This guide will help you put together a toast for your next “big moment.” It could be a wedding toast that you have to give or a retirement speech for yourself or a cherished colleague. Maybe you’re accepting an award and you don’t like talking about yourself. This guide can help. Need help with your next toast or short ceremonial speech? You can email me here and we can work together on the writing and editing of your next speech.
Guide Organization and Layout
The first part of the book begins with an overarching view of what most toasts and ceremonial speeches ought to accomplish. These are general guidelines for each portion and should help you think about your speech.
The second part contains specific advice for the most common types of toasts and ceremonial speeches you will be faced with giving. It would be impossible to cover all types but you’ll be able to pick up the common themes for your unique occasion.
The third part contains advice for preparation, rehearsal, and memorization. It will help you be your best after you’ve written your speech.
What won’t be in this guide:
I’m not going to go deep into story theory. That’s for other books to cover but not this one. A short chapter with just enough but I don’t want to burden you with getting caught up in the best ways to tell a story.
There won’t be a ton of rhetorical theory. Similarly, already covered elsewhere and it can get really nerdy. Sure, I’ll point it out when necessary and useful to your toast. There’s even a section where I’ll list out a few techniques that can punch up a sentence or section but the goal of this book is to get a speech that sounds like you and not some fake orator at a speaking competition.
Our goal in this guide:
By the time you’re done reading this book, my goal is that you have gone through the brainstorming process, written a first draft, edited it, and rehearsed it! All of the information you need will be in here.
But, this all requires that you do the work. Just reading through can give you some ideas but you’ll benefit far more if you do the activities that accompany each chapter.
Who is this speech guide for?
This is for anyone giving a small 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.
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.
Retirement speeches and going away speeches
How do you say goodbye to the key employee who has worked for you for the last 20 years? How do you send your favorite workmate onto their next job with and insure that they know exactly how you felt?
Speeches for Birthday parties and anniversaries
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?
Speeches for Company party celebrations at the beginning or end of the year
How do you toast the success of an entire company or team without leaving anyone out? How do you recognize success and cast a vision of the future? What do you say when things didn’t go that well but you’re hoping for a brighter year ahead?
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 book is your guide.
How to use this guide:
Reading this guide isn’t enough: I hope that you have a speech in mind that you can work on while you read this guide.
At the end of each chapter are a set of key takeaways paired with questions to drive the content of your speech. Some aren’t always going to apply but many will.
Take the time right now to open a document on your computer or to dedicate a few pages in your journal to answering these questions. As you go along, you’ll realize that the ideas for your toast were in you all along.
How do I know this?
It happened over and over again with the clients I worked with. They would reach out for a speech, I’d send them the questionnaire, and a few would write back, “If I answered all of these questions, why would I need you?” Good question and that’s where the idea for this book was born. It’s a bargain to write your own speech for around $10 then pay for a writer to help out. Of course, I still helped with the overall organization and wordsmithing but plenty of people crafted great speeches all from the brainstorming success of asking the right questions.
That is really the essence of a good speech. You are answering some key questions that are in the minds of your audience but aren’t necessarily ones they are going to ask during a Q&A session. Instead, think of it like the questions we have in our heads whenever we read a great book or go to a movie. We want to know a protagonist’s motivations, we want to know the reason for a conflict, we want to know how someone solved a problem—those are all inherent questions in any narrative. They’ll also be a part of your speech.
Many of the questions and ideas in this book are influenced by the hero’s journey. It’s the archetype for many movies and narratives across media. Sometimes you are the hero and the audience wants to know how you changed, who you mentored, and the gifts (advice) you brought back to share. Other times, the person you’re honoring is cast in the role of the hero and you have to tell their story—just like we’ve done since Odysseus and Virgil.
Other books can go deeper into the Hero’s Journey but it’s easy enough to sum up here (and not waste your time):
Some startling event calls a hero to action. The hero is at first reluctant but answers the call. Along the way, the hero encounters obstacles and is changed because of them. They are also helped by a wise mentor along the way. In the end, after facing their toughest obstacle, the hero returns with a gift or prize.
OK, but how does this apply to the toast I’m about to give?
Other books out there get bogged down in the Hero’s Journey—we are going to use the parts of it that make sense for the toast and occasion while keeping the main goal in mind: honor the person; honor the event.
Your toast will be about the great deeds of others (even yourself); the mentors along the way; the advice you’re now able to give to the audience. Just know that the ideas here are born out among great narratives that have been told since the beginning of time. But rather than rehash the stories and examples that are abundant elsewhere, the speeches in this book will all be real ones given by real people all within the last 10-15 years. So I apologize in advance that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, MLK’s I have a Dream and Kennedy’s Moonshot, won’t be in here. There are plenty of other books that can address those. Instead the speeches here will be modern models that you can use for inspiration and structural guidance as you craft your toast or short speech.
Goals and Parts of Any Toast
The goal of any toast is to “honor the person and honor the event.” What trips people up when creating a toast is that they try to achieve that goal but don’t have a road map to get there.
A key theme throughout any great toast is the theme of change. You honor the person and the event by talking about the change that happened.
Speeches fall flat (and stories, too) when the characters involved don’t change at all. I use characters loosely, they can be people but events, organizations, causes, places, etc.
If you’re wondering why a part of your toast is falling flat, it might be because there’s no change inherent in the part.
Imagine the orator who gets up and heaps consistent praise on an organization.
For example, “This past year, we made donations of $15,000, recruited 50 new members, and launched a new strategic initiative with X, a local advocacy group.”
It feels good and gets a few claps, but what of the person who instead talks this way:
When we started out 11 years, it was just 7 people after the mayor’s loss who felt like we needed better leadership in our city. Our first meeting was those seven and two people who just happened to be passing by at the library. But we didn’t give up. Instead, what started as just an idea among friends soon spread to our neighbors and friends. This past year, we made donations of $15,000, recruited 50 new members, and launched a new strategic initiative with X. Now, looking at this crowd tonight of 300, I cannot help but be proud of what we’ve accomplished this past year and what we’ll accomplish next year.
Why does this work?
The speaker showed the change inherent in the organization—from one of humble beginnings to a well-formed group.
Or think about great wedding toasts. How did one member of the couple change the other over time for the better? How did the bride or groom change you as a person? All of these are ripe for toasts and will make more of an impact than empty platitudes.
It’s not that talking about accomplishments is a bad thing but they sound so much better when you frame them in terms of change. No need for fancy story theory here—just show the change in a person, in an organization, in a cause, and you’ll do just fine.
Once you have the ideas of change in place for your toast, many will have the following sections. The order of each section will be determined by the type of toast, this order is just meant for illustrative purposes:
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.
- Any toast should honor the person and honor the event
- When honoring a person, you should tell great stories about the person that show them in the best possible light
- When honoring the event, focus on its historical significance or why the event was started or the impact it has on the attendees or those being helped by the organization
- Demonstrating change is your key tool
Answer each of the questions below in the document you have open for this guide This is an opportunity to get some preliminary thoughts down regardless of the occasion or structure you will later use.
- 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?
Length of a Toast or Ceremonial Speech
Before we get too far, you may be wondering, “How long should my speech be?” Will a few lines suffice? How will I know if it’s the right length for the occasion?
Before editing, do not worry as much about length. Instead, try to get as many ideas onto the page as necessary. Later, you can pare down the ideas to the appropriate length.
As a guideline, most toasts and ceremonial speeches should be no longer than 10 minutes. Some may require you to stay closer to five minutes and under.
To plan ahead, ask the person who is organizing the event what their preference is for your portion.
From there, you can figure out your own speaking rate and create a speech based on your own words per minute spoken.
Here’s how to do this:
- Find the text of a speech that you like and read it aloud for 3 minutes. Count the number of words and divide by three. That should give you a good gauge of your speaking rate.
- Plan your speech according to your speaking rate. Most people will fall in a range of 135 words per minute to 150 words per minute when speaking. As a guide, a 5 minute speech will be between 675 words 750 words and a 10 minute speech will be between 1,350 and 1,500 words.
- Plan for a buffer of time in case your portion is cut short or other things come up.
Ways to Organize a Toast or Short Speech
Sometimes it’s easier to write your toast when you have a form to follow. This section 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.
There are many, many, resources, out there on storytelling and it can get pretty complex. Go back to the hero’s journey and cast the person you’re honoring in the role of the hero. Talk about the obstacles they overcame and how they changed as a person. If that doesn’t work, tell the story like you’re telling a friend.
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.
This is the trickiest to pull off but it can be powerful when done correctly. Take a look at this award acceptance speech. 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.
How to do this form:
Tie your speech’s metaphor to the reason that you are giving the toast. Use metaphors that people may not have heard before and ones unlikely to offend or confuse. You don’t have to make the whole speech one long metaphor–it can simply be a section within it.
When is it appropriate:
If there is a clear metaphor or connection to be made and you want to be creative, then use this form. It may work the best in awards speeches or for ones like retirement speeches if you have a life story that can be summed up with a strong common theme. This is the trickiest form to pull off, and you may want to explore poems or song lyrics that you can use (with the right attribution/copyright cleared) instead.
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.
- Use each section above as inspiration and start free writing: What lessons have you learned that you can impart with this toast? What stories can you tell? Is there an extended metaphor? Do you need to thank specific people who made this moment/occasion happen?
- Try creating a headline for each section and filling it in. Conversely, try starting with the story first and coming up with a way to draw the conclusion after (or none at all).
- To try your hand at an extended metaphor, is there something about this award, your accomplishment, or the occasion, that would make sense? In the speech above, there was a commonality not just among fruit, but the seasons, and life and death. If it feels forced, find a different path.
Writing the Closing of a Toast or Ceremonial Speech
So why the closing before discussing the opening of the toast? Chances are, the body will flow naturally into a conclusion. It’ll be easier for you as a writer and a speaker to craft the conclusion now that you’ve just thought about the body. The opening will be next in this odd sequence of writing (but one that works!).
The conclusion mirrors the opening. In a way, it’s some of the same advice. Except you want to end on a high note. That’s done in a few ways.
First, you can sum up the speech. But not in a drab way—talk about the major themes that your body discussed.
Quote—something non cliche
Find a quotation that fits the speech but steer away from any that you’ve heard before (Einstein, Churchill, Helen Keller, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy, etc).
A vision of the future
Paint a picture of what the future will look like for the person or couple being honored. Is it one of endless skiing and visiting distant countries? Maybe of kids and their own home? Maybe just a happy marriage? Is the organization going to be better off (and how) now that this person has been promoted?
Sum it all up/declarative statement
This isn’t like your 8th grade essays but many short speeches often contain a section at the end that summarizes everything that the speaker wanted to say about the event, the person being honored, or wasn’t able to say in all of the other parts.
Imagine you only get this section to give your main message—what would you say? How would you say it? Free write right now and see what comes to mind.
For a few examples…
Call back to the introduction or earlier story (circular, comedians do it)
Take this tip from comedians, the “call back.” You reference something that was said earlier—typically this is something in the opening or a poignant moment from one of the stories or maybe the single piece of advice that you felt was the most important.
- Great closings evoke the opening and give a sense of completion to the speech
- Reference something that was said earlier
- Use this opportunity to state your final words of thanks, gratitude, and overall love for the person being honored
- End with a quote or quip (easily internet searchable)
- If you could say nothing else to the person you’re honoring, what would it be in a single paragraph?
- What can you reference that was said earlier?
- How will the future be different for this person or organization?
- Is there a quote that could sum up or could you recall what was said in the introduction?
Writing the Opening of a Toast or Ceremonial Speech
How to start a toast:
Sometimes this is the hardest part to get right. Speakers want an opening that’s amazing and sets the speech up to be a success. You’ve heard advice that you have to get the opening right or nothing else matters. That’s kinda true. I don’t want you to heap pressure on yourself but instead give some ideas on how to start to get to the best part—the body.
The opening is tough for many speakers when they don’t know what they are going to talk about. Many sit down at a computer with a blank screen in front of them and try to start their speech at the beginning. That’s hard. Really hard. Because you don’t know your body or your ending and now you’re trying to open the speech.
Try this instead:
- Write the body first (see those sections)
- Write your conclusion
- NOW, write your opening
Why might that be easier?
The body gives you the meat of your speech—it’s everything you want to say. Your conclusion is based on the body and it’s to flow one into the next. Now, you’ve got 2/3 of your speech completed and you just need to create an introduction to get to the rest of it. You’ve got much more content to work with.
Small vignette or funny story:
Rather than starting with a one-liner joke, can you find a funny story instead about the event, the person being honored, or something else relevant to why you’re speaking? Maybe something about the person who put on the event or your initial reactions when being asked to speak. Small funny vignettes are less likely than one-liner jokes to go over poorly and they are easy to transition out of to begin the rest of the speech.
Significance of the event:
This is an overlooked way to start a speech but it gives you something relevant to say before you launch into the specific parts of your toast.
One way to do this is to remark on the event itself—what does marriage mean to you? What does retirement mean to you and others? What does a birthday celebration mean?
Other times, you might be at an event held by a prestigious organization. Why this event? Why now? What do you admire about this organization? Or it might be about the award—is there something significant about it? Does it hold historical value? All of these are ripe for maybe a few sentences on their meaning.
Is the event a historic one? Is it an anniversary for the organization?
At times, your words might be lacking so you go and find the words of others. That’s fine to do as long as you stay away from cliches, misquote and distort meaning, or use something irrelevant. It’s also good to do a check of the person quoted to ensure that they are still in historical good standing and were the ones who were the most likely authors of said quote.
But you can’t stop by just saying the quote and launching into the body of the speech. You can go into why you chose it or use its theme to introduce what you’re about to say. Don’t just leave the audience guessing for the quote and instead add some color around it.
Tonight’s Marie Curie award is for…she remarked…that last part struck me the most…
Acknowledgements and Thank yous—watch out!
Some public speaking advice out there will tell you to “never start with thank you’s” or similar stuff—you should get right into the meat of the speech and save them for later. They aren’t wrong and that’s my preference. But sometimes circumstances dictate that a few acknowledgments or thank-yous are needed. Imagine you are at a big event or dinner and certain VIPs are in the audience. Or someone put a huge amount of work into the event to pull it off. A few sentences thanking and acknowledging these people will not hurt. What we are all concerned about is when the introduction to your speech is nothing but thank yous and endless rounds of applause. No one wants that.
“Thank you, Mayor, President, etc…and of course to Madeline who put this whole event together, let’s give her a round of applause.”
Then start your speech.
Please no jokes.
When I say this part, it’s advice against groaning one-liners that you thought were clever. We are always funnier in our own heads. Yet so much could go wrong that I don’t want you to be embarrassed before the speech event starts. Timing and delivery could be off, there might be a national or local tragedy and the mood is against you, the crowd may not be warmed up and in a laughing mood—they don’t make two drink minimums just for the bottom line—it’s for all the budding comedians who need all the help they can get.
Write it with the ending in mind:
Does the conclusion feature the same quote as the beginning? Is there a way to introduce the quote at the beginning and then come back to it at the end?
Can you tie the intro and closing together?
- A great opening sets the stage for the rest of the speech—this is why many find success in writing the body first and then the opening and closing portions.
- If you can’t find your words to start, it’s OK to use a non-cliche quote. What counts? Start by throwing out any that you’ve heard or the typical go-tos: Churchill, Einstein, Lincoln, Mark Twain, etc. Go with an unexpected source such as movie quotes, song lyrics, poems, etc.
- Your opening and closing should mirror one another and tie the speech together.
- Jokes hardly work. Even if you’re an aspiring comedian they end up being awkward and going over flat with a crowd that may not be too warm to you. Funny stories work well in place but sometimes the delivery makes them seem more sentimental or dramatic rather than funny. You’ve been warned.
- Are there quick acknowledgments and VIPs that you have to address? Keep this part short.
- Is there a quote that you think would be appropriate? Explain why you chose it or riff on its themes.
- Is there a quick story you could tel that could be funny or sentimental and is it relevant to the rest of the speech?
- What is the significance of the event, the occasion, or the group hosting the event?
Advice for specific types of toasts and short speeches
Surprisingly, wedding toasts are quite predictable in their form and much of their content.
The speaker welcomes the audience, tells stories about the person they are focusing on (or both people getting married), gives some advice on how to have a happy marriage, and then ends with a 1-2 line toast.
To help you write your wedding toast, I’ve compiled a list of questions to help brainstorm the process. Go with the questions that make the most sense for your situation and the ones that generate the most ideas. These are applicable across types of wedding toasts: best man, maid of honor, father of the bride, mother of the bride, etc.
You can also get creative with how you deliver your toast. Some like to sing, dance, rap—just ensure that you’ve prepared adequately and have the skills to pull creative stuff off.
Use the following questions to brainstorm your wedding toast:
- 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?
Retirement speeches are a chance for you to reflect on your time in the role and what you learned and can teach others. Conversely, when honoring another person, it’s an opportunity for you to show your gratitude and lessons learned.
Advice when it’s you who is retiring:
Focus on advice and stories, mentors along the way, lessons learned, gratitude towards family members, bosses/managers/coworkers, and friends
- Who was instrumental in your success? How did they change you? What did they teach you?
- What obstacles did you overcome in your life? What lessons can we draw? Who or what helped you overcome them?
- What are you most grateful for over the course of your role?
- For those just starting out in your role, what advice do you want to give them? How about the people who are more seasoned? What do you want to tell them?
- What were you like on day 1? What are you like now? How have you changed?
- What do you plan to do in your retirement? Travel? Fish? Cook? Spend time with grandkids? What makes all of those things special to you?
Advice for when it’s someone else you admire that’s retiring:
Focus on the impact this person has made on you, others, the company/organization. What did they teach you? What will you miss about them? What legacy are they leaving? How can we live like them? What are you grateful for?
- 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?
Award speeches can be similar in content and structure to retirement speeches—the person is just getting the award before they retire (or at the same time).
Often, you may have to play dual roles with your speech and also talk about the award itself and the organization giving it.
At times, the award itself was created out of a meaningful event or the passing of a revered person that it’s named after. If you have the time, and have the content, it’s advised to talk about the purpose behind the award or whoever set it in motion.
Other times, the award itself is not significant (no real name attached) but the organization giving it out is important. Do the same and talk about the organization’s achievements in light of the person receiving the award.
There are two routes with the award speech—you’re giving it to someone else or you’re accepting it. There could be a 3rd when you accept on behalf of someone else who wasn’t able to make it due to a variety of factors. In that case, follow the advice as if you were the one giving the award to the person or read what the person prepared in advance.
Speakers are hesitant to talk about themselves when accepting an award for their work or achievement. It’s natural to feel this way. You don’t have to brag about your accomplishments but you can talk about them in a way where you can honor those that helped you achieve them. This shifts the focus from you to others.
You can also go the advice route and talk to the crowd about what advice you would give them.
When you are accepting an award…
- 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?
Promotion Speeches: Military, Police, Fire, EMS, Career
While promotions in the corporate world don’t always come with much ceremony, they are quite common in the military and many of our services such as EMS, fire, and police.
On receiving your own promotion:
Structure: Focus on who helped you achieve this promotion—mentors and mates, what have you learned? How have you changed? What advice do you have to others who want to achieve this rank, promotion, medal, etc.?
- Who helped you along the way?
- What advice do you have for others who want to attain the same rank or level?
- What do you hope to accomplish?
- How was the organization itself instrumental in your success?
- What is the significance of the work that your organization does?
On the promotion of another person:
Structure: Who was this person? What did they do? What was so great? What can we learn from them? How is the organization better having this person around?
- What obstacles did this person encounter? How did they overcome them? What changed about them?
- How were they different on day 1 vs. now upon receiving the award?
- How will the organization be better served by this person’s promotion?
- What is your overall vision for your company, department, platoon, organization, etc.?
- What can others in the room learn from this person’s accomplishments?
End of year and company appreciation speeches
Sometimes it’s not a specific person but you are more focused on honoring a group of people such as a team, division, or company. This is a bit trickier because you may want to call out a specific person but not diminish the efforts of another person.
Or you simply want to keep it short and sweet and praise everyone all at once.
So view the corporation or group as a single entity and person and tailor the questions that way. Sometimes it’s going to be important to recognize the achievements of a particular person or group—just know the risks going in.
Honor the event; honor the group.
Focus on achievements as a team; focus on obstacles that everyone worked together to overcome; talk about the upcoming year and goals for it; cast an overall vision; this is also the time to keep it under 5 or 10 minutes and definitely don’t bust out the powerpoint too much.
Really good examples: SA’s presentations where he focused on a sports theme, used pictures of his company succeeding (when we say ppt, we’re talking about bullet points)—it’s OK to put pictures of your company in action on a slide—we love that and it’s entirely appropriate.
Focus on the gratitude for the hard work your employees put in, especially unexpected overtime and going above and beyond.
1. What are you most proud of your company achieving in the past year and since its inception?
2. What obstacles did you and your team face over the past year? How did you overcome them? How did you become better or change because of those obstacles?
3. What challenges are you facing in the year ahead? How do you know that your team and company will meet them successfully?
4. For each department or team within your company, what do you want to say to each of them? Are there any unsung heroes that you’d like to recognize?
5. What are your goals for the next year and beyond? What is your ultimate vision for the company?
6. Is there anything else that you’d like to include or add that wasn’t covered above? Are there resources (like videos) that show off you and your company’s personality?
Tips on Preparing and Practicing Your Toast
How to prepare for a speech by practicing sections individually
Once you’ve written your speech or presentation, your work isn’t over. You still need to practice it. Specific methods on how to prepare for a speech aren’t discussed as much as ways to structure a speech or calm your nerves before giving it.
Some speakers try to practice their entire speech in one go during each session. This is fine for short presentations, but what happens if you have an hour-long presentation to prep for?
One method on how to prepare for a speech involves planning out your practice sessions well in advance of when you have to give your speech. Each session should focus on a particular part of your speech and build off the previous session. The goal is to practice the speech in small parts and continually add on to parts you’ve already mastered. For this example, let’s say that your speech has an introduction, closing, and 3 main points in the middle. Furthermore, you have about a month before the presentation.
For how to prepare for a speech like this, one way to set up your practice schedule is like the following, with each number being a practice session:
- Practice just the introduction
- Practice the closing
- Practice the introduction and closing
- Practice the introduction, point 1, and the closing.
- Practice the introduction, point 1, point 2, and the closing.
- Practice the introduction, point 1, point 2, point 3, and the closing.
- Practice full run-throughs until comfortable.
It’s up to you to decide if you should go on from one step to another. The idea here is to practice the speech in small parts and then gradually add on as you gain confidence. The added payoff is that by practicing in small sections, you are able to master the speech over time. You might be asking, why not just start with the introduction and then add on from there? Audiences remember most what they hear first and what they hear last. If you practice both your introduction and closing ahead of time, you’ll ensure that what your audience hears first and last are the most rehearsed parts of your presentation.
In planning your practice schedule, it’s actually easier to plan “with the end mind” (h/t Steven Covey) and work backwards from the big day. This will ensure that you have enough time to do a full run through and that you can prepare adequately beforehand. Taking the practice schedule above, use the last week before your presentation for 3 full run-throughs. Then schedule out steps 1-6 for at least 2 practice sessions each.
Best Way to Memorize A Speech: Scaffolded memorization
The worst thing that speakers can do is to read their speech from a podium. They have written it out in paragraphs and just start to read them as if they were delivering a paper at a conference. When this happens, the rhythm, emotion, and patter, of the speech is lost. The audience gets a lecture rather than a speech. The root cause is not from a lack of good words on the paper but a lack of memorization and preparation. Here is the best way to memorize a speech.
I want to share with you the method I give my clients when they want to memorize their speech: Scaffolded Memorization. I believe this is the best way to memorize a speech because it allows your mind to progressively learn the speech in small chunks over time. In addition, your notes become your guide, they act like memory hooks, rather than causing you to be glued to them when speaking.
First, go through the speech and say it out loud to make sure all of the words work
Next, take each sentence or two sentences and just write out the main point of each; try to say the speech using just those main points
Once you’ve mastered the previous step, write out the main points of each paragraph or complete thought; try to say the speech using just those main points
Repeat the process by taking away more and more from the speech and seeing how much you know in the end
Try giving the speech completely from memory once you’ve gotten your main points down to almost nothing. Give yourself multiple days to practice between each step. Each time, try to do as much as you can from memory. What you’re doing is training your brain to remember your speech.
If you can’t make it through all of the steps, write down the main ideas on 6×9 notecards in permanent marker. You don’t know what the lighting will be like where you will give your speech; trying to read your own handwriting in pen or pencil under dim lighting will be a challenge. The larger notecards will be easier to read but won’t get in the way that typed pages would.
The main goal of this method is to get your brain to recall more and more parts of the speech over time. You won’t be able to memorize the whole thing at once, but by doing it in gradual steps, you will come into the speech more prepared than ever. Memorize your speech without the use of notes will help you connect better to your audience and perform a speech rather than deliver a lecture.
How to write a speech: Compose your speech out loud
Your computer can be your greatest enemy when writing a speech. Too often, speechwriters sit down to write a speech and just begin typing at the computer like they would for a memo or press release. In the end, they get prose rather than poetry—a dissertation rather than a speech. There is a better way for how to write a speech.
Speeches are meant to be heard and not read, and they should be composed in the same way.
A better way to approach speech writing is to give the speech as you are writing it. As the words come out, handwrite them down or type them onto a computer. To make the speech sound natural you need to write down its words as you speak them: compose out loud for a better speech.
When you compose out loud you can hear the rhythm and the voice of the speaker. On paper, a sentence might sound brilliant but it loses its listener when spoken. You’ll find that your complex sentences full of semicolons put the speaker out of breath. Moreover, composing your speech out loud can help you keep a conversational tone rather than the corporate one that too often fills a CEO’s air.
When it comes to pauses, you’ll find where they naturally fit when you compose out loud. You’ll also notice that most of us don’t speak in long paragraphs—we speak a few sentences in a row and take time to pause before moving on to the next idea. You’ll know if you need a long or short pause in a section. When I translate the pauses into a Word document, I’ll use line breaks proportional to the amount of time that the speaker should pause.
Composing out loud can also help generate ideas if you’re stuck. I find that ideas flow better when I’m speaking them out loud. I can start and stop as much as possible and try to explain challenging concepts to myself or others. The ideas will flow faster and you will get to hear how they sound before deciding whether to commit them to paper.
One other benefit to composing out loud is that you can feel the emotional resonance of the speech. If the words you speak out loud move you then they are sure to move your audience. You will know if a section filled with information is boring or enlightening and whether you can shorten it or just cut it altogether. By just writing words without speaking, you’ll have to wait until the editing stage to know if they hit their mark.
For how to write a speech, my challenge to you is for you to compose your next speech out loud. You might look a bit odd when walking around your office saying your speech out loud as you write it. But that’s OK. Your end product will already have the right tone, rhythm, and emotional resonance, before the speaker even gets to practice it. You have to hear a speech to know if it will succeed—compose it in the same way.
Need help with your next toast or short ceremonial speech? You can email me here and we can work together on the writing and editing of your next speech.