Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Moira Allen
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Being able to speak about your writing, confidently and comfortably, is a vital step in promoting that writing. You may find yourself with an opportunity to speak to a small group, offer a seminar at a conference, give a radio talk or interview (or even, as happened to me just the other day, a Podcast) -- or the ultimate butterfly-generator, appear on a television interview. If any or all of these options make you want to cower in the restroom with a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, take heart: There are ways to make public speaking not only less fearful but actually enjoyable (for you and your audience).
1) Think "Conversation," not "Talk"
The first pitfall of public speaking is to think of the event as "giving a speech." Nothing fills the tummy with butterflies so much as the idea of having to write a speech and deliver it to a room full of potential critics. (Part of the problem, of course, is that we imagine the room is full of potential critics, prepared not so much to listen to us as to judge us.)
Sadly, all too often, speeches are a turn-off. When you think of having to give a talk, quite probably what comes to mind are all those dreadful graduation or after-dinner speeches you've tried to stay awake through -- and subconsciously, you assume that this is exactly what your audience imagines it will receive from you. You want to avoid it, but you don't know how.
So don't think of it as a speech. Think of it as a conversation. Don't think of yourself as talking to your audience; think of yourself as chatting with your audience. One good way to do this is to plan to spend half your time talking, and the other half answering questions. (A tip, though: Be sure to prepare enough material to cover that other half in case there are no questions.) Instead of thinking, "I am going to tell these total strangers about my book," think, "I am going to chat with a bunch of interested people about my book."
2) Get Inside Your Book
- Whether your book is fiction or nonfiction, no one knows it like you do. The trouble is, however, that when someone asks you to "talk about your book," there is a tendency to see that book as an object -- literally, to envision it as a closed book sitting on a table. It is suddenly something outside of you, an object that you must explain and "make interesting."
The solution: Don't talk about your "book." Talk about the SUBJECT of your book. This is particularly easy if your book is nonfiction; whatever the topic, you know it inside and out. If, for example, you've written a book about reducing the risk of heart disease, don't talk about "my book about heart disease." Talk about heart disease. Talk about the five best ways to reduce one's risk. Talk about the most interesting people you've interviewed for your book. Talk about the experience that led you to feel that it was essential to write this book. Talk about someone that you know this book has already helped. In short, get back "inside" your book and talk about the things that made you write it in the first place.
If your book is fiction, think about the things that made it "real" to you. For example, if your book is set in a particular historical period, talk about what makes that period interesting to you (note that I said "to you," not "what you think might make that period interesting to others"). Why did you choose to write about colonial America? What did you find most interesting, most surprising, about the period? What were some things that you learned that you had never imagined before? Talk about your characters; what makes them real to you? You know more about those people than ever went into your pages; what makes them "tick"? How might you compare them to "real-world" characters that everyone can identify with? (E.g., "My frontier robber-baron cattle rancher has a lot in common with today's mega-corporation CEOs... You can just imagine him writing Seven Secrets of the Successful Cattle King...")
3) Put Yourself in Your Audience's Shoes (or Seats)
One of the best ways to prepare for an interview or develop a "talk" is to ask yourself what questions you would have if you were a member of the audience. What would you want to know about this particular book -- or more accurately, about the subject of this particular book? What might you want to know about the author of the book?
There are, of course, some "evergreen" questions that are asked over and over (ad nauseum, in my opinion), such as "who are your favorite authors," "why did you write this book," and the ever-popular "where do you get your ideas?" Another common question is "what is your typical day like?" (to which I always want to answer, "Well, it usually starts in the morning and ends at night.") Be prepared to answer questions like that if they come up -- but also be prepared to dig deeper.
For example, if you've written a nonfiction book, what would be the one most important point or lesson that you'd like the reader to "take away?" When I wrote Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet ( http://www.pet-loss.net/coping.shtml), the key message I wanted to convey was that grieving for a pet was normal. Everything else was secondary to that essential point. If you've written a new exercise guide, don't inundate your audience with twenty different exercise tips; instead, focus on a core principle, such as "exercise can be fun."
If your book is fiction, you probably still have a "central principle" or theme that you can share with your audience. What drives your characters to overcome the obstacles they face in your story? What lessons, if any, do your characters learn from their experiences? What issues, if any, did you want to address through your story? How might your characters serve as role models to your readers?
By asking yourself what sort of questions you might have upon reading your book, you'll pave the way toward better audience interaction -- and be better prepared to answer the questions your audience will raise. This, in turn, will help move your talk more in the direction of "conversation" -- and leave your audience feeling that you genuinely connected with them.
4) Don't Over-prepare
The first time I taught a class, I wrote out everything I wanted to say -- and read it. Within minutes I could see my audience's eyes glazing over, but it was too late; I didn't have a backup plan. At the end of the session I realized I had a choice: Give up public speaking forever, or learn how to do better.
Once you realize that you are the expert on your subject (whether it's the world of your fictional characters or the topic of your nonfiction book), preparation becomes much easier. You don't need to write down everything you want to say, because you already know it. It's in your head. You don't need a script; what you need are simply a set of reminders to help you move from one part of your topic to another.
Again, get into your audience's head. Think about the questions they are most likely to ask. Filter those down to the five or six most important points you'd like to make about your subject. Write down those points on a 3x5 card. For example, if your book is about exercise, one question might be "why is exercise so important?" Chances are, you don't need to write down the answer; if someone asked you that question at a cocktail party, you'd be off and running. Similarly, if someone asked you, "how is your exercise program different from others?" you'd know exactly what to say. You can even start your talk with a line like "one of the questions I've often been asked is..." and go from there.
If someone is interviewing you, they may be willing to share their questions ahead of time. If so, again, don't over-prepare your answers. Let the questions serve as a starting point, but don't turn them into a script. Otherwise, you're likely to sound stilted and over-rehearsed, rather than letting your responses flow naturally.
If you're giving a face-to-face talk or seminar, it's important to be aware of your audience. Make eye-contact with different people in different sections of the room. Watch for reactions: Are people looking alert and interested? Are they starting to look bored? Are they looking confused and bewildered? You may find that you need to change directions mid-stream -- you may need to tone down your talk for an audience that needs more explanation, or skip the basics for an audience that is already familiar with your topic.
5) Be Comfortable
Having butterflies in your stomach is bad enough without also having shoes that pinch, clothing that itches, and sweat trickling down your skin. If your talk is "face to face," it's natural to want to look your best -- but it's vital to balance that with feeling your best.
First and foremost, don't overdress. If you're a man, chances are that there are few situations (outside the business environment) in which you'll actually need to wear a suit and tie -- so unless you actually enjoy that sort of thing, don't wear them. Wear a comfortable shirt, slacks that enable you to sit and change position easily, a sweater or casual jacket, and above all, comfortable shoes.
If you're a woman, aim for looking "nice" but stop somewhere short of "elegant." The last thing you want to do is stand in front of an audience for an hour wearing stiletto heels. Pay attention to the fabrics you're wearing: In a situation where you're likely to perspire, don't encase yourself in non-breathing polyester or acrylic. In cold weather, beware of dressing too warmly; it may be cold outside but studio lights will be nice and hot. If you feel more comfortable in slacks, wear slacks. If you don't normally wear earrings, don't wear earrings. If you don't usually slather yourself in makeup, don't start now.
If you're going to be recorded on video, find out what colors work best and what colors to avoid. For example, if the video is going to be shot against a "green screen" (where a background will be filled in later), don't wear green or greenish blue. Dark colors generally work well; loud prints generally don't. Overly flashy jewelry can be a problem in bright lights, so go for something more understated. Also, find out whether the video team will include a make-up expert.
Food is another comfort factor to consider. If you're extremely nervous, you may prefer not to eat a large meal before giving a talk. It's wise to eat something, however; nothing is quite so embarrassing as having your tummy start rumbling in the middle of an interview. Be sure to drink fluids before your talk, and if you can, bring a water bottle with you; you'll be amazed at how quickly your throat can dry out when you're speaking.
Public speaking doesn't have to be a nightmare. We've simply been conditioned to assume that it is. We've been taught that getting up in front of an audience is intimidating, so we're automatically intimidated. Once you stop assuming the worst, you may actually find (as I have) that speaking about your favorite subject -- your book -- can be great fun. In fact, it's a lot like writing -- just without the pen!
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.