At a wedding, toasts serve several functions: They introduce the bride's former world to the groom's, and vice versa; they lend an appropriate weight to the anecdotes of courtship that will become a part of the couple's family history; and they give the bride and groom a chance to publicly pay personal tributes to each other.
At the Reception
With dinner, dancing, and cake vying for everyone's attention, toasts at the reception should be short and formal. Traditionally, they are given just after the dinner plates are cleared, first by the best man to the couple, then by the couple to their parents and to one another, and finally by the bride's father to the guests. These rules aren't appropriate for every wedding, however, and can be altered to suit a couple's wishes. A mother or bridesmaid may say the first toast, or the couple may begin by welcoming everyone to their wedding.
At the Rehearsal Dinner
At the more intimate and casual rehearsal dinner, toasts often become a free-for-all that extends well into the evening. But they are usually kicked off by a toast from the groom's father, who is the official host of the night.
Two to three months before the wedding, the couple should make three things clear to everyone involved: who will make the first toast, when it will take place, and how it will be signaled or announced. If the rest of the toasts are to follow a set order, that too should be specified. Knowing what's expected makes the toasters' roles much easier.
Preparing a Toast
Are you frightened by the prospect of speaking in front of a group? These feelings are common, says Joyce Newman, president of the Newman Group, a company that trains people in public speaking. She claims that most people are not naturally confident; they have simply learned how to keep their fears from getting the better of them.
The first step is to plan what you are going to say. Spend some time collecting your thoughts, recalling moments with the bride or groom, and thinking about the message you want to convey: What do you want their friends and family to know about them, individually and as a couple? What feelings do you want to share with the bride and groom at this remarkable moment? Don't try to make a toast that doesn't suit your character. If you're naturally shy or serious, leave it to others to be brilliant and hilarious; instead, aim for something simple and honest.
Second, rehearse your toast. "Practice it with a mirror, with a friend, with your dog," suggests Newman. "Don't practice it in your head... It's important to make sure that you can say the words out loud." Rehearse a few times, but don't memorize it word for word. Otherwise you'll spend your moment in the spotlight rifling through your memory banks rather than connecting with the audience. Plus, if your memory skips a beat, you'll flounder, possibly forgetting some key bit -- and you can't stand up afterward and say, "I'm going to be passing out some supplements to my toast later."
The best man and fathers of the bride and groom often have several important points to make and may want to outline them on a note card. But the rest of the guests should keep their toasts to less than three minutes, which is just enough time to recount one story or convey one key idea.
Presenting a Toast
Once your turn to toast the bride and groom approaches, there are ways to cope with sweaty palms and a thumping heart. "First of all, know what your own bodily reaction is, and expect it," Newman says. "Then, instead of looking at it as a negative, look at it as an old friend. I personally get very cold before I speak to groups, and I now see that as a signal that all systems are go."
Avoid advertising your anxiety by apologizing as you begin to speak. Chances are, no one will notice how nervous you are unless you point it out, and since stage fright usually passes after the first few words, you're better off forging bravely ahead.
"Another thing we encourage people to do when they get up there," says Newman, "is to take a moment, take a breath, count to three, look at the bride and groom (or whomever you are toasting), and start speaking directly to them." Addressing a friendly face will add warmth and life to your presentation and will remind you to keep your chin up and your voice slow and clear.
A toast should end with a drink by everyone except the people to whom it's presented. The other guests needn't drink much, and it needn't be alcoholic, but they should never refuse to join in; it's impolite and considered bad luck for the couple. Of course, there's a catch when everyone has his own drink to quaff: If toasts last an hour or more, the last people in line -- often the very ones who have postponed their toasts out of nervousness -- may find themselves quite tipsy by the time their turns roll around. Any guests tempted to drown their nerves in champagne should be encouraged to present their toasts as early in the evening as possible.
A final note: Take heart from the fact that no one's liable to remember all the details of your toast anyway. The bride and groom are lost in a happy blur, and the other guests are busy having a good time. After the celebration ends, the main thing everyone will recall is the effort you made to share a few carefully chosen words in honor of the wedding day.