It's the wild card of every big event — the toast.
It could be the drunk groomsman at the wedding or the rambling colleague at the retirement party. Perhaps, it's the friend who brings up politics or religion when they've been explicitly asked not to.
For stand-up comedian Atsuko Okatsuka, it was her father-in-law at her wedding. "And then he suddenly goes, I see there's a big Asian contingency here." The moment he brought up race, everyone went quiet.
"It's like a kid when they're playing I Spy, you know. 'I spy a door,' 'I spy this guy.' That's what he did. 'I spy Asians'," she says. "Then he tried to save himself. He went, 'and I love the Asians!'"
It's a memorable toast – but maybe not in the way Okatsuka had hoped. If you're giving a new year's toast, or any other toasts this coming year, we've got some tips to make sure people remember your toast with fondness and not horror. (The following rundown, broken down into T-O-A-S-T, comes from author and award-winning speaker Ramona J. Smith.)
T — Tell a story
There's a simple formula to a good toast: Introduce yourself, tell a story, connect that story to the event and wrap it up (time to hit the dance floor!) The biggest challenge is choosing the right story for the occasion and audience.
Journalist Clare Roth, who has been to 36 weddings, says recording memories on voice memos was particularly helpful. For the occasion, she landed on this sweet and short story:
"There's an anecdote in my mother's diary from when I was three months old, where she heard my sister shout, 'I can't carry you anymore, baby!' And she came out and she was holding me by my skull and I had twigs and leaves in my hair because apparently she had dropped me a few times already. ... It's just so demonstrative of how she will charge ahead, but she wants you to be right there with her. ... And that's why she's going to be such an amazing wife."
Roth says this anecdote worked for the occasion, because it was not only "demonstrative of the relationship that my sister and I had but also related to how she would be as a partner."
Once you share an intimate but relatable anecdote, you can close with a lighthearted joke or offer your best wishes.
O — Optimism is key
"Don't give a sad story and leave everyone crying, especially if it's at a beautiful wedding or at a baby shower or somewhere where the mood is already festive," says Smith.
Smith is the 2018 winner of the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking. The opening of her award-winning speech was bleak — it highlighted her personal and professional failures. But with humor and optimism, she continued discussing how those experiences have failed to knock her down – by the end of her speech, the audience was singing along with her to Elton John's I'm Still Standing.
Smith compares her craft of speech writing to spicy chicken wings – "Just dip [the audience] in the hot sauce for a little bit and then we gonna cool off with the ranch."
A — Authenticity and vulnerability are better than humor
Dan Perlman is a stand-up comedian, but when it comes to making toasts, "the more successful toasts I've given have been ones where I was vulnerable," he says.
When he spoke at his childhood friend's wedding this summer, he shared an anecdote about them playing basketball and growing up together. Perlman did manage to find an opportunity for some subtle teasing — but remember, it's a toast, not a roast!
S — Speeches require practice
Try reading your speech aloud before you give it live. Even consider sharing it with a trusted friend or family member to look it over.
If you have stage fright, standup comedian Okatsuka has a tip for that: tell yourself that you aren't nervous but rather, too excited. "So instead of shaking from the nerves or feeling a pit in your stomach from the nerves, it turns into butterflies from excitement," she says.
While you're delivering your speech, find an audience wingperson. "Focus on people in the audience who are paying attention and are giving good energy," says Perlman.
You could even ask a friend ahead of time to be this person for you!
And if you get thrown off track while speaking, don't forget: "You're allowed to stop and think. You're allowed to pause and breathe," says Ana Silva.
Silva, who teaches and performs improv, also points out that there are certain elements you cannot control when giving a toast. Just as stand-up comedy has hecklers, wedding toasts have drunk audiences.
"If it's something that is disrespectful in a rude way, I think shutting it down immediately is fantastic," she says. "If it's someone who's just really excited and wants to be part of it. I think a light touch is fine. ... 'I'm so glad cousin Susie is in on this. Let me keep going, Susie.'"
Silva also says that if you're in the audience, you have a role to play as well. "It's all about supporting the people around you." Remember to be generous with your attention, laughter, and applause.
T — Timing. Shorter is better
"I've never been annoyed that a toast is too short," says Perlman, who recommends keeping it between 90 seconds to two minutes.
Wedding enthusiast Roth suggests a range of two to three minutes. "No one is going to get angry about being able to drink their champagne sooner," she says.
Point is, we all have short attention spans. When you practice reading your speech aloud, make sure that you time yourself.
Never drink before a toast
If there is one guaranteed way to ensure that you do not bomb this toast, it's this piece of wisdom from Smith: "Never drink alcohol before you give a speech," she says. "You don't want to slur. You don't want to come off as sloppy."
Drinking can also make you prone to rambling on too long, or throwing in an inappropriate, unnecessary joke, so it's best to avoid it altogether.
Don't wait for the perfect occasion
Toasts are a way to tell people you love them. And Roth says, we don't do that enough. "More toasts please!" she says. "It is wonderful to say the quiet part out loud, when the quiet part is... the love you have for your friends and family. Let's bring toasts back in fashion."
The podcast portion of this story was produced by Clare Marie Schneider. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.
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