Its hard to give a toast if your foot is in your mouth

One of the oldest traditions at a wedding is a toast from the best man to the bride and groom.

But what seems to be a simple task becomes as dangerous as juggling knives in the hands — or the mouth — of someone who forgets his manners.

Sordid details of the bachelor party, a list of the bride’s former boyfriends, overt questions regarding honeymoon activities — they’ve all made their way into what should be a gracious statement honoring the married couple.

The best strategy is to play it safe during the toast, says Rosanne J. Thomas, president of Protocol Advisors Inc., a Boston company that serves as a consultant to individuals and businesses with etiquette and protocol concerns.

The toast should be well-prepared, simple and brief, she says. It should have no information of a personal or intimate nature that might embarrass the married couple, their families or their guests.

“The wedding is a solemn moment, the most important day of many people’s lives,” says Thomas. “The key participants are taking it seriously. So should you.”

Even with the current practice of “anything goes” as the norm for wedding events, Thomas says the old-fashioned rules of courtesy are a good safety net.

In other words, think Emily Post — traditional rules of etiquette have survived for a reason. They might not be trendy, but they have kept people out of trouble for a few hundred years.

Thomas offered these tips to would-be toastmasters and toastmistresses:

• Traditionally, the best man offers the first toast. It’s considered polite for everyone in the room to stop drinking and hold their glasses in anticipation of the toast.

The rules of etiquette state that in a formal wedding, the bride and groom should not toast themselves. Let the people who’ve gathered for your day honor you and recognize the importance of your marriage.

Thomas says that additional toasts, such as the groom honoring the bride or the parents, are completely acceptable. Just don’t go overboard — too many toasts detract from the special significance of the one that really matters.

• Thomas says the common fear of public speaking often makes the task of toasting daunting.

“People put a lot of pressure on themselves,” says Thomas. “Everyone knows you’re human and nobody expects perfection.”

With that in mind, there are several tactics that will help you be the toast of the town.

Give some thought to what you will say. “Winging it” is not a good strategy, particularly if you are nervous.

If you know you will be asked to give a toast, jot down a few notes beforehand. You might even practice the toast in front of a friend to get his reaction to what you’ll say.

One important tip: Get the bride and groom’s name right.

“I recall a wedding where the best man called the bride by the name of the groom’s old girlfriend,” says Thomas. “It was just a slip of the tongue and everyone laughed it off. But that example does serves as a lesson for why it’s important to rehearse.”

What if you mess up unintentionally? Thomas says that people are forgiving — just laugh off a slip of the tongue or unintentional faux pas and move on.

• Watch how much you drink. Alcohol lowers the normal inhibitions that might otherwise keep you from saying something really, really stupid. Stay sober if you’re the person charged with making the toast.

• If asked on the spot to give a toast, think once, then twice about what you say and how you will say it.

Conservative decisions stand the test of time, she says, and offer the least opportunity for embarrassment.

“What you say or do at the wedding will be etched in people’s memories forever.”