Updated: Mar 1
Toast: Short Speech Writing Guide
“Can you just say a few words?”
That invitation can strike fear among people who are asked to give a toast at a wedding, to present an award, to congratulate someone on a promotion, to remember a colleague retiring after 25 years.
Yet it doesn’t have to.
Who is this speechwriting guide for?
This is for anyone giving a short speech whose purpose is to honor someone else.
It’s for all those speeches that mean something, that aren’t televised, that are there to honor the great works and deed others have done in their lives.
You’re part of an organization that gives out awards each year and this year you get to present one of them! Figure out what to say that’s short, sweet, and meaningful.
Wedding Speeches: Best Man Speeches, Maid of Honor Speeches, Father and Mother of the Bride Speeches
Your best friend is getting married and you get to give a toast. Guidance for best men, maids of honor, father and mother of the bride—anyone who needs to wish the happy couple well.
A colleague is getting promoted and you want to talk about their achievements and efforts with some good natured fun thrown in.
How do you say goodbye to the key employee who has worked for you for the last 20 years?
What do you say at your own retirement?
Is your mentor or parent retiring and you want to toast them?
Birthday party toasts and anniversary speeches
What about the people who are a really big deal in our lives? What do you say to them on their important days? What would you say at your parents’ 50th wedding anniversary? What about your spouse’s 40th birthday?
Any occasion where you have to “say a few words”
I probably missed a few speech categories above, but any time that you need to give a speech that honors another person, this guide is your guide.
What will be included in this guide to short speeches:
A brief overview of the various parts of any toast. I break down the typical toast or honor speech for any occasion.
A step-by-step process to get your speech written. I use the same method when writing for others and you can complete a first draft in the span of a week or any set of seven days spread out over time.
Real short speeches given by real people. I’ve scoured the internet and my resources to find examples of toasts and other short speeches that you can use as models. All are modern speeches that real people gave. Use them as inspiration for turns of phrases and overall organization to help you plan your words.
Advice for specific types of short speeches. A wedding toast and an awards speech aren’t the same but share tons of similarities. You’ll learn what each type of speech requires given its occasion. Use this section to avoid faux pas.
COVID and its Effect on Speeches
A quick note before we begin, COVID has cut the number of in-person gatherings down dramatically. Yet people are finding creative ways to do events and ceremonies online. If you’re unable to give a short speech in-person (due to COVID or other circumstances) here are some ideas to do instead:
Record the speech on your phone or a camcorder–you get the added benefit of multiple takes in case you make a mistake–plus if there are others in your household, you can get them to add in a message. Recording gives you the advantage over a video conference call cutting out in the middle of a great line.
Make a slideshow presentation out of it–plenty of computers come with video editing software or at least PowerPoint–put together a collage of pictures and your recorded speech at the same time.
Write a letter–sometimes it’s easier to write out your message rather than to say it. Get some nice stationery and someone with good penmanship to help you (there are services online, too, like Handywritten)
Where to start with any short speech
Speakers tend to have two problems when it comes to giving short speeches:
They tell me two things:
First: I can’t think of anything to say
Second: I have too much to say, there’s no way I’ll fit it all in
What to do?
Let’s tackle each one, starting with the first.
But, before we do, let’s begin with Step 1–it’s helpful to have a doc open or a set of notes as you go through this guide.
Step 1: Know your time limits, word count, and any other pertinent details for your speech.
We speak around 135 to 150 words per minute. But when it comes to giving a speech, you want to give yourself extra time to take it slow, to allow for applause and laughter. I’d suggest 100-115 words per minute to gauge how much you need to prepare.
For a 3 minute toast: 300-345 words
For a 5 minute toast: 500 words to 575
For a 10 minute toast: 1000 words to 1150 words
I wouldn’t go beyond 10 minutes for any ceremonial speech–err on the side of brevity.
Find out also when you are expected to give your speech during the event. If you are going early, you can err on the side of being a bit longer than expected. If you are one of the last to speak, keep it as short as possible.
Step 2: Know the key sections you’ll want to think about for your toast:
Many toasts and short speeches have the same sections to them but not always in the order below. You can mix and match as needed.
Acknowledgments and Thank yous:
Depending on the formality of the event, you have to thank certain people who put the event together or who are so important that they deserve to be recognized. Word of caution: Do not go overboard in this portion and make the whole speech one long list of thank-yous.
Stories will make up the bulk of your toast—they are the perfect vehicle to demonstrate change throughout the speech. It’s where you can talk about the deeds of the person you’re honoring or the significance of the event.
You’ll find sections of advice in many toasts—the person giving the toast often has words of wisdom for the happy couple during a wedding toast or sage advice to those just starting on their careers during the speaker’s own retirement speech. This is where you can take the lessons of change you’ve experienced and give them to the audience or the people who are a part of your toast.
Significance of the event:
Sometimes the event itself is important enough that it should be mentioned and featured in your toast (other times, you may just need a few sentences).
Opening and Closing:
Any speech will have a captivating opening and closing, and toasts are no different. The best ones will have openings and closings that relate to one another; oftentimes, the closing can even contain a special 1-2 line mini-toast that sums up the speech itself. We’ll work on specific techniques later on in this guide to craft closings that will be remembered long after the main speech concludes.
Here are some questions to get you started, we’ll dive into the specifics momentarily:
Are there any VIPs in the audience that you must acknowledge or thank? Keep this list very short and go with the ones who are most important or whose egos will be hurt if you don’t mention them. If it’s too many, can you generalize the group (“Honored guests,”)?
If you are honoring a person, what makes them so incredible and great? Why are they being honored at this event? What have they done that has impressed you? What have you learned from them? What moments of greatness stick out in your mind? What stories can you tell around each answer?
What is the significance of the event you’ll be speaking at? Is it an eternal one like marriage? What is the history of the event? Why did the group start? What are they doing today that is so impactful?
Is it appropriate to give advice at an event like this? If a couple is getting married, what advice do you have for them? If someone is retiring or being promoted, what advice can you give to others in the room that want to live up to that person’s example?
Are there particular quotes or sayings that you think could work at the beginning or end of the toast? Have people heard these before or will they be fresh? Are they unique to the occasion?
What movie did you see recently (or book you read) that showed a dramatic change in its characters? Did you read or watch anything recently that seemed to fall flat? Can you pinpoint a lack of change in the characters as the reason?
Step 3: Brainstorm your speech ideas: What to do when you can’t think of anything to say in your speech
The best place to start are the dual goals of any ceremonial speech: You want to honor the person and honor the event.
From a wedding toast to a retirement speech to an anniversary celebration, the goals are the same.
You want to honor a person or a couple and the event itself.
Great toasts and short speeches revolve around telling great stories about the person you’re honoring. Ideally you want a mix of funny and touching stories to tell.
Brainstorming ideas for wedding toasts, birthday speeches, and anniversary speeches:
Anything you want to say to the close family and friends who will be in attendance?
Growing up together, I could tell that they would grow into a great person because…
One moment that most impressed me was when…
He/She was really there for me when…
My favorite memory of them was when…
One story that really demonstrates <insert character value> is when…
When I first met him/her…
I am grateful that they are in my life because one time…
He/she got me out of a tough situation when…
I can never forget the time when…
Advice I can give the couple is…
A time that he/she made me laugh was when…
What are the person’s greatest character values? What makes them such an excellent match for the other?
How did the two meet? Were you instrumental in making it happen? How did it happen?
When did you know the couple found the right person in the other?
What are the bride or groom’s favorite books, movies, or songs?
How do the two or one person spend their time? What do their hobbies say about them?
Do either have a particular set of quirks that are endearing yet not too embarrassing?
Brainstorming ideas for retirement speeches:
What do you admire about the person retiring?
What lessons have they taught you?
How have you changed professionally and personally from watching this person work?
If you’ve watched them for some time, how have they changed for the better?
What are your most memorable stories?
Do they have any odd quirks that aren’t too embarrassing?
How is the organization better for having this person? How has the organization or department changed in this person’s stead?:
Brainstorming ideas for awards speeches:
What obstacles did you encounter before the accomplishment that this award has recognized?
Who helped you along the way? Who mentored you? What did your family give up or sacrifice to help you get here?
What advice do you have for the next generation after you?
Is there anything special about the award, the event, or the occasion, that you can remark upon?
Did you lead a team that helped create the success behind the award? What do you want to say to them?
When you are giving an award to someone else…
Structure: Great deeds, how do they live/do their work?, lessons/advice/legacy
What impressed you the most about this person? Why are they the right choice for the award?
Have they undertaken any projects or ideas that have gone under the radar? Can you recognize those as well?
How has this person changed from their beginning to now with the award?
Is there a call to action for this organization or award’s greater purpose?
Step 4: Organize your short speech
Now that you’ve generated plenty of ideas, you’ll want to determine a structure for your toast.
details the most common ways you’ll see someone give a toast. The first is advice-based, followed by story-based, and then third, the extended metaphor. See how each one fits the toast you want to give based on the occasion. You can also mix and match the forms as you see fit.
Speeches that are advice-based organize themselves around bits of wisdom or principles. The best example is from the Retirement Manifesto. Here, the speaker uses his retirement to give life advice to those in the audience.
Each piece of advice is followed up by a short story, quote, or something else.
How to adopt this form:
Come up with three to seven principles that you strive to live your life by. Avoid cliches when possible (“live life to its fullest,” “savor every moment,”); instead, think of what you would say if someone asked for life advice over a cup of coffee. What would you tell them?
Another great source for inspiration is Dr. Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture,” where he gave all the lessons in his life knowing that he had a terminal illness. Do an internet search to find its recording and subsequent book. It’s worth watching multiple times.
Once you have the lessons figured out, find a way to creatively tell each lesson. Most people opt for anecdotes but if you have an interesting bit of research or a shocking number, use those sparingly to break it up.
You can also go the opposite way—think of memorable moments from your life, ones that made you who you are today—ones that changed you (back to the Hero’s Journey). What lessons can you draw from those moments? You can either lead with those moments as a story or headline the section and tell the story after.
Each piece of advice is the headline for the section with the content that follows illuminating the advice. You can also go the opposite way and tell a story and conclude the lesson from it.
Each lesson doesn’t need to be the same length—for some, you’ll have more to say than others and that’s OK.
Why 3-7? It’s a starting point and there’s no real rhyme or reason. Three because many speeches are organized around threes. Seven is an upper limit to help keep the speech on the shorter side. Go with what feels right to you.
When it’s appropriate:
You’ll find advice-based speeches most often at retirements, promotions, birthday parties, and occasionally weddings. Usually the person giving the advice is much wiser, experienced, or older, than the people listening.
For example, a father of the bride may be giving marriage advice to the new couple. Or a fire chief is giving advice to a room of candidates upon their graduation from training. Or someone is celebrating 50 years on this earth and wants to give advice to those a bit younger in the audience.
Story-based speeches lead with a story rather than a set of lessons. Sometimes they blend with the advice version but not all stories are told as moral warnings. Some are told to show someone’s great character or a touching moment.
How to do this form:
Story-based speeches can be a series of vignettes or they can be one long complete story. Think first about the values and character of the person you’re honoring and find the stories that demonstrate those. You might have a few stories or one really good one.
Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement address is a great example of the form–he tells three stories and makes a connection between each one.
When they’re appropriate:
Almost always. This is the most popular way of giving a toast where you talk about the great stories of a person and use those to help make your point.
However, you’ll find them most often in wedding toasts where you get to hear great stories of the groom and bride. Other times, when honoring someone at their retirement or birthday party, you’ll want to tell stories that illuminate their best qualities.
How do you tell the difference between story-based and advice-based? Aren’t they two sides of the same coin?
Yes, they can be. As you’ll notice in the retirement speech, it’s advice and story driven. That’s fine. The goal in making the distinction is that you won’t always have advice to give after a story or the point of the story may be for laughter or sentimentality. You can end a story with lessons that you learned or what impressed you the most about it, but you just don’t have to. Plus, you probably won’t headline a story with its advice and values, “Now let me tell you about the time when John showed courage.” Let the story imply what was shown and draw the details after.
These structures aren’t rigid and can be mixed and matched.
Thank you based:
Someone out there wrote some speech advice that’s mostly correct: Don’t fill the opening of a speech with thank-yous nor the whole thing. That’s almost right.
How to do this form:
A thank-you based speech, when done correctly, can work. Instead of headlining each section with advice as seen above, come up with whom you are thankful for and why. Use each person or group as a headline.
Within each one, give words of thanks, tell short stories, and use that as an opportunity to thank them.
You’ll find this type of speech most appropriate when you are the center of attention for an award or other occasion where many people helped you get to the big day.
You’re receiving an award; you are graduating at the top of your class; you are celebrating a birthday surrounded by friends and family and they all had an impact on you.
This is the trickiest to pull off but it can be powerful when done correctly. Take a look at this award acceptance speech from Audra Lawlor at Girl Meets Dirt. It doesn’t fit neatly into any of the categories above, but look at how it’s giving lessons and telling a story all at once.
Can you mix and match?
Yes, and that’s what makes each toast unique. In the body of your toast, you can have a part where you tell great stories about the person you’re honoring and then offer a few words of advice to the crowd.
You can thank specific people who helped you achieve a certain goal but then provide advice to the rest of the crowd.
The body of your speech is where you get to tell stories, give advice, and give specific thank-yous to meaningful people in your life.
You can choose to headline the sections with advice, story themes, or thank-yous or go the more subtle route, lead with a story, and then conclude with the takeaways you want for your audience.
Many find it much easier to write the body of a speech first and then later worry about the opening and closing that will act as bookends on the speech. If you’re stuck here, go onto the next section and try the opening and closing parts and come back to the body.
Step 5: Editing–What if my speech is too long?
As promised, here’s how to edit your speech down if you feel that you have too much to say or you are way over in your allotted time and word count.
First, determine the funniest story and the most sentimental story–just tell those two as part of the story section in your speech. You ideally want both to balance each out–plus, sometimes a funny story is taken seriously by the audience and it just becomes sentimental.
Second, cut down any acknowledgments or thank-yous or cut the section entirely. You can make one or two acknowledgments if there’s a VIP in the room (like your CEO or the bride’s father) but cut out the number of people you are thanking.
Third, leave only the essential details in the story you’re telling. If there are extraneous characters that don’t matter much to the plot, take them out. Think of each story like a movie trailer–only add in the absolutely necessary details and let the audience fill in the rest.