Spent a lovely morning being the guest author at a summer creative writing course for middle graders. Creatures after my own heart! I would’ve loved to have taken a class like this when I was that age. Writing might’ve given veterinary medicine a run for its money years earlier…
This was the second presentation I’ve given this month. In August, I’m speaking to a women’s philanthropic organization; in October, at a school librarian conference; and I’ll be reading at Wordstock, Portland’s literary festival, in November. With the help of my publicist, I hope to line up several more gigs in the next year. I'm an inveterate introvert (say that five times fast) but oddly enough, I love talking to groups. Good thing, because public speaking is a great way for authors to raise awareness of their books.
Supposedly, more people are afraid of public speaking than death. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know lots of folks who would rather clean cat litterboxes ad infinitum rather than step behind a podium.
Much of what I learned about speaking in public came from ten years teaching part-time at a local community college. Lectures are, after all, a form of performance art; present them well, and you’ve got your students hooked. (I once briefly considered a career in veterinary epidemiology based solely on one professor’s lectures, which were mostly riveting stories about fighting pestilence the length and breadth of California. He made it sound like modern-day knight-errantry, and I was ready to snatch up the banner…until I found out it would take an additional two years of graduate school. That took the shine off the sword pretty quick). On the other hand, if you present your material poorly, you can actually hurt your cause. So if the thought of public speaking leaves you a-shiver, these tidbits might help:
1. First, foremost and always: Remember that your audience wants to like you. After all, who goes to an event hoping to have a bad time? You have their goodwill from the start; meet them at least halfway, and they’ll be pulling for you to do well.
2. Tailor your talk to your audience. Don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach. Earlier this month, I spoke about writing YA to a writers’ organization. In October, I’ll be speaking on the same topic to the school librarians. Two different audiences; two different sets of audience expectations; similar material, but presented two different ways to meet those expectations.
3. Keep eye contact. Don’t just gaze aimlessly in the general direction of the audience, but actually catch and hold individuals’ eyes for a second or two each. Never forget: you’re talking to them, not at them. Eye contact is huge.
4. Which means: you simply can’t read from notes. Practice ahead of time, and then practice some more. This doesn’t mean memorizing, because trying to recite from memory will kill your presentation. But know your main points. Certainly you’ll want to bring notes; I print mine out in 18-point type, one or two paragraphs per page (makes it easy to glance down if I need a memory jog). But be familiar enough with your material that you don’t need to read directly from them. Head up, eyes on your audience, and…
5. Please, for heaven’s sake, don’t speak in a monotone. Are you interested in your own material? I certainly hope so—because if you’re not, nobody else will be. Let your interest show through your voice and expression. Passion is contagious! Don’t be afraid that you might look funny. I’ve had pictures taken of me in which I look practically certifiable—hands thrown in the air, mouth wide open and eyebrows halfway to the moon—but people consistently tell me how much they enjoy my energy.
6. I learned early on with students, and the same holds true now: your audience doesn’t expect you to be perfect. But they do expect you to be genuine.
7. People love stories. Stories are gold. Funny stories (pertaining to your material, of course) are whole big treasure chests. If you’re not sure the story is funny to anyone other than you, though, try it out first on your most honest friend. Better to leave the funny out, rather than have to explain it to a bunch of confused-looking people.
8. When you’re practicing, time yourself. Know to the minute how long your presentation is. Another practice tip: visualize yourself giving the talk. Speak out loud to get used to the sound of your voice; use the inflections and gestures you’ll use during the presentation; practice your breathing. The more prepared you are, the more you’ll be able to…
9. Relax. You’re prepped, passionate, and rehearsed. The audience is on your side. Step up to the podium, take that first deep breath…and take it away.