Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Art of the Toast

The Art of the Toast
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

I'm one of those weirdos who enjoys public speaking. I've given countless speeches and presentations over the years, and am just as comfortable speaking to a room full of people as I am to one person. I even come from a lo-o-o-ong line of orators (Okay, it's really just my dad, the psychology professor, but he's been teaching for a lo-o-o-ong time, so I figure that counts.)

Public speaking is one of those important skills that I think everyone needs to know how to do to some degree. So is changing a flat tire, whistling, and skipping stones. Even if you're only giving a toast at a wedding, you should be able to say something without stammering and uhhh-ing your way through the thing.

Case in point: I knew a man, Max, who was a big proponent of public speaking, and a strong supporter of his local Toastmaster's Club. He was also a believer of the "everyone should know how to speak in public" school of thought. He told me a story from when he attended the wedding of a friend's daughter, where the best man was expected to give the first toast of the evening.

A best man's toast is typically expected to be a well-thought, rehearsed affair that sings the praises of the groom and his new bride, followed by lofty wishes for love, joy, and health.

This particular "best" man, who could only be described as a mouth-breathing oaf, took the opposite tack and tried to be as unprepared as possible.

"Uhh." He rose to his feet and held up his glass. "Well, uhhh. . . I hope you guys have lots of sex on your honeymoon."

As an uncomfortable pall descended on the guests, and they halfheartedly clinked their glasses, a guy leaned over to Max and whispered, "And they say the art of rhetoric is dead."

Max told me this story to illustrate the importance of knowing how to speak in public.

"I think it shows the importance of thinking before you speak," I said. "If you're the father of the bride, and you've paid $12,000 or more to give your daughter away to some schmuck, the last thing you want is to be reminded of what said schmuck is planning to do several hours later."

Max agreed that this was a good point.

"But I can top that," I said. And I told him the story of my own ill-fated attempts at a wedding toast. A story that, to this very day, still makes me so uncomfortable, I squirm like a snake with Restless Legs Syndrome whenever I think of it.

My wife had just left for a trip, so I went to the wedding of two good friends by myself. We had been in school with the bride, who met her new husband soon after we all finished school. We watched them grow together as a couple, and celebrated when they announced their engagement.

In fact, he proposed after they had visited us one weekend. I had sort of good-naturedly hassled the guy about making an honest woman of our friend, so we were pleasantly surprised when he proposed to her on their way home that Sunday.

As a result, my wife and I jokingly took credit for their happy day, and when it was my turn for the guests' toasts at the reception, I told the story. I even remember how I ended my tale.

"Because I'm sure the marriage will be a happy one, I'm taking credit for being the impetus of the proposal," I said, my voice booming through the PA system, and filling the ears of 200 of the couple's closest friends and family.

I continued. "But if things don't work out, I had nothing to do with it."

(At that precise moment, I became intimately acquainted with the term "flop sweat.")

That's right, I actually speculated -- out loud, no less -- about the possibility of the divorce of the happy couple who had been married for less than three hours.

This was before I ever made my personal commitment to think first and speak later, so it took a few seconds for my brain to catch up with my mouth. When it finally did, my brain was shouting, "Sit down, stupid! Sit down and shut up!"

I managed to croak out a "so, uhh, good luck to you both" before returning to my seat. The blood rushing to my head and the roaring in my ears kept me from noticing the angry glares and whispered comments that must have followed me to my seat. I left 15 minutes later.

After that, I spent several years practicing my public speaking with organizations like Toastmasters, giving speeches to different groups, and mentally writing imaginary toasts in my head from time to time. And I'm fully prepared to deliver an appropriate toast at the next wedding I attend.

If I could just get anyone to invite me.

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