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Thanksgiving speech

By: Susan Dugdale | Last modified: 08-20-2019 | First published: 11-01-2010

- let's get you started preparing what you're going to say

To help you prepare your thanksgiving speech, or toast, with minimum fuss here's:

  • a simple two step process,
  • with an optional side-serving of history,
  • a link to collection of handy thank you quotations,
  • an example thanksgiving speech to read and,
  • a few delivery tips for nervous first time speakers.

You'll find the suggestions good for either an informal toast or a more formally structured short speech. 


Image: row of autumn leaves hanging on a line. Text: Thanksgiving - a time to say thanks for life, family, friends, and food in a speech.

Step one: begin by choosing a theme

Your toast or speech will be stronger and more effective based one principal idea or theme rather than a pick and mix assortment; a jumble of different ideas.

A useful way to think of a theme is to imagine it as the uniting thread linking everything you want to say together.

Choose one theme from these below. 

Traditional thanksgiving themes are:

Image: sprig of oak leaves with acorn

gratitude or thanks for all that is good, wholesome and sustaining in our lives. For example the food we eat, the love we give and receive, our family,  our friends, the country we live in, the air we breathe, the parks we play in, our work, freedom of speech, an education ...

Image: sprig of oak leaves with acorns

- recognition of community - our inter-dependencies - understanding and acknowledging that we are part of a web of existence larger than our individual selves, families or extended families.
This could include everything: moving from our immediate environment, out to the world, and beyond, as beautifully exemplified in this poetic Iroquois Thanksgiving Address.

Image: sprig of oak leaves with acorns

- celebrating the season. Thanksgiving and the ancient Harvest Festival (celebrating the harvesting of crops in Autumn or Fall) share many common elements. This Wikipedia link will give you an introductory overview - Harvest Festival.

Image: sprig of oak leaves with acorns

honor due to those who give or serve in order that we may continue to live. 

Image: sprig of oak leaves with acorns

acknowledgement of difficult times: losses, trials or challenges that must be faced to move forward. 

Image: sprig of oak leaves with acorns

resolution and hope: decisions taken to do or not something, an outline of a plan for the future and expressing hope that what you intend or resolve to do will turn out well, to everyone's benefit.  

As part of deciding about theme also consider:

1. Who your speech is for

What do the people listening to you expect to hear?
Is it lighthearted stories and recollections or something more solemn and formal?

Family & friends

If it's family and friends you're talking to, it could be a round up of the year's life changing events involving the people present. Like for instance, a marriage, a change of job, or the birth of a child, the challenge of a diagnosis of a serious illness  ...

Work or business

If it's your work or business colleagues the focus will be less personal, and quite likely more formal in tone. Here a round up of events affecting the company could be appropriate. 

Identifying the audience's needs and expectations will help you choose the theme and then subsequently, how you treat it. 

And it would probably be wiser to leave contentious subjects like politics and religion quite alone!

2. The purpose of your speech

Vintage thanksgiving card with the quote: If the only prayer you said in your whole life was thank you that would suffice.
  • Are you aiming to inspire people?
  • Do you wish to unite them?
    Always a good idea - particularly if you have a passionate, headstrong family! Or a scattered workforce - one that works in different locations. 
  • Maybe you want them to laugh and relax.

Perhaps it is a combination of all three intentions.

Knowing what you want to achieve, or the main purpose behind giving your speech, will also help guide your choice of theme, tone and content.

3. The style of the occasion

Is it formal or informal?

Will your speech/toast be delivered in an intimate setting like a family dining room or will it be in hall and delivered from behind a lectern?

Thanksgiving history

Vintage thanksgiving greetings card featuring a turkey with autumn leaves in the background.

Macy's parade, football, Plymouth pilgrims, turkey, pumpkin pie ...

Like many traditions, the origins of thanksgiving have been blurred by time. Not only are there contradictory accounts, and differing interpretations of events dependent on viewpoint but there's also the inevitable, and ongoing, introduction of other cultural and religious celebrations. Today's Thanksgiving celebration is an evolving fusion of them all. 

History.com offers 16 videos covering known, and less well known, aspects of the celebration.  Find out about the history of the Thanksgiving Parade, the first football broadcast, Mayflower myths or pumpkin pie. There is a lot to choose from!


Image: sprig of oak leaves and acorns

Step two: plan the outline of your speech

You're ready to take step two once you've made the decision about theme, you're  clear about who you're talking to and, what you want your speech to achieve.  

This step is planning what you're going to say. To make the entire process easier download a blank outline form from the link below.

Even if you only want to talk briefly (ie. just a minute ) it helps to plan. 

Get yourself a speech outline form

Download a printable fill-in-the-blanks speech outline form.
The form will guide and help you structure your speech, reducing the overall time it takes to prepare it.

In short, it will make getting from wondering what to talk about to 'got it sorted' easier.


Now begin with the body of the speech

This is the "heart" of your speech. You will add the opening and conclusion later.

(Obviously you don't need to slavishly fill in every section of the form. If you want a  brief speech/toast you may only need 1 main point.)

Based on your chosen theme note down 1, 2 o3 main points on your speech outline form.

Begin with the most important point

Start with the most important first. For each point you make give one or two examples to illustrate it. When you give your speech you'll link these  points with transitions.*

*(If you need more explanation of transitions you'll find it here on this page: how to write a speech.)

  • Point One: Main idea - Example, example
  • Transition or link to...
  • Point Two: Idea - Example, example
  • Transition or link to...
  • Point Three: Idea - Example, example
  • Transition or link to the conclusion of your thanksgiving speech.

Next outline the conclusion of your speech

To end well, reinforce your theme, summarize your main points and finish with strong statement or maybe a quotation that will resonate on in the minds of your audience.

And lastly add the beginning of your speech

This segment:

  • Acknowledges and welcomes guests to the occasion. If you have guests of honor, name them.
  • Introduces the theme of your speech
  • Gives a broad overview of the main points
  • And links or transitions into the body of the speech starting with your most important, and first point

Image: sprig of oak leaves and acorns

Getting from outline to speech

Now let's see how you go from outline to speech.

In my example speech below I've given each segment a label so that you can easily see the flow of material.

Before you read it, here's a little bit of context which will help you imagine it being said more clearly.

Meet the Jones family

I'd like to introduce you to the Jones family. They've all gathered at Cheryl and Jake's place this year.

Around the table there's Andrew, Marci, Kevin, Liz, Merel, Ben, Simon, Cheryl and Jake.

Image: retro woman carrying a thanksgiving turkey. Text:Gratitude: the quality of being thankful ...Happy thanksgiving.

Cheryl has chosen the theme 'gratitude' and will give this small speech before the family eats. It's approximately 1.5 -2 minutes long when spoken aloud. 

Thanksgiving speech example

Opening:
Thank you for joining us to celebrate the best kind of giving, thanks giving. It’s really lovely to see you around our table.

Transition and introduction of Point One (the main idea):
Haven’t we had an extraordinary year?

Example 1:
In January we were delighted when Andrew took out a well deserved first in the County men’s cross country skiing competition.

Example 2:
When Spring finally arrived it turned out that flowers weren’t the only things blooming. Marci was expecting.

Example 3:

Then Kevin got a new job, one that he’s worked so incredibly hard for. Liz rediscovered her joy of gardening. When Merel graduated we couldn’t have been prouder.

Transition: 
Look around! Here we all are and we have so much to be thankful for.

Point Two:
Even the challenges. And we’ve had quite a few of those.

Example 1:
Ben got ill.  We were immensely relieved when the diagnosis finally came through. 

Example 2: 
Aunt Ede passed on.

Example 3:
The company Simon worked for folded.

Those were tough. Yet we’ve made it through and are stronger, more compassionate people as a result.

Transition:
How did we do it?

Point Three:
We did it together. We Joneses keep up with each other, in good times as well as the ones that test us.

Conclusion:
My thanks giving begins and ends with family. You. I am grateful to each one of you for being here today, and for being in our lives.  Jake and I love you.

Here's to us!

And now let’s eat.

Thank you quotations for your thanksgiving speech

"If you count all your assets, you always show a profit."
- Robert Quillen

Click for a selection of thank you quotations similar to this one to use in your speech. 



5 tips for delivering your thanksgiving speech

To make sure you are thankful, and happy with yourself, after you've given your speech do check these five tips.

Skip the temptation to wing it

Image: retro woman musing. Text: Um, yeah. I just want my um, you know, speech to sound, um yeah, you know, natural.

Please don't be tempted to wing it.  Or to convince yourself that because you want to come across as natural you don't need to practice.

Sometimes that works, and sometimes it goes horribly, embarrassingly wrong. You don't have to experience that. 

  1. Write your outline on numbered and labeled cards. (Introduction, Body, Conclusion).
    You do not have to use them if you have memorized your speech. But they're a great safety net to have if suddenly have a mind blank.

    See this page for how to make and use cue cards effectively.

  2. Time the delivery of your speech to fit harmoniously into the occasion's program.

    It's very irksome for everybody - the cooks, waiters and guests, if you go well over the minute or two you said you'd speak for. Nobody will give you thanks for that, unless you are extraordinarily compelling and entertaining to listen to. Unfortunately, that's not many of us.

  3. Save the glass of wine for after your speech rather than before it.

  4. Practice the speech before delivery to your audience and have a few trusted friends or family members listen to it. Get their feedback on content, tone and length (1 - 3 minutes is good!) Make any changes necessary.

    Rehearsal is particularly important if you're speaking in a professional setting, ie. in front of your work colleagues, business partners... Your family and friends might overlook a fluff up or two. However your colleagues may not be so forgiving.

    Check out this page on rehearsal techniques.

  5. If you're nervous about giving your speech do look at this page on overcoming public speaking anxiety. You'll find many tried and trusted tips to tame the jitters.

Image: sprig of oak leaves and acorns