Guest or Host, How to Make that Holiday Toast

12530836[1]‘Tis the season we gather for holiday meals and New Year parties with family and friends, colleagues and coworkers. Along with the rich foods, sparking beverages and festive décor is the need to “say a few words” to our guests and hosts. For many, it’s the traditional way we celebrate the milestones we’ve met together and acknowledge those without whom the way would not have been as clear or the journey as meaningful. For the rest of us, it’s the reason we get heart palpitations and tongue-tied!

Getting Started

To begin, let’s all exhale. No matter how little public speaking you have done, you can say more than, “Happy, healthy, merry” when your guests look at you under the mistletoe or your host starts popping corks. And, you can do this with aplomb. It’s just a matter of understanding how to construct, practice and deliver this very special kind of speech. I even have a mnemonic to help you through: T-O-A-S-T. Yep. It’s that straightforward. T. O. A. S. T.

T is for THOUGHTS. One of the reasons we still treasure this centuries-old ritual is that human beings enjoy reflecting on the reasons we are together as a group in the first place. So ask yourself this question: What unites those in attendance at your holiday gathering? Effective toasts include some of that reflection and revealing one’s thoughts is what makes the toast credible. As I prepare a toast to my fellow riders and the owners of the farm where I board my horse, I am organizing my thoughts on the thrill we share for being in and around and a part of nature whenever we are with our horses. I call it “our farm personalities,” the way we dress, behave and interact with the animals so differently than we do elsewhere in our lives. I might offer one or two examples such as sharing an apple with one’s horse or enduring single-digit temperatures just to visit with them. In our day jobs we might never drop our hygiene standards or expose ourselves to the elements. But we do it without hesitation for the horses that are part of our families and so I might share this thought: “As we gather in this warm and cozy and restaurant to feast on much more than carrots, I am reminded that each person here is one who loves and is loved by a horse.”

O is for Occasion. Memorable toasts make meaningful and specific references to the occasion around which we gather. Rather than saying, “To health, peace and prosperity,” my toast to my family at our Hanukkah dinner this year began as follows: “To miracles—and to those who are faithful enough to acknowledge that they are possible. We are blessed to be here in my new home after so much disruption and transition in the past two years. Like lighting the menorah with so little oil and seeing it illuminated for eight days and nights, we, too, took a chance that what was unlikely might well be possible. And to be sure, our incremental movements did all add up to a safe passage and a fresh and promising new start.”

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A is for Attributes. Specify the attributes of your guests or hosts. Anecdotes accomplish this nicely. Tell a brief story that reveals a talent or quality of your host or guest. In a Christmas party toast to the firm’s cadre of interns, each was heralded for a specific character trait of value to the firm and consistent with the meaning of the holiday. For one, it was going above and beyond her job description, even in matters outside her daily responsibilities. The CEO shared that when Jayne learned that all of the desserts catered for the event contained nuts, and knowing that a number of staff had serious allergies to nut products, she took it upon herself to stay up all night preparing an assortment of festively decorated and nut-free confections for the dessert buffet. And it wasn’t until prodded that she took credit for her delicious and deeply thoughtful contribution to the event.

S is for Sentiment. A toast without sentiment is like lemonade without sugar. In short, let them know how you feel about them. Just like thoughts bring credibility to the party, your sentiments bring the sincerity. In a toast this season my client raised his glass to his hosts, his employers, as well as his new colleagues and shared that “this year was not only a professionally satisfying one, but a deeply gratifying one personally. After a few false starts in my new career, I remember now how really special it is to have coworkers you respect and like and how fulfilling it is to work as a team. I won’t name everyone here like Santa named his reindeer, but I will tell you I do sometimes feel like Rudolph!“

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T is for Tone. The tone of your toast does well to reflect the tone of the event itself. For instance, a low-keyed toast in conversational English is befitting an intimate dinner party. My friend recently began our annual holiday pot-luck luncheon by raising her glass and saying, “To my wreath of strength, my circle of friends. Around this table it’s not just the food that nourishes me. Here our laughter is music and the warmth rivals that of the Yule log.”

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A banquet in a hotel ballroom merits a lengthier toast with more formal language to convey a more ceremonial tone. A friendly, annual holiday gathering with a group of folks who all know one another socially calls for a ninety-second, witty, poignant and forward-looking speech. Note that the constituent components of a toast do not change; there is just more or less material and detail in any given toast and one’s thoughts and sentiments are expressed in language that is more or less formal. My client in the real estate industry hosted a holiday party for 500 agents, brokers, buyers and he began his appropriately formal remarks as follows:

Good evening and welcome. Let us first take a moment of silence to remember those men and women in uniform stationed abroad in service to our country. (PAUSE) It was Simone de Beauvoir who wrote, “The ideal of happiness has always taken material form in the house, whether cottage or castle; it stands for permanence and separation from the world.” Happiness in the form of the home you always wanted make, the house you need to sell, or the transaction you want to facilitate, happiness is my holiday gift to each and every one of you in the coming New Year.

Easy Delivery Does it

What enables you to deliver the toast extemporaneously rather than recite—or worse—read it? Practice! Out loud! This helps you get familiar with the sounds of your voice and breaks the habit of reading. Reading a toast is like swimming in your clothes. It’s doable but both swimmer and spectators feel that something is off. You will feel more comfortable making eye contact with the guests instead of facing down and talking to a sheet of paper. Practice enough to achieve fluency, about ten to twelve times – aloud.  Craft this and practice it out loud to internalize it.  Record yourself on your cell phone. Download the toast to your iPod. Listen to the toast as often as time allows.

Then Raise Your Glass

So as the mistletoe sways and Santa’s bells chime, deliver well-chosen words with rhythm, even rhyme. Speak warmly from the heart, oh toastmasters of mine. And do not omit thoughts from deep in your mind. Do say them loud. Do say them clear. Leave them smiling, even shedding a tear. That’s the true meaning of “holiday cheer.”

To all my readers and your families I wish you the best of this season and a peaceful and healthy 2014.

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