It can be debilitating: the fear of making a mistake while you’re officiating the ceremony and messing up the whole wedding.
Why are you so worried about messing up? Because you’re a good and decent person!
This is not just some solo presentation – the kind where if you tank up there it’s only on you! A wedding is all about the couple. With all the flowers and ties and grandmas and drapery, there’s this sense that it’s such an important occasion and if we screw this thing up, we’re slapping a big “fail” stamp onto the couple. It reflects on them and embarrasses them in front of all their guests.
And that’s way worse than just messing up a thing for yourself.
Add to that: what if someone else makes a mistake? That falls to the officiant because you’re the one up there in front of the people, and then it falls on the couple. It’s like trickle-down mistake-o-nomics. What are we supposed to do?
Well, after years of officiating hundreds of weddings, I’ve developed a hack that safeguards against the feeling that the wedding officiant has to be totally perfect and the ceremony has to be totally flawless or else the wedding is ruined. (And yes, this comes after witnessing and making my fair share of embarrassing mistakes – and learning from them.)
Go into your next ceremony with these three strategies at the ready, and you’ll be setting yourself up for a relaxed and fun-filled wedding. No matter what happens. And everyone will thank you.
1. Give the wedding party a pep talk
The most nerve-wracking part of the ceremony by far is about one minute before start time. The wedding party is all lined up at the back exactly the way you’ve planned and rehearsed, and the jitters are at DEFCON 1. Everyone is wound up tight as a drum.
What’s everyone so worried about? Messing up. Making a mistake. Tripping. Falling. Missing a cue.
There’s a simple way to make sure that if we or anyone else messes up, the wedding party is our biggest cheerleader. We do this by giving a pep talk to the couple and the wedding party right before we start.
I never start a ceremony without the pep talk. It’s become one of my favourite parts of the day. I’ve gotten emails after the wedding from the couple and the bridesmaids and groomsmen and anyone else in the processional. They specifically thank me for how the pep talk calmed them down.
Essentially, we’re being William Wallace, here. Only less… sticky.
So, what should we say to rally our wedding troops?
I touch on this briefly as a bonus point in my article about the 5 last things to check before starting the ceremony. Here’s a more detailed rundown of what I tell everyone in the processional when they’re lined up at the back and we’re about to begin.
And it only takes one minute.
First, I ask for their attention for a moment – “I just wanna say one last thing before we start.” Then I relate to them immediately by saying, “Yes, we’re all nervous and jittery because we want everything to go smoothly.” I always get a unanimous chorus of agreement on that.
Next, I remind them that we’ve rehearsed and practiced and asked all the questions, and we’re as ready as we’ll ever be. BUT (and here’s the important part – the essence of the hack!) something unplanned very well might happen out there. Someone might trip. Someone might forget a thing we practiced. Something might fall over. And there’s nothing we can do about that. If it happens, it happens. We have no control over that.
Then I tell them this: what we do have control over is our response to the unplanned thing. If someone trips, or forgets something, or if something falls over, we’re gonna roll with it. We’re gonna take it in stride. We’re gonna laugh where appropriate and stay loose. We’re not gonna be uptight and scandalized by a mistake.
Because, I tell them, the wedding party is essentially hosting the ceremony. And as the hosts, the guests are looking to us as examples of how to respond. If we gasp and look embarrassed at the mistake, guests will do the same. If we laugh and take it in stride, guests will follow suit.
I end with this: “So let’s be great hosts. Because at the end of the day, this whole thing is about getting these two married. And no matter what happens and how it goes out there, when all is said and done, these two will be married, and we’re gonna party. So let’s go out there and have a great time. Are you with me?”
William. Freaking. Wallace.
The great thing about this little pep talk is that it takes the wedding party from clenched-jawed with anxiety to cheering with excitement.
The better thing about it is that the bride always agrees with every word I’ve said.
And the best thing: now if we mess up or anyone else messes up, the couple and the party won’t have a cow. In fact, they’ll be the biggest support. Because now, we’re a team.
2. Get the guests on your side
With the wedding party pumped and ready, now it’s time for the wedding officiant to take the front. I go into a deep dive on this in my article about what to say and do to start the wedding ceremony. What we’re doing here is having a little “moment” with the crowd before the show starts. It’s kinda like at a concert, where the main act has an opening band. Or at a stand-up comedy show, the headliner has an opener to warm up the crowd.
Here, the wedding officiant is opening up for the couple and warming up the friends and family. And what you’re doing at the same time is getting everyone on your side.
Here’s what I mean. In psychology, research shows that in less than 5 minutes, people make a “thin-slice” from their first impression of someone. From that thin slice, they will decide how to behave. As wedding officiants, when we get up there in front of everyone, we’re giving the guests cues about how to feel not only about us but also about the tone of the ceremony.
We want the ceremony to be fun, relaxed, and warm. That means, we have to give the guests the right cues for that to happen.
Let’s say we get up there and say, “Good afternoon everyone. Welcome to the wedding of Susan and Greg. Please turn off your phones and do not take photos. Thank you. Let’s begin.” What’s the thin slice guests are gonna get from that? We’ve done nothing to loosen them up. People come into wedding ceremonies in default mode “Tense.” And we’ve only just confirmed for them: be tense and tremble before me.
There’s a simple way to loosen guests up so that if we mess up, they’re very forgiving. And that’s to have a bit of fun with them before the processional starts.
Here’s how we do that.
First, say good afternoon, and then ask them if they’re ready for an event years in the making… “are you ready for Susan and Greg to get married??” You’ll always get an enthusiastic cheer in response.
Then introduce yourself – you know, make yourself a real human with a first name. This will give people a sense of camaraderie with you.
Then say something like, “We’re going to have a ton of fun today, but before we get started, here are a couple of things you need to know….” In that one sentence, we’ve done two very intentional things. First, we’ve essentially given the guests permission to have fun. They’re feeling looser already! Second, we’ve communicated that we haven’t started yet! We’re having a little huddle before the wedding starts – just us and the guests.
Then we make the necessary remarks about photos and phones off, and we finish with a final litany like, “Well, should we get these two hitched or what?” Everyone will shout back, “YES!” And then comes the cue for the musicians: “With that, let’s begin.”
And now, even if something unexpected happens, we’ve got the couple and wedding party on our team, and the guests on our side.
There’s still one more thing we can do to drown out that little voice in our heads that says, “You need to be perfect or you’re screwing it all up.”
3. Don’t do nothing when a mistake happens
Officiate enough weddings, and you’ll see all sorts of things go “wrong” in a ceremony.
I’ve seen a bride get to the back of the aisle and not be able to walk because her dress was too long in the front.
I’ve seen a candle holder fall over and shower broken glass all over the aisle. Twice.
I’ve seen the mother of the bride have a heat stroke. I’ve seen the mic stop working or hiss static. I’ve seen the Best Man drop the ring, and then the other one. I’ve seen a baby cry non-stop, I’ve seen the dad trip on his daughter’s dress and fall into the seats. I’ve seen the bridesmaids’ heels punch so many holes in the aisle runner it looked more like a cheese grater by the time the bride got her turn.
In each of those cases, I had to make a judgment call about what to do or say or not say. The key in every case was to do something.
Sometimes, it’s best to signal to someone to take care of something. For example, when the aisle runner was shot to ribbons, I discreetly signalled to the wedding planner to remove it as the bride was getting ready to come down, and then said into the mic, “There. That’s better.”
Everyone laughed (then the bride gave me a grateful smile).
Other times, I just assured the person that it was okay. Like when the bride couldn’t walk in her dress, I said, “Take all the time you need. It’s your day.”
Everyone laughed (then some ladies ran to her aid).
When the candle holder fell over and smashed during the ceremony, I told everyone it was planned because the bride and groom were doing a barefoot glass-walking ritual at the end of the ceremony.
Everyone laughed (then the planner team swooped in to clean it up).
For the falling dad, I commented on how impressively nimble he was and how he’s evidently warmed up for the dance floor.
Everyone laughed (and now he could laugh along with everyone).
I made a different call in each situation. But what each incident has in common is this: I did not do nothing.
When there’s a mistake in the wedding ceremony, the wedding officiant needs to be ready to either 1) signal for support, 2) assure the person that it’s okay, or 3) make a humorous comment.
How do we know what do do when?
If it’s a logistical problem, give the planner a nod. When you give the planner a nod, you’re giving him or her the permission in front of everybody to swoop in. Often, that’s all they need to feel unobtrusive and leap into action.
With regards to making a comment, here’s a general rule: if a comment is going to embarrass someone further, don’t make one. But if saying nothing is going to leave a person feeling more embarrassed, then it’s better to say something.
Here’s the good news: because of what we’ve done with the bridal party pep talk and the pre-ceremony guest warm-up, we’ve laid the groundwork for everyone to be more relaxed and affable when these things happen.
Sometimes, the proper, well-timed comment from the wedding officiant can give everyone the permission they need to laugh in the otherwise-uncomfortable moment. One neuroscientist describes laughter as “a signal both to ourselves and others that what may appear dangerous or threatening actually isn’t.”
I can’t think of a more apropos description of what’s going on when the unexpected happens in a wedding ceremony: everyone needs assurance that what may appear dangerous or threatening actually isn’t.
No pressure, but the wedding officiant is the one most equipped to help with that. After all, we’re the ones with the mic.
I once saw an interview with Conan O’Brien, who said the way he beats the fear of perfectionism night after night on national television is to be ready to call out whatever happens.
If some rigging fell from the ceiling, he’d say, “Well that just happened.” If there was a wardrobe malfunction, he’d say, “Well, they don’t make ’em like they used to.”
You don’t have to be a comic, but simply calling out what just happened is often the release valve that everyone needs. So have a few quips at the ready for common mishaps. Here are some suggestions.
- For a baby crying, you could say, “Isn’t it lovely when people cry at weddings?”
- For a groomsman dropping the ring or someone standing in the wrong place, you could say, “Perfect. Just like we practiced, Josh.”
- For someone tripping, you could say, “Save the dancing for the reception, Cindy. Just another couple of hours to wait.”
- If something falls over or breaks, you could say, “We had to pay extra for that effect. Spared no expense.”
Maybe you don’t find that funny. Maybe you could improve on those. Fine. But just jog your mind and be prepared. That way you’re not terrified of the unexpected. In fact, you’re kind of looking forward to it.
‘Sure, Mark, but all of your examples are when other people mess up. What happens when I’m the one who messes up?”
If you mess up, it’s even a lesser deal. Because if you stumble on your words, you can either just say something straightforward like, “I’m sorry I’m having trouble speaking,” something generically funnier like, “Well, this is awkward,” or something specifically funny about what just came out of your mouth. If you forget the bride’s name for a moment, you could say, “Who are you again?” and give everyone permission to laugh at you.
In a nutshell: don’t try to cover it up or ignore it! Just name your mistake, have a chuckle, and move on.
Ultimately, observing and making mistakes along the way is the key to becoming a better wedding officiant. And there’s no need to be mortified in the process. Messing up is nothing to be afraid of. It will probably even lead to the best and most memorable parts of the wedding ceremony.