1. Make it short.
This could be rules number one, two, and three. No more than three minutes. “I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘I felt like there was way too much time for dancing and catching up and not enough long toasts,’ ” says comedian, actor, and writer Nick Kroll. To avoid rambling, coordinate with the band so you get a subtle sign (say, a quiet guitar strum) when you hit the three-minute mark.
2. Write it down…
No matter how great your memory is, you’re probably going to go blank the minute you get to the mic, so put pen to paper. “But no one wants to stare at a sheet of torn legal paper,” says etiquette blogger Anna Post, great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post. “Choose discreet index cards that won’t distract from the words.” If you print your toast, try a clean font like Arial, capitalized and double-spaced, then glue it to the cards. Make the font big enough so that there are no more than six lines per card, so you won’t lose your place.
3. …But look around.
Guests grow restless when there’s no eye contact; rehearse “ten to fifteen times,” until you’ve got the bare bones of it in your head, says Bob Lehrman, former speechwriter for Al Gore and author of The Political Speechwriter’s Companion. It’s a party, after all, not a PowerPoint presentation.
4. And tell a story…
“People don’t want to hear generalizations about how your friend is loyal and loving,” Lehrman says. “They want stories illustrating those points.” Toasts should have an arc: State a problem (“I’d just transferred to NYU and didn’t know a soul aside from April”), introduce a struggle (“My birthday was coming up and I was sad to be away from all my friends”), and end with a solution (“Despite barely knowing me, April threw me a surprise party. And that’s where I met my own husband!”). “Don’t use clichéd quotes from Shakespeare,” says public-speaking coach Annie Korzen. “Everyone will know you looked it up in a book.” It should go without saying that past relationships are not appropriate toast fodder.
5. …A nice story.
“As we say in politics: Singe, don’t burn. The maid of honor might think it’s funny to say, ‘It’s so great Ann has found Mr. Right. She’s sure had a lot of Mr. Right Nows!’ At a wedding, that’s a burn,” Lehrman notes. Jokes are also verboten. “You may be funny,” Korzen says, “but humor is something else.” A few punch lines are good, but don’t allude to inside jokes (“Raise your hand if you like Ann’s meatloaf!”) or topics that most of the guests won’t understand. Chances are, Grandma won’t get your reference to the latest YouTube sensation.
6. Definitely throw some love to the parents.
“They probably contributed financially, and will love to hear that their daughter’s friends admire them,” Lehrman says. “And don’t forget about the groom’s parents. Half the room is filled with his family.”
7. And don’t kill the vibe.
Deliver the toast once the entrées are served. Cue the waitstaff to pour the bubbly beforehand, so glasses are full. The bride and groom should remain seated for the speech, and while you’re not supposed to drink to yourself, “if you take a sip it’s not the end of the world,” Post says.