“So you’ve moved back to the city,” I greeted Paddy when he joined me at our usual table at our favourite coffee shop.
“Yep,” he said. “It’s a long story, but right now I need some advice.”
“About?” I queried.
“I have to propose a toast to my old friend Derek Johnston at his retirement party next week. Knowing your obsession with public speaking you probably have rules about toasting.”
“Yes,” I admitted as Paddy retrieved a notebook and pen from his jacket pocket.
“The first thing to consider,” I said, “is whether you should even do it. In this case, though, I think you’re fine because you meet all the criteria.”
“Which are what?” Paddy asked as he opened his notebook and clicked his pen.
“A toast is just a mini-speech,” I answered, “so the criteria are the same as for any other talk. You have to know what you’re talking about, you have to fervently believe in what you’re going to say, and you have to want to say it.”
“So, how do I meet them?” he inquired while scribbling furiously.
“You know Derek well, I’m sure there are praiseworthy things you’d like to say about him, and I know you realize that it’s an honour to be asked,” I told him.
“I’ve sat through some pretty bad toasts,” Paddy observed. “Would the cause be that the toasters shouldn’t have been toasting?”
“Almost certainly,” I concurred. “If any of the three criteria doesn’t apply, for example not knowing the person well or having no strong feelings about the event, even an accomplished speaker should decline the request. If you propose a toast in these circumstances, everyone, and particularly the guest of honour, will know you’re just playing a role, and your participation will in no way enhance the event, nor your reputation for that matter; in fact, it’s apt to diminish both.”
“Should I write out the toast?” Paddy asked next.
“Whether you’re going to speak off-the-cuff, use notes, or speak from a marked-up script, in every speaking situation it’s a good idea to initially write out your remarks in full.”
“Why?” he asked as I took a sip of coffee.
“Writing it out in full allows you to edit, organize, and time your remarks. It also helps you rehearse it.”
“I have to rehearse it?” Paddy moaned.
“Even a very short toast should be rehearsed,” I advised, “if for no other reason than to identify and revise cumbersome phrasing and to eliminate words that you might have difficulty pronouncing.”
“Makes sense,” Paddy muttered and then asked, “and what about length?”
“Short and to the point,” I told him. “And furthermore, everything you say should be both relevant and interesting. Keeping a toast short, relevant, and interesting allows you to avoid the most common trap that toasters fall into, which is talking about themselves. The audience wants to hear about the person being toasted, not about the toaster. But, if the emcee doesn’t establish the relationship between you and Derek, then you should.”
“How long should it be?” Paddy prodded
“The length of a toast depends entirely on the nature of the event and your relationship with the person being toasted. If your toast is just one of many, you should keep it very short – not more than a minute or two. On the other hand, if you’re the only toaster, five minutes would be acceptable, provided that all your remarks are relevant and interesting.”
“I’ve been thinking about a couple of jokes to tell,” Paddy said.
“Don’t!” I shouted, attracting the attention of the whole place.
Lowering my voice somewhat, but still at an admonishing level, I went on, “Never, ever, tell a joke when proposing a toast. As a matter of fact, I can’t think of any speaking situation in which telling a joke is appropriate.”
“You obviously feel strongly about that!” Paddy reacted. “What’s wrong with telling a joke?”
“Three things,” I advised him. “First, most people are not really good joke tellers. Second, if you’ve heard it, most of the audience will have probably already heard it as well. And, most important, these days even the most benign joke is likely to offend someone, and there’s no point offending even one person in the audience. But, it’s fine to include an amusing anecdote involving the person being toasted, particularly if it helps establish your personal relationship.”
“Anything else?” Paddy asked.
“Yes,” I said, “Don’t look at Derek until the very end of your toast. Instead, make eye contact with all parts of the audience until you ask them to join you in the toast. Then raise your glass, turn to Derek, and conclude your remarks, emphatically and clearly, with “To our friend Derek!”
“I guess I can handle that,” Paddy offered as he put away his pen and notebook and got up to leave.
“Nice to have you back,” I told him. “When are you going to tell me the long story?”
“Nice to be back,” he replied without answering my question.