You’ve been asked to give a toast. Do it well and everyone will love you. Mess it up and you’ll lose the trust and support of everyone in the room. High stakes, high rewards. Sounds like fun, non? Here’s a structure you can put to work immediately for your next important toast.
But first… a note on time
A great toast is roughly 90 seconds long. That might sound too short, but 90 seconds is precisely the right amount of time to give a great first impression, reveal a shared problem, help the audience know how to feel, transform the audience, and then close with grace. And when you do it well, every second delivers value and the audience wishes you had spoken all night.
The good news is this radically changes the assignment from “say something” to 90 seconds of focused attention and directed emotion.
Can you go shorter? Yes! A great toast can be as short as 10 seconds. But longer than 2 minutes and it stops being a toast and becomes a speech. The point of a toast is to celebrate someone else, not to give yourself a platform. In short? keep it short. I’ve included an example that takes a full 90 seconds to say aloud. Think of that as the longest possible toast, and strive to make yours even shorter. I’ve also included a 10-second version so you can see how to edit and still retain the spirit.
Anatomy of a toast
- Opening Moment: make a great first impression (5 seconds)
- Tell a story, reveal a shared problem (45 seconds)
- Help the audience know how to feel (20 seconds)
- Transform the audience (10 seconds)
- Close with grace (10 seconds)
That’s it! hit these moments and you’re all set. Let’s explore one by one.
When you grab the mic to speak, the audience’s first impression of you matters. In many ways, it is the entire assignment.
First impressions for a toast
Your audience will decide if they like you in the first 0.5 seconds. The science of first impressions is heartbreakingly brutal. You simply don’t get a second chance. (See appendix for links and references to the science). If you spend that time blowing into the mic to see if it is on, fixing your hair, or saying “uhhhh” then you’ve already lost. Instead, spend a few moments getting yourself together before you step into the spotlight.
- Before stepping on stage, find a mirror and adjust your look. No bra straps showing. No unzipped fly. Adjust your outfit and then put on one last thing — what I call the jacket of confidence. Slip into an imaginary jacket of confidence. Once you have it on, look at yourself in the mirror and smile appreciatively.
- As you are handed the mic, glance down at it to make sure it is on. To do this correctly, means stopping by the AV table long before your big moment and learning how the mics work at this particular venue. Does glowing light mean on? Or the blue light? Does the switch go up or down? It will only take a second. But do this work in advance.
- Breathe in and out with three big deep breaths. This will drop your voice down to its natural register and transform your body into a cello that will help your words resonate with their fullest beauty.
- Stand all the way up. From the back of the audience, you will be small. Even if you are the tallest person in the room you will only occupy the tiniest amount of space in the visual field of someone in the back. Stand all the way up. Breathe in and out one more time. Imagine your navel moving up and towards your spine. This will straighten your back, raise your ribcage, and slim your torso. Now you’re ready.
- For your first impression moment to land, you must know your opening words. Start with the word “welcome” even if you are in the middle of the show. “Welcome” is the ideal starting word. It sets the perfect tone for a toast, as the audience sees you as a servant leader, generous host, and humble champion of others. Practice saying the word welcome. Learn to say it in a way that makes everyone like you with just that one word.
Right after welcome… begin your first line. And that’s it! Your 5 second opening moment is done.
Example: (5 seconds)
We’re here to celebrate my big sister Jane and her graduation from law school.
The word welcome does most of the work for you. Say it in a way that people will like you more, rather than less. Say it in a way that indeed feels welcoming. Say it with the richness, fullness, and generosity of someone who everyone in the room can’t help but kind of love… say it in a way that makes us want you to succeed. How? How do you do all of this with one word? The answer is straightforward: Mean it when you say it. We’ll see it on your face, hear it in your voice. We’ll believe. Say welcome correctly and the rest is easy.
Tell a story, reveal a shared problem
Tell a story, reveal a shared truth (45 seconds)
The next 45 seconds are the heart of your toast. Tell a short, visual story. The arc of the story should start with the person you are toasting at the peak of their powers. Describe that person (or group of people) doing well and performing at their best. Then give them a problem. Paint a picture of adversity. Then point to the solution… that new way that we all know must happen, even if we don’t know how.
Example: (45 seconds)
Jane was always a litigator. Even on the playground. When other kids got into a fight, she settled it, not with her fists, but with her logic and persuasive rhetoric. I once watched her walk up to the biggest bully on the playground and demand she return a stolen lunch to a meek, helpless, scared little kid. Jane didn’t threaten, she didn’t have some sort of blackmail in her back pocket or special-access leverage. She just laid out an argument that painted a picture of the kind of playground we all wanted to have, and what happens when people violate that vision. And how we can’t expect to make it in this world if we can’t even help each other out in this space, our space, our playground.
Help the audience know how to feel
After the set-up in your story, signal to the audience how to feel. Go one level deeper than the opening set-up. For instance, in the toast above, we could continue with…
Example (20 seconds)
“We’ve got to have each other’s backs, not be at each other’s throats.” cried Jane And in doing so, it got raw. It got really raw. There was shouting, crying, a crowd gathered around. Everyone opened up about everything unfair in their lives and all the wrongs they had endured. It turns out the bully needed lunch. Her family was broke. Jane said she’d get the girl lunch if she promised to never steal again.
Transform the Audience
Here we must help the audience understand (and feel) the change, the turn, of the story.
Watching my sister work like that was a miracle. She had in one stroke become the Queen, Judge, Enforcer, and Buddha and Czar of the playground. From then on, when people had problems, they came to her first. And she found a way to solve them, and has been doing it ever since.
Close with Grace
End with making the story bigger than the story, and give yourself an exit.
I got a front-row seat to Jane’s talents. I love my sister for what she did for others, for what she did for me. She helps us all grow deeper, grow stronger. More sure of our commitment to be our best selves. That’s the gift she gives all of us. And now her playground has gotten a little bigger. The stakes a little higher. But I’m confident she’ll handle it all with the same wisdom, leadership, and grace she’s practiced all these years.
Putting It All Together
A toast is 90 seconds of focused attention and emotion. Make eye contact with the crowd, finish with a raised glass, and then walk off stage (and into the hearts and minds of your audience forever).
Here’s our sample toast all together, color-coded for each section.
10 Second Version
If you only have 10 seconds for a toast, here’s the same story condensed. Notice the opening and closing are almost the same, and the middle gets a new sentence.
We’re here to celebrate my big sister Jane and her graduation from law school. I love my sister for what she did for others, for what she did for me. She helps us all grow deeper, grow stronger… more sure of our commitment to be our best selves. That’s the gift she gives all of us. I’ve watched her do this since we were kids on the playground. And now her playground has gotten a little bigger. The stakes a little higher. But I’m confident she’ll handle it all with the same wisdom, leadership, and grace she’s practiced all these years.
How to Remember Your Toast
Now that you’ve written your toast, how do you remember it? The trick is to break down the toast into short phrases that will trigger the whole story.
The 90-Second toast above would be:
Litigator / Playground
Queen / Enforcer
Deeper / Stronger
The 10-Second toast above would be:
Deeper / Stronger
Playground / Bigger Playground
Practice by looking at these short phrases and then telling the story. This way, when you are up on stage, it will sound more natural, authentic, and true—because instead of reading a script, you’re telling us a story. The vibe in your voice and the choices you’ll make will signal to us that you believe.
You must actually believe everything you are saying. Only say what is true and mean what you say. If a topic or subject violates either of these conditions, then cut it.
A Note on Saying Thank You
If you are giving the wrap-up toast, and part of your task is to thank a team of people, you have two choices:
- Say thank you to “the entire team” (but don’t mention any names).
- Write down a list of people to thank and read the list from a card. This way you won’t forget anyone and the audience doesn’t have to suffer the small gaps of time you take to try to remember everyone’s name. Also, the people being thanked are listening for how easy it is for you to remember them… and are equating this ease to how much they are appreciated. This, of course, is not true, but the people being thanked can’t help but feel it to be true. Also, most of the people in the audience aren’t being thanked, so any delays are a bore. This is a lose-lose-lose situation. All of this is fixed by reading a list of names from a card. Make it quick, efficient, and painless—and yet somehow still thoughtful. After reading the list, look up from the card and thank the audience for their enthusiasm, attention, and support.
A few common mistakes to avoid…
- You might be tempted to tell an inside joke. Resist this urge. An inside joke alienates all but a few insiders and sours the mood. You’ll lose the audience and you need their love to succeed.
- You may have a tremendously embarrassing story up your sleeve. Save this for another time and more intimate when the person can properly defend themselves. We are all here to celebrate the person being toasted and using the power of the mic to rain on his or her parade will only reflect poorly on you.
- Learn to eliminate the filler words uhhhhh and ahhhhhh. Eliminating these will immediately set you apart from 95 % of people who give toasts. If you get stuck, don’t uhhhhhh, instead do an Obama Pause. The former President’s best speeches were filled with moments when he would sit inside his pauses and think of his next words. Doing this makes you look thoughtful and focused, even if you actually got lost for a second and were madly trying to recall what you were saying. Sit in an Obama Pause, and take a deep breath. Let it out, then continue. In contrast, using a filler word flushes away all the beauty from your voice.
- You are undoubtedly an interesting and amazing person. Why else would you be the one asked to give a speech? Even so, you must shine a light on the person being honored, and not yourself. Don’t use your toast to talk about yourself. Find a way to celebrate the person or institution being honored without trying to make yourself the star of the show. But check this out—you will be an even bigger star if you can be seen as generous, kind, thoughtful, funny, charming, humble, warm, and grateful—not self-important or too self-loving.
- Get lost or unsure? Start to stumble and can’t quite recover? Cut it short and say “What I mean to say is this… Thank you for everything” and raise your glass.
Thanks for reading.
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Here’s a few more articles
Art of Story
- Novel First Sentences
- How to Write a Joke
- Words Matter: Towards Exceptional Content
- Tell a Four-Word Story
- Structure of Story Reading List
- Design Starts with Story
- How to Design Emotional Products
- Augmented Imagination
- How to Design for Near-Instant Wow
- How to Create a Story Map
- How to Create a Color Story
Science of First Impressions
The science behind first impression is rough: we decide if we like something somewhere between 1/10th of a second and 7 seconds (Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov, 2006). First impressions have been shown to last for months (Gunaydin, Selcuk, & Zayas, 2017) and can sway one’s point of view even in the presence of contradictory evidence (e.g., Rydell & McConnell, 2006), and even when you can’t recall why (McCarthy & Skowronski, 2011; Todorov & Uleman, 2002).
First impressions help us run away from predators and embrace new allies. They help keep us alive in the wilderness and yet hurt us in nearly all other realms, as we jump too quickly to decision-making heuristics — pattern-matching mental short cuts — instead of evaluating someone or something more completely, objectively or holistically.
The classical music industry learned this the hard way when they switched to blind auditions for orchestra roles and learned of the pervasive, blatant, latent sexism that was present in the classical music world. Goldin, Claudia and Cecilia Rouse. “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of” Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians.” The American Economic Review 90.4 (2000): 715–741. The human mind can’t help but be influenced by first impressions. The first step in dealing with this terrible truth is to acknowledge that is exists and then try to design for the best outcome.
This is why the opening shot of a film sets the tone. This is why the first few notes of a song trigger such a potent memory response. This is why a webpage needs to load in under a second. This is why the first sentence of a novel matters more than all the others. This is why Instagram and TikTok are so effective and the copy on billboards is so short. This is why we fall in love at first sight and can tell when the bad guy enters a movie even before he’s done anything wrong. First impressions shouldn’t matter as much as they do… but they do.
For more on this topic, see How to Say Hello.