05/12/2015 05:19 EDT | Updated 05/12/2016 05:59 EDT

Knowing audience, being prepared among keys to success at public speaking

Elizabeth May's rambling remarks at the recent parliamentary press gallery dinner thrust the Green party leader into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

Light-hearted and self-deprecating speeches are typically hallmarks of the annual non-partisan event. But May's address to assembled politicians and journalists veered off-course.

May apologized for her remarks, which included profanity and insulting the Conservative cabinet over its treatment of Omar Khadr, a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner recently set free on bail after nearly 13 years behind bars.

Before stepping to the mike at a convocation ceremony, retirement bash, anniversary dinner or wedding reception, public speaking experts suggest keeping a few tips in mind for mastering the big moment — and avoiding controversy.


Given that wedding guest lists can range from children to seniors, it's best not to go "out of bounds," said Beverly Beuermann-King, a stress and resiliency specialist and certified speaking professional based in Little Britain, Ont.

"If you can't say it in front of all of those groups without kind of embarrassing or frightening or shocking them, then it's not an appropriate story," said Beuermann-King, past president of the Toronto chapter of the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers.

"What you say when you're with your buddies is not the same as what you can say in front of everybody else."


Write and rehearse your remarks and stick to them, said Jim Kokocki, president-elect of Toastmasters International.

"Sometimes, people in audiences aren't very demonstrative," he said from Saint John, N.B.

"So, while you write what you might feel is a brilliant script, you might not get laughs from the audience. That doesn't mean they're not enjoying it.

"I've personally had situations where people didn't (seem to) respond to my humour, but afterwards, people came up and said: 'That was funny, I enjoyed it very much.'"

Kokocki said he doesn't think it's ever a good idea to push the envelope in public remarks.

"I suppose if you're in a small group with people you're absolutely sure you know well, you might choose to do that. But these days, everything is public and could quickly be made public," he said.

"I'd just suggest keep to the high road and avoid something that might embarrass you at some point."


Beuermann-King said the desire to be perfect and impress everyone is often a source of stress prior to giving a speech.

"They put a lot of pressure (on themselves) when in reality, people just want to hear a few stories about that person — appropriate stories — and just know that you wish them well."

She suggested sharing a brief, descriptive anecdote that helps guests feel connected to the tale.

"If it was a funny situation, describe it with the kind of detail that made it funny," she said.

"It could have been what he was wearing, or that he fell off his chair, or he went to say this and said that. The way that you described those things is going to bring the humour to reality for the audience.... Just telling them that it was really funny is not going to be really funny."


"Figure out what those key stories are, making them about a minute or so apiece, give or take," said Beuermann-King.

"It really should be a three- to five-minute speech at most."

Kokocki suggested checking with the event's MC or organizer to determine how long the speech should be — and be prepared to whittle down the remarks.

—Follow @lauren_larose on Twitter.