It’s the holidays. You’ll be attending neighborhood parties, business celebrations, and year-end events. In many of these settings, people will give toasts. The toast may be a simple “thank you” to the host, or it could involve a more formal recognition of an individual’s or group’s professional accomplishment over the year. Regardless of the purpose, you want your toast to be tasteful and contribute to the festivities, not be a distraction or low point in the evening. Here are a few tips on both the delivery and the content of your toast.
Some people have no problem raising a glass and saying a few choice words in a manner that sounds spontaneous and fun. Some of us, however, equate giving a toast with “public speaking,” and know that we don’t enjoy having the focus on us. Here’s a simple concept regarding public speaking: except for singing in the shower, all speaking is public speaking. There’s always someone there to hear your words. If you can speak comfortably to one person, you can extrapolate that to a crowd, and speak comfortably to a few dozen people, or even hundreds.
When giving a toast in front of a crowd, don’t scan the room. If you are looking at everyone, you’re not looking at anyone. You’ll get distracted, which will heighten any nervousness you feel. Instead of scanning, look at one person for a complete thought. Each individual sentence should be delivered to only one person. If you maintain your eye contact for a full thought per person, you will automatically relax and sound more conversational.
A toast should be short and pithy. It’s not a testimonial or a speech. When someone says, “Jack, we’d like you to say a few words at the company’s holiday party,” hear special emphasis on the word few. No one has ever asked, “Would you co-opt the party and keep people from enjoying the hors d’oeuvres by talking for a really long time?”
Select one or two ideas on which to comment: the quality of the food, the great performance of the team this year, the chance to spend time with co-workers or friends in an unhurried environment, or the simple pleasures for which we should all be grateful. If it’s an office party, don’t try to address every accomplishment of the group that year, or reflect on the success of key initiatives. If you start down that path you can’t stop until you’ve covered everything. Save that for the year-end staff meeting, not the party. One notable exception: you have to acknowledge the team that organized and executed the party itself. It’s the most appropriate time to express your gratitude to them.
If it’s a toast at a social gathering, you’ll need to acknowledge the hosts, comment on the wonderful food and beautiful décor, and ask everyone to raise a glass in thanks. A few sentences are all that’s needed.
Avoid any sarcasm or inside jokes. If you’re naturally funny, it will show, and that’s great. But don’t try to be funny if it doesn’t come naturally. Chances are, it won’t land the way you intended.
You’ll be most successful if you simply speak from the heart about how you feel at the moment. That said, if you know ahead of time that you will be giving a toast and you are uncomfortable in that setting, it’s perfectly acceptable to find an appropriate poem or saying that sums up your feelings about the event or the group. Introduce it by saying, “As I’ve reflected on the year we’ve had, I thought of this poem by Robert Frost (or Emily Dickinson, Maya Angelou, E.E. Cummings, etc.).” Then just read the poem. If you’re not a wordsmith, the people around you already know that. You look thoughtful and engaged by having found the right sentiment when you know crafting it yourself isn’t your strength. It will still come across as personal.
A final word of caution: dirty limericks, or parodies of dirty limericks are not appropriate at most holiday functions. Save them for the next bachelor or bachelorette party. If any part of your brain is questioning whether the poem, story or comment is appropriate, heed that voice in your head and skip the story.
Participating in a Toast
Sometimes toasts are difficult for guests that aren’t delivering the message. If you are in the room when a toast is given and you don’t drink alcohol, there can be an awkward moment when everyone lifts a glass and you stand there with your arms by your side, feeling left out, or highlighting the fact you don’t drink. When you go to a party or event, assume that at some point someone is going to make a toast. Head off this issue by making sure you have a glass in hand with whatever you are comfortable drinking. A glass of water with ice and a slice of lime looks very festive. Then, when the champagne is passed around, your hands are already full and you’re ready to join in the celebration.
It’s a party, so have fun! If you keep the toast short and simple, you and your audience will enjoy it more.
Here’s to you!
Jay Sullivan is the author of Simply Said: Communicating Better at Work and Beyond.