Raise a Glass With Class

(By Jacques Laplante For The Washington Post)

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By Julia Feldmeier
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 27, 2007

My sister's wedding is just 41 days away, and as her maid of honor, I have a few concerns. Like, will I trip walking down the aisle? Will I remember the names of my parents' friends? Is my navy bridesmaid's dress going to look good? (What, this day isn't about me?)

And, most important, will the toast I'm expected to give at the reception be appropriately funny, touching, tear-jerking -- and, above all, better than the best man's? Just sayin'.

Being asked to deliver a few words on behalf of the bride and groom is flattering, exciting and utterly unnerving. For one, it's public speaking. Add to that the pressure of executing a poignant and witty speech about people I love -- without bawling, shaking or, ahem, slurring -- and it's enough to send me running for the closest exit.

So, what's the trick to making a toast? Here's what experts have to say about the do's and don'ts of the deed:

STAY SOBER. It's obvious but true. And probably the reason my mother -- aware of my penchant for vodka tonics -- decided to move the toasts up from the dessert course to the salad course.

"I had one wedding where the bridesmaids, after quite a few drinks, got up and started telling stories about the bride that were really inappropriate," says Laura Weatherly, owner of Engaging Affairs, an Alexandria-based wedding planning service. "It pretty much ruined the wedding."

Drunkenness isn't always quite so dramatic, but if you think there's a chance that imbibing will prompt you to slur your words or say something even marginally offensive, why risk it? Ask the bride and groom when you'll be expected to speak. Many wedding planners say they like the toasts to take place during the last hour of the reception, after the cake is cut, which means you'll want to pace yourself.

GAUGE YOUR AUDIENCE. Since wedding receptions are usually less intimate than bachelor parties, showers and rehearsal dinners, you should tailor your toast so that it appeals to a broader audience.

"If there are a lot of children or great-grandmothers or people of another culture, that can give you a guide to what you would want to talk about," says Sarah McElwain, author of "To the Happy Couple: Creating a Great Wedding Toast With Style" (Chronicle Books, 2006). "Nobody's going to get the funny insider story that you and the bride and your friends might think is hilarious."

Also, even if you think you know everyone in the room, don't forget to introduce yourself, McElwain says.

POKE FUN -- CAREFULLY. I'd considered opening my toast by saying something like, "I never thought I'd see the day . . . when my father would pay for an open bar for 200 people." I thought it was a hoot, especially if you know my dad. My sister was horrified. Oops?

Though many experts say it's helpful to open with something lighthearted and funny, humor is tricky. "Until you've really practiced speaking, it can fall flat," says Steve McCardell, owner of Yourspeechwriter.com. "Try it out on people first. . . . What sounds good in your head may not sound good when you're actually saying it."

Tom Haibeck, author of "Wedding Toasts Made Easy" (Haibeck Communications Group, 2006), says it helps to start by making fun of yourself. Self-deprecation and teasing one-liners are much easier to deliver than, say, an elaborately constructed joke, he says. Ditto for amusing anecdotes, which are easier to remember because, presumably, you lived through it.

Whatever you do, make sure the humor isn't insulting. Sure, it's entertaining to poke fun, but make sure it's material your friends would want publicized. For instance, if Jim is perpetually late, teasing him for his tardiness (and marveling at the bride's ability to get him to the altar on time) might be funny and cute. Rehashing his frat boy antics is crass and awkward.

SHORT IS SWEET. It's great if you have a lot to say about the bride and groom, but save it for another day. A reception is a party, and people want to eat, drink and dance -- which they can't do when you're hogging the mike.

McElwain says most toasts should be no more than three minutes. That's roughly 500 words, though it's best to practice and time yourself. Ideally, the toast is short enough for the speaker to remember it cold or with the help of bullet points on index cards. Pages of prepared text will elicit groans from the audience, especially from wedding planners, who say long toasts are their nightmare.

"They're the bane of my existence," says Bonnie Schwartz, a Bethesda-based planner who recently had a situation in which the maid of honor and the best man gave toasts that, combined, lasted 45 minutes. "That was an entire dance set," Schwartz says. "And the toast was awful, too."

KEEP IT PERSONAL. Schwartz says that during her recent wedding toast disaster, she caught the photographer laughing to himself: He'd heard the exact same toast at a wedding he'd worked the previous week.

Awww. How generic.

The best toasts are those that help the audience understand your relationship with the newlyweds -- as well as their relationship with each other.

Carol Marino, owner of A Perfect Wedding in Fairfax, says her favorite toast was one in which the best man spoke of a trip he and the groom had taken to Australia. The two had lain out under the stars and talked about the kind of women they'd like to marry. Years later, when the best man met the then-new girlfriend, he knew instantly that she was the one with all the qualities his friend had described in Australia.

The best man "had just enough humor and just enough relationship stuff," Marino says. "You really felt like you were getting to know the groom through his eyes."

Experts say it's personal details that make or break a toast, not whether your delivery is the most brilliant. Be sure to nod to both the bride and the groom -- it's a toast to their marriage, after all. And, of course, "remember to actually do the toast part," Marino says. "People get so into their little speech, they forget to raise a glass or sip the champagne."

So, raise that glass! To the happy couple! And to a toast well done! (Now, Mom, will you please hand me back my vodka tonic?)


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