It's not about you.
It's about the just-married couple, the recent retiree, the newly promoted. It's about the adolescent celebrating a quinceañera or bar/bat mitzvah, the person observing a birthday or graduation, the pair marking an anniversary. In other words, a toast is about the person(s) being honored, not the person making the toast.
It follows, then, that the toast should pour outward, the remarks centered on whoever is being honored. If you use the words "I" or "me" or "my" more than a time or two, your focus is off.
First of all, be attentive to the nature of the celebration and its participants. Those attending—your audience—are there for any of several reasons. Many are there because of love, friendship, or kinship, and others out of respect or a sense of obligation (or maybe the free food).
Be aware of this range of affiliations and relationships. Any story you tell must be comprehensible to those who know the honoree both best and least. Your comments must be appropriate—no allusions to a drunken brawl at the last offsite. No references to significant others previously ditched or failing grades or lost jobs. Keep your diction appropriate, and, for heaven's sake, don't use any *&$#% profanity.
Finally, keep your toast short, two minutes at most. The celebration may include many toasts, the audience may grow weary of sitting, other activities may be on the schedule. So keep it short, simple, and sublime.
THE STRUCTURE AND CONTENT
If you know in advance that you will be making a toast, prepare and practice.
Determine a "theme" for the content of your toast, an idea around which your comments will adhere. Doing so will help you choose what to include and make it less likely that you will ramble.
You could select accomplishment or dedication for a toast to a retiree, a chance meeting or shared interests and values for a wedded couple, an ongoing joie de vivre for a birthday celebrant. The theme could be a video game, a smile, a sense of purpose, a question asked many years ago. But keep it personal, not philosophical or abstract, and use examples that connect directly to the person(s) being honored.
Those examples may be short descriptions, anecdotes, stories. Use figurative language and rhetorical devices to enrich your comments, to illustrate, to rouse emotion, to say more with fewer words.
This structure works well:
- If you are not introduced, explain in very few words your relationship to the honoree(s)
- Mention the honoree(s) by name
- Refer to the event at which you are presently speaking
- Dip back into the past—into your theme and its examples
- Return to the present moment
- Project into the future by offering best wishes, happy prospects, success in upcoming endeavors
- Mention the honoree(s) again by name
Throughout the toast, aim for a gracious, cordial tone. Use voice variations to help you express meaning, including changes in pace and well-placed pauses.
Stand at the beginning of the toast, holding your glass about chest-high and slightly to the side. Focus your eyes on the honoree(s) as you start speaking but include others as you proceed, returning your gaze occasionally to the recipient(s) of the toast, most especially when you want to add emphasis.
As you end, raise your glass higher, look at the honoree(s), repeat the name(s). After a moment, take a sip.
It will indeed be an honor.