We’ve all been victims of bad speeches. The speaker strides up to the microphone and starts talking. You find yourself visibly cringing at what is being said. You look around the room to see if it’s just you, but you are met with looks of horror on other people’s faces. You see others avoiding eye contact, or trying hard not to laugh. You see the sweat pouring down the speaker’s face as he/she struggles to finish the speech. You breathe a sigh of relief that the torture is over. Sound familiar?
Like many, I have endured my fair share of these flops. That is partly what inspired me to start my special occasion speechwriting business. It’s easy to fall prey to common mistakes, despite having the best intentions to shine. Here is my advice on “what not to do” when making a toast.
1. Don’t wait until the last minute. When my father-in-law was getting married, my husband and brother-in-law wrote their toast on the way to the ceremony. Let’s just say the result was less than eloquent. It is rare to have less than one or two weeks notice that you will be giving a speech. Use that time to carefully prepare what you want to say. Give yourself some wiggle room for edits and re-drafts. At the very least you want to practice your speech a couple of time aloud, preferably in front of a few trusted friends, to make sure that it flows and resonates well.
2. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not. Oftentimes, people feel like they need to quote inspirational passages from literature or poetry. Unless this is something you do regularly (i.e., maybe you were an English major or use quotations in your daily life), don’t feel that this makes you sound like a deeper person. In fact, sometimes it can do quote the opposite, making you seem pompous or out of touch. Likewise, there is often pressure to make speeches “laugh out loud” funny. Not everyone is a natural comedian, in which case you shouldn’t attempt to do a stand-up routine. Your speech should reflect who you are as a person, not who you think people expect you to be.
3. Don’t forget to make eye contact. Most people are somewhere on the scale of slightly nervous to terrified at the thought of making a special occasion toast. The goal is to get up there, say what they have to say, and sit down as quickly as possible. As a result, a lot of speakers forget to look up from their piece of paper or index card to make eye contact with the audience and with the guest(s) of honor. While perfectly acceptable to have the written words in front of you, make sure to look up throughout the talk and show the audience that you want to connect with them.
4. Don’t get sloppy. At a recent Bar Mitzvah I attended, one of the boy’s older sisters gave a toast. She had clearly had too much to drink and proceeded to slur every other word in her speech. If you are planning to talk, hold off on the alcohol until after you are done. Even if you think it will take the edge off, chances are it will make it even more challenging (and in some cases downright mortifying) for you as the speaker.
5. Don’t exceed your time limit. At one wedding I attended, the best man talked for close to 15 minutes, detailing his version of a Letterman-style “Top 10 List Of Favorite Memories With The Groom.” While the sentiment was nice, after the first few memories, my attention wandered. By the end, guests were applauding because it was finally over. My rule of thumb is to keep all celebratory speeches to three to five minutes maximum. No exceptions. Leave the audience wanting more, not less.
Nobody wants to deliver a speech that causes more cringes than smiles. By keeping these “no no’s” in mind, help yourself give a speech to remember instead of one people want to forget.