Monday, July 14, 2008

Ah....Just Say It!

Margaret Coel

Big Author Event. Thirty-five miles from my house, and I had to dress up because this was black-tie fancy with an author speaking after dinner. I was looking forward to it because I really enjoy listening to other authors speak.

The problem? This guy could not speak. Why any publicist had let him loose on the reading public is a mystery that would stymie Agatha herself. As he droned on—and on and on—for more than an hour, there was the sound of chairs scraping and people scurrying away. My husband and I, unfortunately, were near the front, so we persevered.

Ah, author said. Ahhhh. Ahhhh. Ahhhh. And that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was the rambling nature of the talk, the garbled build up, the swallowed punch lines, the mumbled phrases. Everywhere I looked, people were dozing off. My husband pulled out a small notepad and jotted down the next day’s errands.

When the author finally limped to a vapid close, people sprang from their seats and bolted for the door, right past the table piled with the author’s books that a bookstore had spent time and money making sure were in place. Think about it. What was the author supposed to do at this big event? Sell Books. And that, judging by the giant sucking noise of people rushing out, did not happen.

At some point in the trajectory from writing to publishing, someone should have pulled the author aside and said, You are about to become a public speaker. You will find yourself on the speaker’s list of book clubs, Rotaries, libraries, schools. You will go to book signings where people have taken time they might have devoted to something else to hear you talk about your book and your writing. This is your opportunity to sell books.

The truth is that, unless an author is a trained actor, or happens to have a job that requires public speaking, or has taken public speaking classes or belonged to a speaking club in recent memory, he or she is probably NOT a good speaker. In my case, I knew this to be an indisputable fact. Just because we may be good enough at writing to land a book contract does not mean we are good enough at speaking to keep an audience from falling into a collective coma.

Being a not-so-good to lousy speaker, however, is not a fatal condition. It is quite fixable. But first, we have to face the facts: more than likely, our public speaking skills need to be sharpened, and with a little bit of work, we can sharpen them.

Start when you sign the book contract, so that when your book appears you will be ready. Think about what you enjoy hearing other authors talk about. What I’ve found is that audiences love stories. They love stories about how you came to write your book, strange things that happened along the way, and how you came to be a writer at all. And nothing grabs and holds an audience like a funny story. And nothing will endear you to an audience more than giving them the chance to laugh a little.

What you will need is a generic speech appropriate for a variety of audiences, one that can be tweaked for specific occasions. Before you start mapping out the speech, decide whether you would be more comfortable reading or speaking from notes. If reading is your style, then write out the entire speech, making sure you have a strong beginning, a middle that propels the speech onward rather than bogging it down, and a helluva wind-up ending.

If you prefer the more informal approach, as I do, outline your speech with the same points in mind. Rather than speaking from my outline, however, I jot down key words in big, black letters on note cards arranged in the order of my outline. During the speech, the words cue me in on what I want to sat next.

Now you have either written or outlined a speech, but that’s what authors do. We’re pretty good at this first step. The next step? Practice. Practice. Practice. Ask your favorite someone to listen to your speech. Set the timer when you begin. Whether you are reading or relying on notes, practice delivering the speech. Look up frequently and make eye contact with your audience. Think in terms of rhythm and tempo. Insert inflections and pauses. Slow down for emphasis or to let the audience savor what you’re saying. Speed up with funny stories. Give the audience a second to laugh after you’ve delivered the punch line.

Ask for your someone’s honest response. Where did you lose him? What part had her on the edge of her chair? What part was too long? Where should you cut? What would she like to hear more about? Was the part you thought humorous really humorous? (If you hadn’t heard any laughter at the appropriate time, you’ll already have that answer.)

Check the timer. How long was your speech? Generally you should aim for about thirty minutes. You can always shorten or lengthen for specific audiences.

Another way to practice –always with a timer—is in front of a mirror. Deliver your speech out loud to yourself, watching your expressions and gestures, and do it enough times that you become very familiar with it and you know by instinct when to pause or speed up. It also helps to turn on a tape recorder, then listen to yourself. Maybe you won’t be shocked at the number of times you stumble and mumble and sink into ahhhhs, but I know I was. Practice will smooth out those tricky places.

Still better, ask someone to video tape you. You may see yourself relaxed, confident and engaged with the audience. Yeah! You are ready to go. Or you may appear like a potted plant, as I did on my first video. If that’s the case go back to practicing until the gestures and expressions that go with your speech are second nature.

Sound like a lot of time and effort? Think about how much time and effort you put into writing your book. Isn’t it worth investing a little more to prepare yourself to sell it?

If that doesn’t inspire you, then think about that giant sucking noise as an audience rushes out of the room. Right past your books.

Margaret Coel is an experienced public speaker who has spoken at events around the country and in Australia.


Gwyn Ramsey said...

Margaret, I enjoyed reading your great article. It is sad to hear a writer struggle through a speaking engagement. Thanks for the terrific suggestions on speech preparations.

Judy Clemens said...

Wonderful pointers, Margaret. In today's market it takes everything we have to promote our books -- we certainly don't need to sabotage ourselves!

Sheila Connolly said...

I'm surprised that everyone who is going to speak in public doesn't have a friend videotape them. Heck, even low-end digital cameras have the option to make mini-movies these days. Of course, it may be denial on the part of the speaker--you don't really want to shatter your self-image, do you?

Your description reminds me of a lecture I once attended at Harvard. The speaker was a visiting professor from Oxford, a specialist in whatever (it's been a few years). And he had a killer stutter. It was painful to listen to him. I have to admire anyone who continues to stand up in front of an audience and try.

Anonymous said...


Having been subjected to way too many terrible speakers, I can no longer find the charity in my heart to cheer them on for trying. I think a speaker owes an audience the best efforts that he or she can give. And that takes preparation beforehand.


Anonymous said...

Margaret. THANK YOU. I am not yet published, but this is now high on my To-Do list.

After reading your post, I looked up some free author talks in my area, so I can see for myself what sounds good and what flops. I usually go to two or three a year, but I think at least that many in the course of a month will be instructive.


Lisa Braithwaite said...

Margaret, I found your comment about no longer "finding the charity" in your heart to be profound, and you speak for many audience members.

I posted it on my public speaking blog today, as solid preparation seems to be ignored or discounted by many speakers. Speakers think the engagement is all about them, when in reality, it's all about the audience. And if you're not serving the audience, you might as well just go home.