By Kevin McClintock
Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Only a very small percentage of people can stand up in front of strangers and pull off a toast that strikes the perfect balance between humility and humor.
But for the rest of us, overcoming those sweaty palms and knocking knees takes a good amount of planning and practice in front of a full-length mirror.
What not to do
Michael Scott, the hapless leader of NBC's "The Office," probably gave one of the all-time worst wedding speeches when he stood up in front of a roomful of strangers to speak about the bride, Dunder-Mifflin employee Phyllis Lapin.
"Hi," Steve Carrell's character says, "I'm Michael Scott and for the next 40 minutes, I'm going to be your tour guide through the (life of Phyllis), one of the great, seemingly impossible, love stories of our time. Webster's Dictionary defines 'wedding' as the fusing of two metals with a hot torch. Well, you know something? I think you guys are two metals. Gold medals."
The speech rambles without direction, has no structure, possesses way too many opening lines and teeters on the edge of becoming a full-fledged roast, which, of course, is the opposite of a toast.
These are all traits that a good wedding or graduation toast should not have, says Willy Crane, president of the Greater Joplin Toastmasters.
"If you're at a wedding, it's a very special time for at least two people, possibly a lot more, so don't spoil that," he said. "Don't break out the dating war stories at somebody's wedding. Respect the people. Deliver something that honors that person, so they can remember you as caring enough about them to say something nice."
Time is key. If you're a guest of honor -- a best friend or brother -- you should speak for no longer than three to four minutes, tops.
"That's appropriate," Crane said.
If you happen to be the brother's second cousin, however, than maybe a minute, tops, is most appropriate. Or maybe you shouldn't be standing, champagne glass in hand, at all, unless specifically asked.
In most traditionally large weddings, the best man gives the first toast, followed by the fathers, the groom, the bride, the mothers and then friends, though no order is set in stone. Regardless, such toasts -- whether it's hoping for good health to the bride, the groom or the maids of honor -- should last no longer than a couple of minutes.
'Five minutes, tops'
"Five minutes, tops," Crane said. "No one should go further than that. I would have to say that even as the person of honor, you don't want to put people to sleep. Make sure they are still paying attention. Otherwise, it's just you rambling on."
One of the important things to remember is to plan out what you're going to say.
"Because few people can speak effectively on the fly," Crane said.
Practice makes perfect
So don't try speaking off the cuff. Write it out and practice that killer opening joke or that soulful forgotten story in front of a mirror. As for the other speaking points, list them by bullet points on a card. Glancing down at them will jog your memory so there are no awkward "um" and "ah" moments.
"Most of us can easily tell a story," Crane said. "It's very simple for us to do that. But the idea is to not be so formal that you sound like you're reading from a script, like an Oscar acceptance speech. If you try to remember everything word for word, you will get flustered. And if you're flustered, you will stumble. Having the theme of it, and knowing the concept you're trying to deliver (is the key)."
Remember that such toasts should be happy speeches, given during this very happy occasion.
'Keep it light'
"Don't make it so serious that you drive people down," Crane said. "If it's a wedding, people are usually darn happy. Unless, of course, there's a shotgun in grandpa's hands. So you can say something serious, but keep it light enough that people don't mentally slow down. Just remember to enjoy the moment."
Did you know?
According to various apocryphal stories, the custom of touching glasses evolved from concerns about poisoning. By one account, clinking glasses together would cause each drink to spill over into the others, thus outwitting the poisoner.