Define the characteristics of a toast.
If you’ve found this page after a panicked web search of “how to give a wedding toast when you just got asked to be the maid of honor and you’re terrified of public speaking,” welcome. You’ve landed in the middle of an entire textbook on public speaking. We’ll try to get you up to speed.
Wedding toasts often loom large in our imagination as we think about public speaking situations. This perception might be because wedding toasts represent a distinctive (and potentially intimidating) combination of the elements of public speaking we’ve worked on throughout this course. The elements of public speaking for a wedding toast are:
- Audience: At a wedding, the audience is usually highly varied and diverse, from young children to great-grandparents. Some audience members have known the couple for years, others are distant relatives, co-workers, or guests of friends or relatives. We know that it’s important to tailor a speech to the audience—how do you do that if the audience is all over the place? The answer, in this case, is that this diverse audience has one thing in common: a connection to the couple being married. So that connection has to be our starting point. The other elements, such as differences in age and worldview, should act as guardrails for the content of the toast. Should you tell that hilarious but not-safe-for-work joke? Not while Aunt Ethel’s there. Is this a good time to give a fiery political speech? Probably not, considering how Grandpa Jake will react.
- Context: One of the trickiest tensions to negotiate in a wedding toast is the mix of tradition and individualism that goes into any wedding. Most weddings have some element of tradition in their structure or substance. If you’re asked to speak at a wedding, it’s a good idea to get a sense of how traditional the wedding is intended to be (and which traditions it’s drawing from). An online search suggests that, traditionally, wedding toasts in the U.S. follow a pattern like the following. As you read this list, think about all the ways a modern wedding might diverge from these assumptions:
- The father of the bride, who paid for the wedding, welcomes the guests, leads a toast to absent friends and family, and toasts the bride and groom.
- The groom thanks the hosts, thanks the guests for attending and for their gifts, says some loving words about his new wife, and offers a toast to the bridesmaids.
- The best man tells some funny stories about the groom, then says some heartfelt words before toasting the couple or the parents of the couple.
Most weddings, of course, will differ from this pattern, especially since all the speakers in the list above are men. More importantly, every family and every couple is different. What if there are two grooms or two brides? What if there’s a female best man? What if the couple paid for the wedding themselves? And so on. The most important thing to notice about “traditional” wedding toast order is that it ensures that everyone is recognized and thanked. Before preparing your speech, you should find out if there’s a particular person or group at the wedding you should acknowledge with your toast.
- Content: The content of your toast will depend on your role in the wedding, your relationship to the couple, the amount of time you have available, and the nature of the wedding. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that a casual wedding is a place for off-the cuff, unrehearsed remarks. As we’ve seen throughout this course, public speech—even impromptu public speech—is always more effective with some structure. You should think about your toast as having an introduction, body, and conclusion.
- Introduction: Introduce yourself. Then start your lead-in. You can start with a joke or a funny anecdote, though be sure to pay attention to the appropriateness of your humor for the crowd. Self-deprecatory humor might work well here, as does meta-humor (after all, the crowd expects you to say and do certain things; you can work with that). You can also say something sincere or heartfelt; a wedding toast doesn’t have to be funny, but it does have to be genuine.
- Body: Here’s where you need to think about the message you’re trying to get across. What do you want this audience to know about these people? When preparing your toast, brainstorm qualities or characteristics of the couple that you want to communicate. When you’ve chosen a few top qualities, think in terms of evidence. If you say the groom is kind and thoughtful, what are examples of that? Is there a story you can tell? Make sure you talk about both of the people being married, even if you know one of them better than the other. Stories and anecdotes are often the body of a wedding toast, but remember: they’re there as supporting material to prove your claim: that these excellent people are great for each other and have the love and support of their family and friends.
- Conclusion: In a toast, the conclusion is already baked in. After you wrap up the body of your speech, you get to the toast part. Raise your glass and saying something like, “Now lets all raise our glasses to. . . .” Many toasts include a wish for the future, such as “may your life together be full of love and laughter.” You can also use a quote here or tie the toast back into the themes of your speech. The most important thing is to be sincere, complimentary, and uplifting at the end of the speech.
- Delivery: Since wedding toasts take place amidst a lot of other moving parts, it’s key to get into it and out of it as seamlessly as possible. When it’s your turn to speak, be ready to go without hesitation or technical difficulties. You may be using a microphone, in which case you should try to test it out beforehand if possible to find the right volume and distance. Above all, practice before the event! It’s usually best to speak extemporaneously, memorizing only the key points of the speech and any lines that need to be delivered word for word (such as quotes).
To Watch: Christopher Conroy, Wedding toast
What to watch for:
In this wedding toast, Conroy sticks to a winning formula:
- Some gentle jokes, largely self-deprecating, with some meta-humor about bad wedding-speech jokes: “I’ve been preparing this toast for a long time. I hope it’s not too burnt! . . . pause for laughter . . .”
- A story about how the couple met: “I was actually with Vinny the very first time we met Danielle.”
- Complimentary words about the characteristics of the couple (including supporting evidence): “Vinny and Danielle are the kindest, most compassionate, and most genuine friends I have. I know firsthand that when you are down and out, they’re the people that will pick you up and get you back on your feet.”
- A description of the couple as a couple: “I know how they interact. . . . I’m kind of an expert on it. . . . I know that they really do love each other.”
- Uplifting words: “I also know that love is the only thing in this life that is truly worth fighting for.”
- A wish: “I wish you guys nothing but the best in this new journey.”
Other kinds of toasts:
At many formal dinners or dinner gatherings, it may be expected to give toasts. The nature of these toasts will be different depending on the situation, but what they have in common is that you say them while holding up a glass (and usually while your audience does too), which means that a toast should be short (this isn’t an endurance test!). Don’t put down the glass or drink from it before the toast is over; when it is, drink from the glass. Different cultures and contexts may have various customs around toasts. For instance, in some cultures it’s important to look people in the eye while clinking glasses. In others, one should drink everything in one’s glass after the toast. Some avoid toasting with water. And so on. If you’re at a formal dinner, it’s a good idea to know what the toasting protocols might involve.
Usually, toasts end with some kind of wish for the future, such as “May you live for as long as you want, and never want for as long as you live!” If you find yourself at a lot of formal dinners, it can be wise to memorize a go-to toast or two, whether heartfelt (“May your house always be too small to hold all our friends”) or humorous (“May your children have wealthy parents”).