“I’m a writer, not a speaker,” my friend said when asked to make a presentation at a library. Many of us would agree with her. We write in solitude to an unseen audience and we like it that way. The written word expresses what we have to say leaving us no desire to stand behind a podium and talk. Yet many of us are invited to speak because of our writing. How can we deal with these requests? For me the public speaking journey has taken unexpected roads down scenic byways and I not only survived the trip, but have grown to enjoy making presentations. Let me share with you some of the things I have learned along the way.
First and foremost: Know Your Topic (KYT). We can all tell the story of the funny thing that happened yesterday, because we know what happened. The more we know our topic the more we have to say and the more comfortable we’ll be saying it.
“But what could I possibly speak about?” someone wails. The person inviting you will sometimes suggest a topic, but often they allow you to choose your own topic. There are three possibilities: what you care about; what you know well; or, what you want to learn more about.
What You Care About
Do you have a passion for your writing? Or the method you use to create, or edit? Do you have a unique way of keeping your office organized? Do you have strong beliefs about a topic? Have you had a dream come true? Then talk about one of those things.
What You Know Well
Do you know your genre? Have you studied the markets? The styles and techniques? Do you have favorite books you like to read? Or do you know what inspired you to write? Of course you do. That means you can talk about these subjects.
What You Want To Learn More About
Do you like to do research? Are there topics you would like to study? Are you trying new areas? You don’t have to be an expert to talk about what you’re learning.
This is not like your first twelve years of school, where you were given a topic that you didn’t know or care about, and you had to present to classmates who cared even less. Remember, you have been invited to speak before this group because of your writing. It’s doubtful many in the audience were forced to attend. Even in school settings, students are usually interested in a special guest because it’s outside their normal routine.
Many people like to meet someone who does something they can’t do. Others are interested in how you got where you are. They may want to understand how you do what you do. Or they may be looking for help with their own writing or want to discover whether writing is for them.
“But I’ll be so nervous,” someone says. Yes, but there are methods to help.
Toning Down the Butterflies
Again, the first step is KYT. Knowing what you want to say, gives you confidence.
Prepare. Whether you write out a speech, outline your talk, or do note cards, plan what you are going to say and how you want to get it across. After you’ve got an initial draft, ask yourself if this is the best organization. Have you left anything out? Is every section necessary? Do you have quotes, facts, or anecdotes to reinforce your message? Have you answered the obvious questions? Is there something you really don’t want to leave out? Place it early in your talk and/or mark it with emphasis. Reorganize until you are happy with what you’ll say. I usually have a couple sections of my speech that I mark “could cut if run out of time.” Plus I sometimes have a filler activity is my speech goes too quickly. Also you’ll want to carve out time for questions.
Plan your props. Will you be using physical items to show and tell? Show slides, overhead transparencies, or a PowerPoint presentation to illustrate your talk? Make sure you discuss with the person who invited you the feasibility of visuals in the setting. Will you have handouts? Find out how many you’ll need or ask if they can make copies for attendees. Are you planning an audience participation activity? Or none of the above.
Practice. I’m not suggesting you memorize, but you do want to be familiar with what you’ll say. You’ll also want to have some idea of how long your speech will take. Is there a word or ordering you stumble over? Perhaps you need to change it.
Think about gestures you might want to put with your talk. Or at the least think about where you will put your hands so you’re not worried what to do with them. If you stand with your arms held loosely away from your body versus tight up against your sides, you’ll be more relaxed. Practice looking up.
Practice speaking clearly and slowly. Practice pauses and where to breathe. I often practice in front of two different audiences: my dog–who has almost quit giving me strange looks–and a mirror. The former gets me comfortable with hearing my voice out loud. The latter helps me remember to smile, raise an eyebrow or whatever is appropriate. Both help me watch out for filler words and nervous motions.
If you decided to use props, practice how to use them without turning your back on the audience. If you find something to difficult to use, get rid of it. Will you be speaking into a microphone? Find somewhere to practice with one. “Sound” people are usually willing to explain the intricacies of microphones, how close to be, and other tips, such as no tapping the microphone to see if it is on.
Once you’ve really practiced–and I know this is a suggestion we all hate–video yourself and watch it. Where you cringe at what you’ve done, you know you need to change. Ugh. This is much worse than a critique group.
The day before. I like putting my speech notes in plastic pockets in a three ring binder. This means I can’t drop the notes and get them out of order; it’s very easy to find my notes amongst my supplies when I arrive; and it’s really easy to review. I go over my speech again, reminding myself of what I plan to say. If there’s something minor I want to add, I might use a sticky note. Don’t make major changes on your speech now or the day you talk!
Pack up your props, handouts, notes, laptop and cords and cables or usb drive for computer presentations, cough drops, tissues, etc. I like using a large rolling laptop case so everything is together. If you bring your own projector, make sure you have all cables, connectors and cords.
Now go do something else! Refresh yourself and forget about tomorrow’s speech. Do something you enjoy. Go to bed at a decent time and get a good night’s rest.
Keep Control of the Butterflies
On the day of your speech, make yourself as comfortable as possible. Choose comfortable clothes and shoes to wear. You don’t want to worry about your feet hurting or being too hot or cold, although, I’m rarely cold when I speak. Nervousness is more likely to cause me to perspire with heat, so I wear a top or dress that won’t show sweat marks under the arms as well as one that won’t make me feel too warm. But I also usually have a sweater “just in case.”
Be prepared before you head to your engagement. Take water, a cough drop or two, tissues, and anything else that you’d be frustrated to be without. Double-check that you have your notes, plus any other necessary supplies. Take the directions to the venue if you’re unfamiliar with the location; also take your contact person’s name and phone number with you. Leave with plenty of time to arrive at your destination–there’s nothing worse on nerves than rushing in late.
Right before speaking is when the nastiest nerves hit. Try to ignore that sick feeling in your stomach and remind yourself that you’re prepared. Sometimes it helps me to remember that I’ll probably never see these people again. Or think about something else, preferably something pleasant! And remember that once you get started, nerves usually settle down.
When you stand up to speak, take a moment to get yourself organized. Smile at the audience. Breathe! Remember they came to hear you or hear this topic because they are interested.
Pretend that gal sitting in front of you is your next best friend. Think of your nerves as a revved up engine running around your body giving you extra energy to help you speak up. Focus on a friendly looking face. Think how unscary it is to talk to one person. Open your mouth and start talking to him.
Fixing Problems as You Go
If you feel yourself racing through your sentences, force yourself to slow down. Take a deliberate breath. Consider any nods or smiles as signs of encouragement–the audience is not your enemy.
Have a handout? People often cannot pass papers and listen at the same time, so be prepared to repeat anything you say while handing items out. Or don’t speak while papers are being passed.
If you lose your place, pause and find it. You could say something like “before I go on, I want to make sure I haven’t left anything out” if you don’t feel comfortable with a moment of silence. Or you could ask “does anyone have any questions so far?” Although, I prefer asking audiences to “save all questions to the end.”
Need a drink? Pause and take one. If you need to blow your nose, turn your back on the audience to do so, but watch out for lapel mikes; they’ll amplify that noise, too.
Most audiences are respectful of speakers, but occasionally you’ll have a problem to deal with. Two people in the back of the room whispering? Stop what you’re saying and look at them. Usually, they quickly become aware of your attention and will be silent. If not, ask them, “Did you have a question?” If they continue talking while you talk, politely ask them to leave the room as they’re making it hard for everyone else to concentrate. Sometimes someone asks a question that is totally off topic or deliberately heckling or inappropriate. It’s okay to tell them that it is something you’re not prepared to discuss. Or say, “let’s talk about that when this session is done.”
Don’t assume when no one jumps in with questions that there are none. Sometimes people need a moment to formulate questions. Or sometimes they need a prompt such as “was my explanation of _____ clear enough?” Don’t despair if there are few questions. You may have covered the topic so thoroughly no one can think of anything else to ask. Also, some people prefer to ask questions privately.
Thank them for listening, or inviting you, whichever seems more appropriate. If they applaud, smile.
If at First You Don’t Succeed
Perhaps you just need more practice. Just like our writing usually needs more than one draft, your speaking can improve with work. Give it time.
You may also want to try a different type or size of audience. Maybe you’d be more comfortable talking to women only, or being in a smaller setting. I’ve found my favorite age to talk to is 4th graders–one class room at a time–and to other writers.
Try something different. A reading, a skit, or whatever you can dream up.
Sit in on some other writer’s talks. Something that works for someone else may work for you. Check out public speaking classes, books and videos. Recently my husband has been sharing tips from the book called Confessions of a Public Speaker (O’Reilly, 2010) by Scott Berkun. I plan to read it myself. Ask other writers how they solve a problem you’ve come across. Check out TED talks–TED is a nonprofit organization that shares ideas worth spreading–a great place to be inspired.
Some writers prefer the expressway of speaking to large groups, while others like the country lane of a small group in a cozy bookstore circle. But you won’t know what works best for you unless you take a few speaking trips on your own.