Making a good toast, or short speech, is not hard at all. If you follow the rules.
1. Adopt a mildly provocative tone.
This ensures that the audience will listen. It’s the basis for the English best man’s speech. If you tease the subject a tiny bit, but with affection, that will make your emotions more convincing, and it will render your toast memorable and authentic.
2. But not too provocative.
One friend of mine joked incessantly in his toast about how the bride’s family “all work in the New Jersey construction industry… and we all know what that means.” Given that the family in question looked like extras from Goodfellas, this did not go down well. And my friend Tim Geary opened his speech at his own wedding by announcing, “This is the first time I feel no guilt over having slept with the bride the night before the wedding.” His new mother-in-law failed to laugh. (My sister-in-law Whitney Cummings can do a good roast. Google her. But please, stop well short of where she does.)
3. Make jokes at your own expense.
These always go down well. And, in my case at least, they are easy to pull off; “Sorry I’m wearing such an inappropriately lurid dinner jacket. It looked better on Eddie Izzard.”
4. Make jokes at the expense of your guests.
At my 40th I announced, “I wanted to invite my oldest and best friends tonight, but instead I invited you shallow media/fashion types and hangers-on.” That was a double. It satisfied rules 4 and 5.
5. Don’t be too nostalgic.
My dad remarked at his 70th birthday, “If you don’t drink and you don’t smoke, you won’t live any longer, it’ll just seem that way.” He ended with: “I’d like you to raise your glasses to the people who couldn’t be here tonight because they were too far away, or else sick, or because in some cases I didn’t invite them.”
6. Use no notes, ever.
You’re smart enough to prepare three or four lines and remember them. You’ll deliver them more convincingly. And it’s more fun if you riff a bit.
7. Make an admiring remark about the prettiest girl at the party.
Ignore this rule if you got married within the last 18 months, or any time when you are toasting your own wife.
8. Extemporize, sure, but prepare a punch line.
At my wife’s birthday this year, I concluded that “she’s not perfect, but she’s perfect for me.” Corny, I know, but she liked it—and for some reason it caused a couple of other women to profess undying love for me.
9. Keep it short.
Really short. Shorter than this piece. This is the most important rule of all.