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How to Give a Great (and Memorable) Toast

We’ve all been there: Cringing through an endless, or obnoxious, or embarrassing, or inappropriate, or just plain self-absorbed toast. And it’s no easier on the other side: It can be impossible to figure out what to say on what is often the most important day of someone’s life. You want to be funny, you want to be kind, you want to be poignant, and you want to bring the audience along for the ride—no small feat. To that end, we asked two great—and very different—writers for some tips.

Liz Flahive

Liz Flahive is a playright, screenwriter, and TV writer who is currently staffed on Homeland (before that, she was an executive producer on Nurse Jackie). She can turn out dialogue that’s both funny and profound, that always manages to strike at what it means to be human.

  1. First. Ask the person who asked you to speak about what they want. Short and sweet. Short and funny. Short and meaningful. Long and meaningful with specific details or stories. Slide show with commentary.

  2. Sometimes/mostly they will say: Whatever you want, you’re great at this, freedom 90. However, be honest if you suck at speaking publicly. A very outgoing and funny friend declined to give a toast at our wedding because he weirdly gets very nervous speaking publicly. And I’m glad he told me.

  3. Why me? Why now? This is a dumb question but like most dumb questions it can be weirdly helpful as an organizing principle. Why are you the one standing up here? Why is your relationship to this person special? What point of view on this person or people can you offer?

  4. Think about your speech as something with a beginning, middle, and end. A speech is something that can take your audience on a journey. Where do you start? Where do you take us? And where do you leave us at the end?

  5. Make it personal. Be specific. Tell us something we don’t already know.

  6. Quotes. Now, I personally hate quotes. Quotes are a crutch unless they are deeply meaningful—the minute someone start quoting Rilke, I tune out. However, I remember a wedding speech that began with the speaker quoting the lyrics to the Family Ties theme song in their entirety. It worked like a charm. Some people caught on right away. Some were slow to get the amazing joke. But by the end we all knew what was happening, and we joined in together and said “sha na na naaaah.” And it was like some sort of ’80s benediction. And it was magic.

  7. Use notes. Discard at will. But unless you’ve given a bunch of TED talks, maybe have something written down on an index card just in case you freeze up.

  8. If you get emotional, take a beat. Then pull it together. And keep going.

Albertina Rizzo

Albertina Rizzo has been one of Jimmy Fallon’s writers since 2012 (first at Late Night, now The Tonight Show), meaning that she writes about 200 pretty hilarious jokes a week—many of which cross the line, in the best possible way.

I’ve been asked to give a toast or two at weddings, birthdays, baby showers, criminal depositions, etc. In any case, it’s always a privilege and an honor. But no matter how big or small the occasion, giving a toast is always terrifying. Luckily, I think I’ve figured out some helpful tips, all of which I made up as I wrote this and could actually be terrible advice. My apologies in advance.

  1. Drink alcohol. Some people will tell you this is a mistake before giving a toast, but those people have never been bored at a party. Do yourself a favor and loosen up with a cocktail or four. The key is to drink just enough to help you get through it…sort of like you would need to for sex or, in my case, for literally every other activity in life.

  2. Say something embarrassing. Let me clarify, by “embarrassing” I don’t mean announcing to the room that you shat your Spanx. What I mean is, let guests in on a mildly humiliating anecdote about the lady or man of the hour. Though nothing so bad that they’ll hate you for it (i.e.: Remember how you can’t tell Asians apart?) Make it light. For example, my friend canceled a date with her future husband because she burned her lip biting into a jalapeno popper and feared he’d think she had full-blown mouth herpes. That would’ve been a great story to tell at my friend’s wedding, but that “friend” is me…and my lip is fine now, thanks.

  3. Keep it tight. Here’s one reason people get bored during toasts: They’re too long. You’re not Winston Churchill, so try to trim the fat (Winston Churchill was also pretty fat, FYI, so this analogy works.) Figure out what you want to say and then cut it by half. I went to a wedding where the maid of honor began her speech with a story about a girls trip to Amsterdam and followed it with an excruciating forty minutes on how a therapy dog helped her overcome her narcissistic personality disorder (true story). Needless to say, that dog killed itself (guessing?)—I can only deduce that from the fact that that’s what most of the guests wanted to do at the time.

  4. Keep the inside jokes inside. Don’t make like The Babysitter’s Club. You can’t just let two people in on something while everyone else is left out of the loop. I’m not sure if that’s how The Babysitter’s Club worked, but based on the bitchy looking girls on the covers of those books, I’m going to go ahead and say “yes.” Point is, remember everyone is listening, so make them feel included and save the private jokes for your next sleepover.

  5. Try to memorize as much as possible. Reading a line here and there off a piece of paper is fine, but try to keep it to a minimum, otherwise you end up sounding like you’re reading the world’s least effective hostage letter.

  6. Sincerity is key. People can tell when someone is trying too hard, so stay true to who you are. Say things the way you would say them. I have a friend who, bless her heart, has the language skills of your run of the mill goon, yet she managed to throw in the word “Apropos” in her toast. This is a girl who never drinks wine without gum in her mouth and suddenly she’s talking like the goddamn lady of the manor. The whole speech sounded like she’d been in a thesaurus explosion. People love you for who you are. Be that.

  7. End on a high note. Truth be told, most people only listen to a toast for the first two minutes and last two minutes, so make those count. The rest of the time you could probably get away with reading an Apple iTunes agreement without anyone even noticing. Just open with something fun and close with something sweet. So with that said, “I always knew you could give a great toast, [INSERT YOUR NAME HERE]. Cheers to you.”

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