Toasting the bride and groom? Be sure to put in a little prep time to save face

At the end of each semester, I always tell students that I’m available if they need some guidance or an extra set of eyes on something they’re writing for another class in the future. Two former students have taken me up on this offer in the past three years. However, in the past two weeks, two former students have asked if I could help them write wedding toasts, one for his brother’s wedding and another for his father’s. I met with one last week and will meet with the other in the next few days. Clearly, I need to adjust my syllabus.

Late last year, I was the best man for a friend’s wedding in New Jersey. I didn’t really map out what I was going to say in advance until about 10 minutes beforehand, which is always a mistake, and pretty much winged it. Amazingly, it worked out. It helped that Frank, the groom, has been a great friend for almost 30 years. It also helped that this was the second time I was his best man, the first being at his wedding more than 20 years prior. Most helpful was the fact that I was on a whirlwind road trip with my oldest son to check out some East Coast schools on the way to the wedding. When it came time for the toast, I started with that, admitting that even though the reason for our trip was the wedding itself, it had become secondary to the college tours. I talked about how much I enjoyed the time with my son Eliot, how great it was to be spending this time with him, how much I valued this small amount of time with even one member of my family. I segued into how I met Frank, how despite our geographic difference, we remained close. I talked about how I considered him family, and how honored I felt to be part of this new beginning for him – at the onset of this life with his new family. I got caught in the moment and unexpectedly got choked up as I said all this, maybe because I hadn’t already gone over it 100 times in my head.

There is a value to spontaneity when giving a speech in a personal setting. You react to the moment, the people around you. While I spoke, Frank was sitting on my right with his wife and Eliot was sitting at a table just to my left, illustrative bookends to the value I place on friends and family in my own life, and the interchangeable ways I value each faction. I felt it and just went with it, adjusting my toast accordingly.

Of course, once it was finished, I thought of 10 more things I could have said, realizing that if I put more prep time in, I would have been better off. But it was an in-the-moment toast, one that Frank appreciated and one that I felt continued the grand tradition of honoring the start of a new couple’s life together.

If you’re asked to toast someone, it’s a responsibility you shouldn’t take lightly. Many of us have sat at weddings with our champagne glasses at the ready, humorously horrified at the death-march toast of the best man, maid of honor or parent of the bride or groom. Of course, stage fright has a lot to do with it. But there’s also the danger of over- or under-thinking the process. I told my former student to think of an anecdote that best described his brother, his soon-to-be sister-in-law and to use that as the basis for what he wanted to say. After 30 minutes or so, he figured out a framework. It may seem like a lot of time to brainstorm over something so cliche, but it can be an important moment. I was actually excited that he asked me to be a part of the process.

Anyway, we’ve done plenty of wedding stories in the past several years. Here’s one I wrote a while ago with some wedding-toast tips.

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For some, giving a toast at a wedding in front of a large group of people can be the stuff of nightmares.

You know the one — you’re standing dry-mouthed in front of a crowd, struggling to get the words out while people cringe but ultimately refuse to look away, afraid to miss a moment of the prolonged awkward moment playing itself out in real time right in front of them.

“People have a fear of speaking in public for the most part, and when the stakes are as high as a wedding, the attention is only multiplied,” says Tad Lahiri, a presentation consultant in Boulder, Colo. “You want to say the right thing and you want to do so in a way that will have people patting you on the back for a job well done.”

Receiving some pats on the back was part of Alex Nisson’s plan when he offered a toast to his brother Larry and his wife Nicole, but it didn’t turn out that way.

“You could call it a disaster,” says Nisson, an accountant who lives in Hamburg, N.Y. “I figured I would wing it and speak from the heart, but when it came time to give the toast, I couldn’t think of anything to say. I spent most of my speech saying how much my family liked Nicole. I really blew it.”

To avoid blunders like Nisson’s — and the ensuing guilt that comes with it — Lahiri suggests mapping out a game plan for your toast well in advance.

“You need to write a speech the same way you would have written one in high school,” Lahiri says.

Plan it out

To give a classy and heartfelt send-off to the bride and groom, Lahiri suggests adhering to the following guidelines:

-Be original: “If the same crowd has seen the scenario where the best man asks for all the other women in the groom’s life to return his keys, and a line forms with young and old women alike, you won’t get away with doing it again,” says Lahiri. “You’ve been entrusted to say something special about the happy couple. Don’t count on a cliché or a joke to do it for you.”

-Be careful: The bride’s parents don’t need to know about the daughter’s lost week in Cancun or the son-in-law’s string of unsuccessful relationships, so don’t bring them up. You may get a few cheap laughs, but it’s not the way to honor someone on her — or his — important day.

-Be honest: Tell a quick anecdote about how the couple met, or how the bride or groom described their significant other to you during the early stages of their relationship. “A wedding is based on the love a couple has for each other,” Lahiri says. “Illustrate that with a story about the couple. If you can’t think of any, ask someone else close to the bride and groom or invite someone to co-toast with you.”

-Be sincere: A wedding toast isn’t the place for a fraternity chant or flippant comment. You’re one of many people who are important to the couple. “Go ahead and share your feelings and your happiness,” says Lahiri. “It’s an emotional day. No one’s going to laugh or scold you if you get caught up in the moment.”

-Be brief: You shouldn’t need 15 minutes to make your point, so get to the toast quickly, but not at the expense of shorting a good story about the happy couple. “And don’t tell people to raise their glasses until you’re ready to close the deal,” says Lahiri. “There’s nothing worse than a best man or maid of honor who tells people to raise their glasses to the bride and groom, and then proceeds to ramble on for another 10 minutes.”

-By Marco Buscaglia