Saturday, May 07, 2016

Tips for Authors (and others) on Public Speaking

Most writers I know would rather be writing than anything else. It sounds self-evident but these days there’s a lot more to being a writer than putting the words on the page. There’s marketing and PR for example, the art of selling our books, and this may well include talking about them. In fact speeches and presentations are the kind of thing we all get called upon to do sometimes either for professional or personal reasons, and it helps to be well prepared. Some people love standing up and talking. Others hate it. Whatever the case, if you get the call to perform at a literary festival or talk to the WI, it’s an opportunity to get your book out there into people’s hands – so it can speak for itself.

On Monday I’m doing a talk at the Swindon Festival of Literature and as I was running over my notes I remembered an article I’d seen which summed up beautifully some top tips on making a speech.

Start with the idea, because the only thing that really matters is having something worth saying. It could be insights that will inspire other people who are aspiring authors. It could be practical writing tips, anything that will help.

Have what’s called a “throughline.” This is the theme, or message, of your talk that you come back to
in order to hold it all together. On Monday I’ll be talking about how historical authors blend imagination with historical fact. Fact and fiction will be my throughline.

Make eye contact from the start. Smile at a few people. It’s easy when your nervous to look down or stare at some point at the back but you need to make personal contact with people. On that basis, there’s no hard admitting to being nervous if you drop your notes or fluff your words. Admitting to vulnerability is human; it’s like creating a character that gains the reader’s sympathy.

Laughter is a great way to build a connection with your audience but cheesy jokes are to be avoided. Humour is so personal. I’ve lost count of the talks I’ve been too where the speaker has made a joke I’ve considered to be sexist, racist, political, offensive or just un-amusing. Humour comes from amusing-but-true stories that are related directly to your topic, or from a quirky use of language that appeals to people.

Even if you are a genius, let people work this out for themselves! Name-dropping and showing off turn people off; be yourself and let your passion for your subject shine through. The nicest feedback I’ve ever had on my talks is when people say they were interesting because my love of history shone through.

Be prepared for the worst. Last time I did a talk at this particular venue the projector didn’t work so we all ended up crowded around looking at the presentation on my laptop. It was a great way for the audience to  get to know one another and as it was a talk about the history of romantic fiction, maybe the proximity even generated some sparks. Passing glitches off with humour and not panicking endears you to your audience.

Finally, breathe deeply and don’t hyperventilate! Very best of luck!

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