful, natural story structure: chronological order. You’ve shared a parable from the past. You’ve revealed something poignant about the present. All that’s left to do is express your faith in the future.

At the very least, you can express faith in the immediate future by ending with the two most important words at any wedding: “Let’s eat.”