Friday, August 14, 2009

Public Speaking for Authors: Giving the Talk

So far in this Public Speaking for Authors series, we’ve covered Organizing Your Talk, Practicing Your Talk and Preparing for a Reading. Now it’s time to actually give the talk.

You’ve done your preparatory work. You decided what to speak on and the points you want to cover. If you’ll be doing a reading, you’ve brought your book with the marked pages. You’ve put your talking points or keywords on note cards or a single piece of paper. You’ve practiced and timed your talk.

Now, the day has arrived. It’s time to actually talk to an audience.

1. Dress comfortably. Look nice, but you don’t have to wear high heels or, for men, a suit, unless you’re comfortable in them. One time I was emceeing an awards event. When I got to the venue and saw the stage with its stairs, I did a U-turn, went back to my car, and changed my heels for flats. Very, very glad I did.

2. Get to the venue early. If it’s at a bookstore, introduce yourself to the CRM or booksellers. Thank them for hosting the event. Offer to sign stock after the talk. Check the staging for your talk so you’ll know where it will take place and whether you’ll have a podium, a microphone, etc. Make sure you’ll have a glass or bottle of water handy.

3. When it’s time for your talk, take your notes and your book and go to the podium. Smile. Keep your head up. Don’t stress out. You’ve done your preparation. You don’t have to rush. Set your notes on the podium where you can see them. No podium? Set them on the table and be prepared to half-sit half-lean on the table, if you can. If you can’t bring yourself to do that, sit behind the table, but be aware that puts a barrier between you and your readers. No table, no podium? Bring up a chair (or have one brought up when you were checking out the stage earlier). Standing is best, though, so everyone can see you and you can see them.

4. Stand up straight - on both feet. (Sounds silly, but putting most of your weight on one foot can result in fatigue.) Make eye contact with the audience. Relax and smile. They’re not going to bite and you’re not going to pass out.

5. If you weren’t introduced, tell them about yourself and your book. Speak clearly. Don’t rush through your words or your words will run together. Think about what you’re saying and make your voice fit the words. Don’t speak in a monotone. If you need to glance at your notes, do it. That’s why you brought them. But don’t stare at them. Your eyes should mostly be up, looking at people in the audience, even those on the back row. Looking at a person makes him feel you’re talking directly to him. It makes her a part of your talk, establishes a relationship and makes her invested in the shared experience.

6. When the talk is over, thank the audience and your hosts. If you’re also doing a reading, now’s the time. Keep it short. Tell the audience what page you’re reading from - if they already have the book in hand they often like to turn to that page to follow along. And look up at the audience - don’t bury your nose in the book. Use whatever tone is appropriate for the section that you’re reading - be it funny, tense, sad, whatever. There will be times when you read first, then talk. If the piece fits what you’ll be talking about and you want to read it first as an example, it’s okay to read first.

7. After the reading - or after the talk if you didn’t follow with a reading - open the floor for questions if there’s time. Relax. The hard part’s over. Now you can answer questions, then sign books. After the questions, let everyone know you’ll be signing books and urge them to sign your attendance sheet to be notified of your next book’s debut or to receive your newsletter, etc.

8. If you’re part of a panel, don’t hog the floor. Before the panel starts, stand your book in front of you, slightly to the side, cover facing the audience. Once you've done a few of these, you'll probably bring your own book stand. If you're at a bookstore, you can ask to borrow one.

When it’s over, you’ll most likely be surprised by how quickly the time went by. And looking forward to doing it again. Remember, a reader is more likely to buy your book if they have one-to-one contact with you. Much more likely than if they just see you sitting at a signing table. You want to become comfortable talking to people, doing readings and giving talks.
Helen Ginger loves to talk and do public readings. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. When she’s not writing, she edits for other writers and blogs. Her free e-newsletter for writers has been going out around the globe for 10 years.

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  1. This sounds like excellent advice but the "Don't stress out" and "relax" part may be easier said than done - at least for me!

  2. Don't forget the nuclear option, Helen. Hiring an actor to impersonate you for the duration of the talk...

    Anyone remember Remington Steele?

  3. Anton, I would probably hire Angelina Jolie. We're practically twins.

  4. Helen, I want you to come give the talk for me. Woulda please, huh?

  5. I guess trying to sell books isn't public speaking, but a lot of your advice will help me tomorrow, especially the don't stress out bit, and eye contact. Thanks.

  6. Ahh, Karen, no one sells an author's books better than the author. You'll do great.

    Sheila, I think you'll do fine tomorrow!

  7. This is a minor point, more to do with future relations than the actual reading, but on the New Jersey Authors' Network website, I recommend mailing a thankyou card to the person/people at the signing venue who booked you.

    A mailed card, with a short note goes a long way.

    Jon Gibbs

  8. Good post! I'll keep these tips in mind for an event coming up in September. Already a tad nervous.

  9. Hi, Helen.

    I can remember when I did my first public speaking engagement at the tender age of 19. I thought that I would never get used to it and that I would probably lose my job because I was so lousy at it.

    To my surprise, I did a great job and everyone loved it (including me). I even got promoted because of it.

    *(Anton--I could have actually gotten away with having my twin sister, Sande, stand in for me (she's great at public speaking) but I wanted to conquer the thing myself. Now I'm really glad that I did!)

    Now it's been several years since I've had an occasion to speak in public, (and I've probably gotten a little rusty) so I very much appreciate all of the tips that you have presented in your articles--they are spot on.

    Thanks for sharing, Helen. This is another example of why I love this blog so much!

    Cynde's Got The Write Stuff

  10. Good advice, Jon.

    Thank you for the tweet, Elizabeth.

    Good luck in September, Jack. And way to go, Cynde. You discovered hidden talent.

  11. This has been a great series, Helen - thanks for taking the time to put it together. I learned to get over my fear of public speaking with drugs. ;) Seriously - my doctor prescribed Inderol for another matter - and I noticed immediately that I no longer had stage fright. It turns out that doctors themselves use this beta blocker and even prescribe it to actors who get the jitters. It literally blocks the adrenaline rush. I no longer use it, and still don't have much nervousness - almost like I retrained my emotional response.


  12. Thanks for these tips, Helen. The whole series has been very helpful to us writers who don't relish the idea of public speaking.

    (I mean, I'm good at talking to my computer when I'm alone in my office, but...)


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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