Don't Burn Your Toast

No need to stress over a big speech. Here's how to say just the right words when you're raising your glass.

by Gary Drevitch
(c) 2005 Conde Nast Publications
From ModernBride.com

After all the bad dates, all the late-night phone calls, all the false alarms, your best friend is finally getting married. And she's asked you to offer a toast at the reception. Do you prepare? Are you kidding? You two go back to New Kids on the Block. You could speak off the cuff for hours about what she means to you. And so, as 200 spoons clang against 200 champagne glasses, you take the mike, raise your glass, smile...and you're speechless.

We've all heard how most people fear public speaking more than a dinner date with Hannibal Lechter, but that's because most people don't prepare for their moment in the spotlight. Here's a step-by-step guide to get you ready for your toast, prepared with the experts at Toastmasters International, the worldwide public-speaking group headquartered in Mission Viejo, CA:

Brainstorm

"The best toasts are those that are heartfelt," says Terry McCann, executive director of Toastmasters. So start by pouring your heart out. Sit down and list everything you'd want people to know about the your pal. Start with her best qualities. Include memories of good times together, and, especially, of the first time she told you about her beloved. Jot some thoughts about what makes the bride and groom a great couple. Finally, based on what you know about their common interests, think about what you'd want to wish them for their future together.

Research

Now that you've got a rough idea of the themes you'll hit on in your toast, go beyond your own experience. Can you dig up old letters the bride wrote to you? Letters from summer camp, about the kind of boy she dreamed of meeting, can be particularly fertile ground. Also, it's important to talk about the groom in your toast as well, but what do you really know about him? Canvas his family and friends to find out more.

Know your audience

You have two audiences. One is the bride and groom. How do you make them happy? By not saying anything to make them uncomfortable on the most memorable day of their lives. At one recent New York wedding, the maid of honor thought the sweet thing to say about the groom, a successful financier, was that he was still a math geek at heart. Unfortunately, she didn't check first to find out how much he hated being called a math geek when he was younger and how little he wanted to hear it again at his wedding.

Your second audience is the assembled relatives and friends. How do you make them happy? By not playing blue. Stories of drunken revels and ridiculous relationships may be appropriate at the bachelorette party, but the wedding reception? That's a PG room. "Never embarrass anyone," Toastmasters advises. So cut the references to past relationships, especially sexually oriented ones. It's okay to say: "We all know Sally looked high and low for her Prince Charming. Steve, you are that prince." It's not okay to say: "We knew Steve was Sally's prince because he was the first guy who ever called her the next morning." Grandma doesn't need to hear that.

Get it on paper

Toastmasters wants to remind you that a toast is a speech, and so it should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and make sense throughout. When you actually stand up to speak, it's best just to have a single card with a few notes jotted down to help you remember key points or direct quotes you want to get right. But while you don't want to bring a full essay to the mike, it does help to write it all out ahead of time, so you can rehearse.

If you're not a poet, know it

Many wedding toasters aim for lyricism in song or rhyming poetry. That's a great idea, if it's you. But a direct, from-the-heart talk works as well, and you'd be surprised: The right turn of phrase can be as memorable as a rhyme. "Be sincere," Toastmasters advises, and be yourself. If what you've written doesn't sound like you, rewrite it.

Enter laughing, leave 'em crying

One of the classic rules of public speaking is to open with a joke. One of the classic rules of wedding toasting is to end by tugging on the heartstrings. If you can't be sentimental at a wedding, where can you? On the other hand, while a couple of well-placed jokes can win the crowd, you're not there to do a stand-up routine. If that's all the bride wanted, she would have hired Whoopi Goldberg, or maybe even a funny comic.

Timing is everything

How long should a wedding toast last? Toastmasters recommends three to four minutes. That probably translates to no more than five liberally double-spaced pages. Rehearse your toast with a stopwatch and see how long it takes. If it's five minutes or under, don't worry: Under the glare of the spotlight, you may speak faster, or you may decide to skip a section. Trust us: Company loves brevity. At one recent wedding, you could feel the champagne buzz flee the room when the best man approached the stage, pulled out a 15-page, single-spaced tome and started reading. If the couple's paying the band $1,000 an hour, and you take 30 minutes on your toast, well, you do the math.