Making a toast at an event is a touching way to let friends and family know how much you value them and wish them well. I still get misty-eyed when I think of the beautiful toast that my brother-in-law gave at my wedding welcoming me to the family. But public speaking doesn’t come easily to everyone. We’ve all been to big affairs where the toasts were embarrassing and in bad taste, leaving a pall over the entire day — and beyond.
I think often of my friend Cathy’s wedding reception, where her mother decided to give an impromptu toast. Raising her glass high, she looked at the happy couple and said, “We wish the best for our children, but sometimes you just have to take what comes along.” The next sound heard in the hall was the crash of our collective jaws falling to the floor.
Want to make sure your next toast is memorable for all the right reasons?
Don’t try to wing it. If you need inspiration, look at photos of the person to be honored to jog your memory. Think of your shared history, what you admire most, the person’s endearing quirks or accomplishments. Flip through some quotation collections. Even if you don’t find just the right quote, it may help you figure out what it is you want to say. “It helps if you pick a theme. Words of advice for the bride and groom or what you’ve learned after 35 years of marriage will quickly draw your audience in,” said Tom Haibeck, author of “The Wedding MC.”
2. Get personal
People love funny or touching anecdotes. If you have any doubt about how a story will be received, however, err on the side of caution and delete it. (For the record — need I say this? — stories that involve inebriation, nudity, former spouses or significant others are never a good idea!)
3. Write it down and practice
Either script it out or use highlighted notes, whichever feels most comfortable to you. Practice so that you become familiar enough with it to be able to make eye contact with your audience and aren’t just reading out loud. Speak slowly, clearly, audibly and with expression. (If you can rehearse in the actual room where the toast will be given, so much the better.)
4. Keep it short and simple
A few simple words, ending with a hoisted glass, are all that’s necessary. If you want to say more, keep it to less than five minutes so as not to strain your audience’s patience. (Time yourself beforehand.)
5. Use humor, if you can
Remember that the first rule of comedy is that the joke you tell on yourself is always the funniest. Laugh at your own foibles before tweaking someone else. Stay away from long, complicated jokes and stick with short, humorous anecdotes. “Forget the ‘in’ jokes where only three people laugh because they are the only ones who get it, and avoid off-color jokes that might offend. You want to be as inclusive as possible,” said Sherri Wood of Toastmasters International. If you are not a naturally funny person, don’t feel you have to force the yuks.
6. Don’t try to be someone you’re not
This is not the time for grandiloquent speeches, full of high-flown quotes and flowery flourishes. Nor is it your moment to launch your stand-up comedy career. Just speak simply and sincerely from your heart.
7. Stay away from alcohol
We’ve all been to parties where someone who was drunk tried to give a speech and ended up embarrassing himself and everyone else. If you need something to calm your jitters, Haibeck recommends a good exercise workout prior to the occasion, a lot of rehearsal and taking deep breaths prior to speaking. If you have to give your toast from a podium, practice standing at it for awhile beforehand so you get the feel of it. “Remember that if you stumble a bit, your audience will be sympathetic. They want you to succeed,” Wood said.
8. End with a bang
Give your audience a call to action — to either stand or raise their cups. (Make sure you have your glass with you.) Look directly at the person being toasted and ask the guests to join you in honoring him. Thank everyone and sit down.
If you are asking someone to give a toast at a specific occasion, make sure you give guidelines:
- Suggested length
- Important points to hit
- Important people in the audience to acknowledge
- Sensitive topics to avoid
Beth Levine is a writer whose essays have appeared in Redbook, Woman’s Day, Family Circle, the Chicago Tribune, USA Weekend and Newsday.