Get the wedding toast done right or you're toast

Mr Eric Winikoff was pacing in a park near the White House talking to himself. His childhood best friend was getting married that afternoon at the St Regis Hotel in Washington and, as the best man, Mr Winikoff, a partner in an executive compensation firm in Los Angeles, was to deliver the wedding toast. He recited his speech aloud over and over as he strolled, after practising in front of his wife dozens of times before that.

"I get really nervous, and I kept rewording the punch line so it would have the biggest impact," he said. "We're such close friends, so I wanted the speech to be good."

If public speaking is the No. 1 fear in America, as Jerry Seinfeld joked, then being asked to give a wedding toast can send someone into a tailspin.

The thought of standing in front of friends, families and strangers and pouring your heart out (or trying to be funny) can be terrifying.

There is so much that can go wrong. Nearly every wedding planner can tell stories of the maid of honour who listed off inside jokes with the bride, as the audience stifled yawns. The best man, who rather than toast the groom, started to roast him, talking too long about former girlfriends, drunken escapades and other personal details that everyone, especially the groom, would have preferred not to hear at that moment. Then there are the people who drink too much before getting up to talk, which can muck things up entirely.

"When couples come to us and say they're worried about someone in their wedding party giving a toast, I tell them, 'You should be worried,'" said Mr Josh Brooks, a co-owner of Fête Event Planning and Design in New York City. "So often people say the wrong thing, they go on too long, or they do something that detracts from the couple."

Part of the problem is that people don't prepare enough, said Ms Peggy Klaus, a speech and presentations coach in Berkeley, California, who has helped hundreds of people, both famous and not, write wedding toasts. People start writing the speech a few days before the wedding, or they get up in front of the crowd and wing it, which inevitably leads to stumbling through the speech.

"You should start writing a wedding toast months before," Ms Klaus said she tells her clients. And it is critical that you practise it in front of a mirror several times to nail the delivery. "If you don't prepare, your nerves will take over," she said, "and it just won't work."

Mr Winikoff, who was a bundle of nerves when he finally stood up to give his speech, built his toast around offering the bride pieces of advice about marrying the groom, each one with a punch line.

"When you are spending that much time with Ivan, remember these four words: Breathe and stay calm," he told the crowd, recalling: "When it's junior year and everyone is applying to college and he asks you if you've ever heard of the SAT, breathe and stay calm. When trying to dislodge a stuck passenger door from the sidewalk and he puts the car in reverse, breathe and stay calm."

Mr Winikoff, who has delivered several wedding speeches since, three as a best man, said it was his most successful toast, partly because it was good-natured despite the central theme that his friend can be exasperating. "I roasted him, but in the nicest of ways," Mr Winikoff said.

Ms Laura Fenton, the lifestyle director for Parents Magazine, has given several wedding toasts, and she has helped others write their own. A terrible speech can stay with the bride or groom, even leaving a sour note for years, she said.

She knows of one man who still cringes when he thinks back to the toast his brothers gave the couple on their wedding day: "It was clear they didn't prepare, and they focused on his hapless days, how he was a lost bachelor in the city without acknowledging all that he accomplished," Ms Fenton said. "They ribbed him a little too much."

She said the key to a memorable toast is a "hook". "Incorporate a theme at the beginning of the toast, then return to it at the end," she said. At the wedding of her best friend, who happened to be the groom, she started the speech by mentioning that she was disappointed she wasn't asked to be the best man. The speech made a case for why she should be the best man, despite being a woman, by giving examples of all the sweet moments she had experienced with the couple. "Having that hook to come back to made the speech more satisfying for people," she said.

Some young people are finding more creative ways to deliver their heartfelt sentiments to the bride and groom. Ms Kelsey Hallerman, 25, and her sister, Maddie, 24, gave their older sister, Caitlin, a wedding toast that brought wedding guests to tears. You know, the tears that come when you're laughing hysterically. Instead of a speech, the sisters sang a goofy and out-of-tune, but incredibly heartfelt, mashup of Tracy Chapman, the Jackson 5 and Backstreet Boys songs, rewritten with lyrics about their sister's relationship with her new husband.

"We didn't want to be boring or do anything too serious," Ms Kelsey Hallerman said. "Performing is more in our wheelhouse than a traditional speech. We were terrible, but we had so much fun."

Of the 50 weddings that Hollywood Pop Gallery, an entertainment event firm with offices in New York City, London and Greenwich, Connecticut, helped plan last year, 15 featured an untraditional wedding toast, said Ms Brett Galley, director of special events at the company.

"People like to be funny, and millennials are very creative," she said. She has helped a few best man and maid of honour pairs organise a flash mob dance - where everyone surprises the audience with a choreographed group dance. Others have rapped their toasts.

One couple allowed guests to "tweet their toast", assigning the wedding a hashtag; the tweets were projected around the reception hall like a live ticker. Another maid of honour made a seven-minute video about the bride and groom. "It was very dramatic because the lights went down, people were laughing and crying," Ms Galley said. "It was sweet."

Some of these untraditional speeches are so memorable that they become immortalised in the viral video hall of fame. After a clip of the Hallerman sisters was posted to Vimeo, it racked up millions of views, and articles about their toast were posted everywhere from BuzzFeed to The Huffington Post and Cosmopolitan and People magazines.

A quick search of YouTube reveals numerous others that have gone viral: a young woman who donned a black hoodie over her formal dress and rapped her sister's toast to the beat of an Eminem song, the wedding party that danced a choreographed number to Kesha and Pitbull's Timber. "These toasts make for good entertainment," said Ms Klaus, the speech and presentations coach. But she cautioned anyone going in this direction because, she said, it can be a bit self-indulgent. "Remember, the toast is not about you," she said. "It's about the couple."

When writing a wedding toast, experts say, think of it as an amazing opportunity, not a burden. "It's a gift to the bride and groom," said Ms Sarah Parker, who wrote a how-to book on wedding speeches after witnessing too many failed toasts.

She advised: "Keep it short and simple - no more than three minutes. Tell one good story that illustrates the point you want to make and make sure you talk about the bride and the groom. Then wish them well and raise your glass."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 19, 2016, with the headline 'Get the wedding toast done right or you're toast'. Print Edition | Subscribe