Could Barack Obama’s oratory prowess translate into a new appreciation of well-crafted toasts to the bride? Toronto journalist Wendy Dennis has her fingers crossed. She has just launched Crowd Pleasers, a service that provides speeches for weddings, funerals and other seismic life events that require such heartfelt eloquence that the time- and/or verbally challenged will pay an articulate stranger to express it.
Demand for banquet-hall Cyranos definitely exists. David Pitlik, a former television writer in Santa Monica, Calif., prepares customized wedding toasts for US$155 a pop on ThePerfectToast.com. Alan Milevoy runs Words2touch.com in Rivière des Prairies, Que.; the former engineer turned to speech writing after being laid off from Nortel in 2003. Most of his clients are American: “They like to give more speeches,” he says.
Dennis had written speeches for family occasions for years, but it hadn’t dawned on her that it could be an income generator until she read about a wedding planner who provided speech-writing services. “I found that bizarre,” she says. “As a writer, I wouldn’t offer wedding planning.” She was looking to diversify. “You need a trust fund to be a magazine writer,” she says.
She wants to offer a more bespoke service, with prices starting at $1,000 for a three- to five-minute toast. One of her first clients was a businessman who needed a eulogy for his mother. He had hired speech writers in the corporate realm, and thought nothing of farming out a maternal tribute. Dennis met with him, then delivered a draft that was tweaked for tone and phrasing. “It’s still their feelings and sentiments,” she says of clients. “They just don’t have the skill to craft it in a way that’s going to have the greatest impact.” Bad speeches can ruin an event, she observes: “I’ve always been amazed that people spend all of this money to make sure every detail is perfect and then somebody gets up to give a speech and people are cringing.”
Alas, the podium terrorist isn’t the typical client, says Lawrence Bernstein, who runs Great Speeches in London, England: “Generally, it isn’t the guy who stands up and makes a complete tit of himself.” Those who retain him are “self-aware and bright enough to realize that they couldn’t do it brilliantly. But a lot of people could do it decently.”
What many people don’t understand, he says, is that the speech should be focused on the audience, not the speaker: “Every other desirable feature—humour, sincerity, clever wordplay—will be worthless if it isn’t targeted at and tailored to the people listening to it.”
Bernstein has seen it all. One man in Australia wanted a eulogy for his elderly mother, who lived in Kenya, prepped in case she died suddenly. Then there’s the steady stream of best men who mistakenly believed they could knock their speech off at the last minute.
“Four Weddings and a Funeral is not a myth,” he says. “The idea of the English guy who stands up in public and finds it impossible to say anything original is absolutely true.” He’s amused by grooms who come to him with copious notes and detailed anecdotes for their best-man toast. “Then you ask what he wants to say about the woman he plans to live with for the next 50 years and he’ll say, ‘Yeah, she’s great, she’s great.’ So I have to rebalance that.”
The nervous father of the bride is another theme: “They say ‘When my daughter was born it was the happiest day of my life, then I went into a funk because I’d have to speak at her wedding.’ ” Many ask Bernstein to conceal their disapproval of their future son-in-law: “They want me to help them write a speech that covers all of the bases without lying.” He says the work often feels like therapy. Pitlik agrees, noting that many people provide information they’d never, ever want in the speech: one groom, for instance, described his future bride as “frigid.”
The recession has hit shadow speech writing, says Pitlik, whose business was down 40 per cent last year. “It’s definitely a discretionary expense,” he says. The fact that the nature of the business means there are few, if any, referrals doesn’t help, says Bernstein, who offers this insight to newcomers like Dennis. “With any other service-based industry, the better the service, the greater the number of referrals and the less marketing you have to do,” he says. “But when the best man gets a slap on the back and is told, ‘That’s the most I’ve laughed this year,’ the bloke never says, ‘Call Lawrence in north London.’ ”