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After two decades of performing stand-up and improvisational comedy, Sean Cullen has no trouble making an impromptu New Year's toast - opting for reflection over humour. "For the year that's been, and the year that will be, let us all raise a glass. And let us hope that, though this year was good, the next will be better," he says.

"The problem with comedy and toasting is that everybody thinks they've got a great sense of humour, but often you should not try to be funny," he says.

Mr. Cullen's advice for those truly phobic? "I think they should pretend they are Sean Connery. He seems to be impossible to embarrass. If anybody bothers him he just slaps or ignores them."

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Here are additional tips for creating memories with a few well-chosen words.

Make it personal

When paying homage to a loved one or colleague, speak from the heart. "I was very happy with my wedding toast because I was in the moment and happy and toasting my wife, Kim," says Mr. Cullen, who is currently starring in Mirvish Productions' A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the Canon Theatre in Toronto. "I was looking at her and just said what I felt at the time, which was that she saved me from ruin. It was funny for everyone, but she knows it was also true."

Don't read or rush

Those uncomfortable at centre stage should take extra care to speak slowly and enunciate. "Mumbling is bad. People want to hear what you have to say so try to speak loudly and clearly," Mr. Cullen says.

It's a toast, not a speech, so don't read your lines. Instead, rehearse in advance to calm your nerves.

Be traditional

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Some etiquette experts counsel against customary toasts and quotations in favour of more original fare - advice one may ignore. Mr. Cullen singles out a traditional Scottish toasting of the haggis on Robbie Burns Day as his favourite. "They play the pipes and there's a whole ritual and whoever's going to cut the haggis has to do the toast," he says. "It's an amazing thing, when everyone's attention is focused on this little blob of meat for a moment, and everybody's not wearing pants. It's incredible."

Know your audience

Talk to the host if you have any doubts about the appropriateness of your subject matter. "Sometimes it's difficult when you're at a corporate event and have to do a toast and you're not really aware of who's who and what's what," Mr. Cullen says. "Some people will accept a little naughtiness, others will not. If you're toasting the Pope, don't mention the Hitler Youth, for example."

Toast, don't roast

"When I'm toasting, I like to be a little irreverent," Mr. Cullen says. "If you throw in a little spice and a poke or two at the recipient, it loosens everyone up and lets them know this is a fun situation." He adds: "But if they've just won a Nobel Prize, I don't think you should mock their particle theory."

To keep a tribute from turning into target practice, stick to one or two gentle jokes that the object of your attention is bound to find funny, so the room is laughing with her, not at her.

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Keep it short

Most people lose track of time when public speaking, so do a dry (meaning sober) run with a timer and limit yourself to one minute - two at most. "The thing about a toast is that people are waiting to drink, so you're keeping them from what they want to do," Mr. Cullen says.

*And don't do this: Toast before consulting the host. You may steal his thunder.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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