‘Tis the season. No, not that season. Wedding season. Well, truthfully, celebration season is more like it. Anniversaries, special birthdays, retirements and graduations all call for toasts, a few charming or thoughtful remarks, perhaps two minutes’ worth of paying tribute with some well-chosen words to a person or a couple you care about.
Hopefully, the notion of proposing a toast doesn’t immediately cause you to hyperventilate, but if your throat goes sandpapery at the thought of raising a glass and uttering something coherent, let alone articulate, here are some tips to ease you along the way….
- Forget about “winging it!” Trust me, very few of us are talented or trained enough that we can depend on inspiration to strike at precisely the moment we need it to….that is, when our voices are being amplified and lots of people, many of whom we don’t know, are staring at us expectantly. Many people are surprised that they are suddenly overcome by either nerves or emotion, but it’s a special day, and it’s bound to happen. And if you’ve had a couple of drinks to “loosen you up”? Whoa, don’t go there!
- Resist the temptation to put off planning your remarks. It’s just human nature to procrastinate on a task that seems daunting, but leaving the preparation of a toast till the last minute will just cause you to panic. Take some time in the days or weeks leading up to the big event to think about what you’d like to say, how the person or people you are honoring have affected your life, what they mean to you, what you admire…all that good stuff, and get it down, either on paper or index cards.
- If you have no idea where to start, just think about why you were called upon to speak. What’s your relationship to the honoree? Are you a sister, mentor, or best friend? What can you share with the audience based on that identity that no one else can?
- Most of us are not poets. Rhyming couplets, or other poetic frippery, if not done well, sadly just come off as cheesy, and detract from the importance of your kind thoughts and the sincerity you should ideally project. Unless you’re really talented at it, ditch the poetry.
- Some people are naturally funny. If you are, go for it. But don’t feel you have to be a stand-up comedian if it doesn’t suit your personality. Much better to be affectionate, warm or even gently teasing. But remember, this is not a roast. It’s not appropriate to embarrass people just because you have a microphone at your disposal. I came across a great line from Jeff Nussbaum, of West Wing Writers, on how to figure out what’s appropriate in a wedding toast: “In order to stay in the bounds of propriety, deliver it like a eulogy for two people who are still alive. The humor should be appreciative rather than embarrassing.”
- Don’t ramble. A three- to five- minute speech is perfect for family or work events. Since an ideal pace is 150 words per minute, that’s a maximum of 750 words. When you’re done, you want people to be thinking, “Wow, that was great!” not “Wow, that was long!”
- Stay away from “inside jokes.” Clearly, you have a special relationship with the honoree. That’s why you were asked to speak. But remember that probably half the audience doesn’t know you, and you want to be inclusive, not exclusive, in making everyone feel part of the celebration.
- If you’re really stuck for inspiration, think of a loose theme, such as “three reasons I love this person.” Then thread that through your remarks, ideally coming up with some solid back-up for those feelings….which leads to:
- Try to show, not just tell. Illustrate your compliments or praise with an anecdote, if you can. It’s so much more effective to relate how your best buddy lent you some money and his car when you went out on your first date with the girl of your dreams, rather than just saying he was “always there for you.”
- If it’s a wedding, and you are the bride, groom, or someone close to either, let the guests in on the story of “the meet.” Audiences love to share in the romance, learn how the couple were introduced, where they met, and what bumps were encountered along the way. If it’s a close friend you’ve been asked to toast, and the two of you met and bonded in an interesting or funny way, that’s good fodder for your remarks as well.
You’ve got this, right? Be affectionate, respectful, and above all, prepared. Rehearse many times until you’re comfortable enough not to have to read your remarks verbatim. Engage the audience and the honoree(s) with your eyes, raise your glass, and remember, it’s all about them, not you! Don’t you agree?