Chances are, someday you'll be called on to raise a glass and offer a toast, probably at a lifecycle event like a wedding or bar mitzvah. Will you be ready? Will you remember the main points you wanted to make? Or will you end up with glass in hand and foot in mouth?
The toast is primarily a way to say thank you and offer good wishes -- thank you to guests for coming, to hosts for inviting you, to celebrants for including you among their friends and to offer best wishes for the future. If you're smart, you'll think about what you're going to say well in advance, before partying and high spirits have lessened your ability to think fast and intelligently. Jotted notes and a little practice will help avoid panic when your big moment arrives.
Helene Popowski, a party-planning consultant, counsels her wedding clients to keep toasts short and sweet -- and hopefully warm and heartfelt.
"I suggest a maximum of two toasts, one from the father of the bride and one, if you want it, from the best man. I tell the father of the bride that he is speaking for everyone. He should welcome them, praise the wonderful job his wife did in organizing the occasion, tell his daughter how beautiful and radiant she looks, and welcome his new son into the family," she said.
When it comes to the best man, she suggests that long stories about the couple's childhood and romance be reserved for the rehearsal dinner.
"The wedding is no place for crude humor and lengthy speeches," Popowski added.
Perhaps the best strategy when it comes to delivering a toast is to play it safe. One's thoughts should be well-prepared, simple and brief -- without information of a personal or intimate nature that might embarrass the honorees, their families or their guests.
Other tips to remember:
• Be sincere. Your own thoughts, in your own words, caring and loving, will be remembered more than a slick limerick. After all, you were chosen to make a toast because of your closeness to the honorees. Of all people, you should be able to be complimentary and affectionate on their big day.
• Connect with your subjects. If it's a bride and groom, make eye contact. If it's their parents, find them in the crowd and acknowledge them. If it's a bar or bat mitzvah child, keep the words on his or her level ... and no off-color comments ever.
• Keep it noncontroversial. No sex, politics or religion. This isn't Hannity and Colmes, but a tribute to a happy occasion.
• Be upbeat. Be serious if you must, in briefly mentioning a recently departed parent or close friend, but don't dwell on sadness or how unhappy you are to lose your best friend to a new bride.
• Always be positive. So what if you can't stand her groom. Be gracious and remember the old saying, "If you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all." This is not the time to talk about old escapades or unfilled expectations.
• Don't be pompous or self-absorbed. It's their day, nobody wants to hear your long-winded musings on the meaning of life.
• Be sober, at least somewhat. A drunken blather is no compliment to anyone. Toasts are to be sipped, not chugged. And remember to raise your glass to the honorees before sipping yourself.
• Be gently funny if it fits your personality, but not raucous. And never, ever use hurtful humor to make people laugh. Calling the bride by the groom's old girlfriend's name is not apt to endear you to either of them. And vulgar language, lewd references and bathroom humor are always out of place at festive occasions, unless you're proposing a toast at a bachelor party, and maybe even then. Just remember not to say anything you wouldn't want your own mother to hear coming out of your mouth.
What to do if you're really uncomfortable speaking in public? Other than practicing ahead of time, you have a few options: Read something by someone else, a Bible passage, a Shakespearean sonnet or the couple's favorite love poem. Make it very short and sweet: L'Chaim! (to life). Or write out your short toast and read it. Don't try to speak extemporaneously if you're nervous. Don't try to speak at all if you're drunk. If you're really, really bad with words, you can ask a friend for help, or try the Internet, where a number of Web sites will gladly write a toast for you, for a fee, of course.
When it comes to weddings, traditionally the best man offers the first toast. It's considered polite for everyone in the room to stop drinking and hold their glasses in anticipation of the toast. At a formal wedding, the bride and groom should not toast themselves, but rather allow their guests to offer the toasts.
Sometimes the bride's father makes the first toast, acknowledging the bride and groom. The groom then replies with his own toast. But whatever order you decide upon, just remember to let the toasts be short and sweet, honoring the occasion and those gathered to help celebrate the joy of the day.