The Human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public.
—Sir George Jessel
This English aristocrat and celebrated trial judge knew of where he spoke. And yet, the occasions where something is celebrated just seem to call for a few words.
Traditionally, the toast was good but boring, and the roast was bad but funny. Today, lines are somewhat blurred between a toast and a roast. In general, the more appropriately personal you can make either one, the more memorable it will be.
The body language of both toast and roast is to raise your glass with your right hand straight from the shoulder. This traditional toasting position indicated friendship in the days when swords or daggers were hidden in the right hand or sleeve for potential attack.
The best toasters and roasters are those who know us best. Recently, I went to a birthday party for a 40-year-old divorcee. Her ex-husband brought the house down while the other roasters were very forgettable.
First, he warmed us up when he said he'd been asked to represent all of the ex-husbands (he is the only one), past boyfriends, and one-night stands. Then, he described the true story of them as a young couple in their early 20s, habitually on game shows while struggling to make ends meet. He recounted fondly, and in detail, the time Janet hocked three dining room sets to pay the rent!
A roaster on another occasion merely mentioned, in headline fashion, the dramatic moments of the honorees' life leaving the stage for the guest of honor to tell his own great stories.
Depending on your time, talent, and resources, you can get very creative. One roaster I know, who can belt out opera with the best of them, arranged for a piano and piano player at a August retirement party. Her adaptation of "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess made everyone in the audience a little envious of the honoree's imminent summertime, when the livin' is easy.
Take a point of view (coworker, next-door neighbor, best friend in college, bride and groom's matchmaker, grew up together), and find something of value in it for the occasion. Trust the person who asked you or yourself for volunteering. There's an old saying in Hollywood, What's my motivation? Ask yourself, Why am I doing this? To get attention for myself or focus attention on the guest of honor? It always helps to know the motivation you have for speaking. What do you want to accomplish? Why are you interested in talking with this audience? What does it hold for you? What do you have for it? What funny, endearing things doesn't the audience know about the honoree.. .yet?
What will be added if you speak in this situation? What would be lost if you don't speak? Being clear about your motivation and what you can offer helps to give purpose, which helps to conquer fear.
A wedding is often the first opportunity most of us have to toast, or gently roast, our friends. An essential ingredient of any wedding, toasts have several functions, not the least of which is to bridge from the formal to informal. After a few toasters express the happy feelings of everyone, both the bride and the groom, and their friends and relatives can begin to relax and enjoy themselves.
The best man always begins the series of toasts by addressing the bride or bride and groom, and the father of the bride concludes them by welcoming everyone and commanding that the festivities begin.
With families being newly introduced to each other and the usual mix of generations, it's important to be humorous but appropriate. According to a survey in Modern Bride, nearly one in five brides were mortified by the best man's toast! A good rule of thumb is, when in doubt, leave it out.
The old standby of "unaccustomed as I am to this" is probably not going to win listeners over to your side either. It's also much too self-conscious. A wedding I recently went to featured a very young best man who pleaded with the audience for understanding, as it was the first toast of his career. The entire reception was pulling for him to pull it off, but his pulling it off was all that I remember — not whatever he said about the bride and the groom. It's their day; you should feature them instead of your own insecurity.
Again, ask yourself, What uniqueness can I add? Why am I here?
"Because I have to be" is not a good answer, although, it may be the first thing that comes to mind. The father of one groom, who was uncomfortable with the people who would be his son's new in-laws asked my screenwriting partner for help in crafting his rehearsal dinner toast. The KISS principle was never more necessary. "Keep It Short, Sweetheart."
Together, they explored that he really only wanted and needed to do three things: proclaim pride in his son, acceptance of his new daughter, and happiness in meeting her family.
This is what he said: "My son always strives for the very best. Whether through dumb luck or sheer determination, he has made no exception to that rule in taking a bride. He's always made me very proud, but never more happy that in choosing a wife of such fineness and grace. I am pleased to be joining with her family in celebrating these remarkable young people and the remarkable life they will have together."
My own dear father's simple and sincere toast at my wedding, which I still remember decades later, was, "May you always be as happy together as you are today."
And the wedding toast I traditionally give when it feels like more toasts are needed is a variation of the song "May You Always" with original words and music by Larry Markes and Dick Charles. Being careful not to race through it, I always take time to get the words across.
May you always walk in sunshine
Slumber warm when night winds blow
May you always live with laughter
For your smiles become you so
May you always be dreamers
May your wildest dreams come true
And may you have found someone to love
As much as we love you.
Traditionally, the men give the toasts, but with today's nontraditional families of single mothers, divorced matrons of honor, young grandmothers, and grown children, everyone who knows the couple is welcome. Here are some thoughts and phrases to work into your toasts.
For better or for worse, but never for granted.
Today, I have married my best friend.
If it weren't for marriage, men would spend our lives thinking we had no faults at all.
—Married best man
May you never forget what is worth remembering and never remember what is best forgotten.
—Mother of the bride
May "for better or worse" be far better than worse.
—Father of the groom
Mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote, "When you make a sacrifice in marriage, you are sacrificing not to each other, but to unity in a relationship."
—Mother of the groom
If you steal, may you steal one another's hearts. If you fight, may you fight for one another.
—Maid of honor
Martin Luther said, "There is no more lovely, friendly and charming relationship, communion or good company than a good marriage."
—Matron of honor
In The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran writes: "Think not that you can guide the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, guides your course."
Now will you drink with me.. .that your love guides you through life and echoes in eternity.
—Father of the bride
The entire sum of existence is the magic of being needed by just one other person.
—A single best man
Socrates said, "My advice to you is get married: if you find a good wife you'll be happy; if not, you'll become a philosopher."
—A divorced best man
Poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde, said, "Woman begins by resisting a man's advances and ends by blocking his retreat."
—A divorced best man
Marriages may be made in Heaven, but man is responsible for the maintenance work.
—A married best man
I share Goethe's wisdom with you, "We are shaped and fashioned by what we love."
—Grandmother of the groom
All women should know how to take care of children. Most of them will have a husband someday.
—Grandmother of the bride
A toast should always end with a formal indication to the guests that they should join you in toasting to Adam and Eve's happiness. "To Adam and Eve!"
An interesting addition to the 21st century are online books and services that professionally write for you or help you edit your own wedding toasts. According to the Wall Street Journal, there is big business for these services that offer to work magic in 24 hours and mostly under $100. Other online help provides fill-in-the-blank templates to help you get started.
For birthday toasts, I often borrow simple sentiments from birthday cards. My most recent favorite is, "To one who is much too young to be this old."
And there is no limit to the fun one-liners you will find at your favorite card store without spending a dime. Or instead of giving a good bottle of wine, buy up to three cards with great lines, use them in your toast, and give them as your gift. They will seem more personalized and last a lot longer than the wine.
Obviously, a toast can be a speech or simply raising a glass and offering a cultural tribute. In Sweden, it's "skol." Japan, it's "compai," and in Britain, it's "cheers." There is a rumor that to raise a glass of anything nonalcoholic is bad luck. Seems to me that missing a chance to wish someone well is a greater detriment to your karma than toasting with your beverage of choice.
If you are the recipient of a toast, you do not stand, raise your glass, or take a sip of your drink, but you do thank the toasters or at least smile and graciously nod. You are not obliged to propose a toast in return.