Just when you least expect it: you’re asked to give a toast at an event. You may have a few minutes’ notice – or a few days. You may be acknowledging a retiring colleague or celebrating a major corporate milestone; presiding over your dining room table or a major meeting. Whatever it is, you’d just rather not have to get up and do it.
Fear not. After Hours is here to save you, once again, from a potentially embarrassing professional situation. Read on for don’ts and dos you need to know before you stand up and say cheers.
First of all, let go of any pressure you feel to be funny. You don’t have to crack hilarious jokes – in fact, you probably shouldn’t. Unless you’re a practiced comedian or otherwise quite sure of yourself and your audience, skip the silliness.
“Humour can be used,” says expert Joel Sweeney, a long-time member of Toastmasters and owner of Professionally Speaking. “But I’d advise erring on the side of caution on that one, especially for the first-timer. You don’t want to misread the audience or run the risk of offending anyone. Not everyone can deliver funny.”
One person who can deliver funny is Jonny Harris. The comedian and actor (CityTV’s Murdoch Mysteries) has been called upon to speak at more than one public or corporate event – and he’s got sensible advice to pass along.
“Not a lot of people are really good at speaking off the top of their head and people who can, usually know it,” says Harris. “So if you have any doubts about your ability to dazzle your colleagues off the cuff, don’t. Be prepared.”
That last sentiment is echoed by every communications coach or consultant I’ve spoken to. You’re probably not going to be brilliant without some pre-planning, so don’t try it. Certainly not in front of the work crowd.
Sweeney advises finding out as much about the event and the situation as possible before the day of the toast. How many people will be there? What’s the venue like? How formal is the occasion? Will you be standing at your seat or moving to a mic? “Knowing all about the event will help you demystify it,” says Sweeney.
Then, prepare what you’re going to say. Keep it simple, concise, and, most importantly, on-topic. One key story or anecdote is OK. A toast is like most public speaking obligations, points out Harris: “You don’t need to memorize a speech word for word, but jot down three points that will matter to the people you are talking to and hit those three points. If you think one of your three points is funnier, more poignant, or most impressive, finish with that one.” (This is “the closer.”)
“This way when you’ve finished, you know it and you are not hanging in the breeze searching and stammering and looking for something else to say just to end with ‘well … I guess that’s all!”
OK, OK. Back up a bit. After you pick your key points and before you get to your closer, there is a toast to give and some things to watch out for. Sweeney runs through his list.
First: drink a bit of water. Once you stand to give your toast, Sweeney points out, you can’t be sneaking any sips. That will just confuse people waiting to do the same.
Stand up. Ask everyone to join you. Leave your glass on the table. Take a deep breath to calm your nerves – “three or four seconds might seem an eternity for you while you’re standing there, but it really isn’t” – and wait for everyone to get up; don’t start talking while there’s clattering and rustling and shuffling. Your toast is concise, right? You don’t want people to miss a word.
Give the toast. Unless circumstances require it, don’t stray from your plan. Tell your story, reveal some history … two or three minutes, tops … and then pick up your glass. Once again, invite everyone to join you.
“Toasts have changed a lot in the past 15-20 years,” says Sweeney. There is more ad hoc or informal toasting, celebrating everything from a major award to a favourite NHL team winning a game. “But at a more formal event, you will have the opportunity to prepare. Take advantage of it.”
So, cheers, everyone.
And, um, well … I guess that’s all!