The title of my most popular talk is “My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters.” It’s as long or as short as I need it to be, depending on how much time they allow me to speak, but the framework is the same throughout.
I do a lot of public speaking, and travel across the Lone Star State to discuss books and writing. Listeners hear about my disastrous starter agent, issues with my first novel, and the loss of a movie deal.
The presentation begins when I’m ten years old, touches on adventures and misfortune in elementary school, high school, and jumps to the first time I was published in a newspaper and finally my first novel.
Sounds dull and lifeless here, but, and I hope this doesn’t come across as conceited, it’s fun, entertaining, and informative all the way through.
When I first started this writing thing, no one ever told me I’d have to stand in front of crowds ranging from twenty people to several hundred and entertain them. I thought we were supposed to just write a novel, get it out there on the shelves, maybe do a couple of signings, and lean back to rest until it was time to write another one.
But signings, panels, and book clubs, are required for high visibility. It’s part of the job.
It comes natural to me. Maybe because I taught school for ten years and then became the spokesperson for the (then) tenth largest school district in Texas. Every time I turned around I was on the television, radio, or being interviewed by usually suspicious newspaper reporters.
Talking to folks is a barrel of fun, and almost every time I finish a presentation, at least one person comes up to tell me they enjoyed what I had to say, and that I’m “one of the best speakers they’ve ever had.”
Yeah, it sounds pompous, I don’t mean it like that.
Maybe that comes from that abovementioned 35-year career in public education, where I endured hundreds of dry, boring speakers who left me wanting to stick a log in my eye for relief. Staff once hired guy to speak for three hours in the morning and another three in the afternoon.
By ten o’clock, my boss was cleaning out her purse on the front row. She fired him by eleven that morning and we improvised for the rest of the day.
The worst presenter is the individual who stands in front of a crowd and reads to the assemblage in a long, droning voice. But, here’s that oddity in nature, it worked for one of my college professors who walked into the classroom, opened a three-ring notebook full of pages in plastic sleeves, and read some of the most fascinating American history anecdotes, facts, and information I’ve ever heard. His mix of styles kept us fascinated all the way through, and it was one of the few classes I truly enjoyed.
That may be where I learned public speaking, because it sure wasn’t in another college course where I drew a D in Speech and was glad to get it. I’ve been told I’m a natural storyteller, and it might have come in part from the old men I listened to up at our country store, but also from a high school history teacher (history again, hummmm), who again blended fact and stories.
So when it’s time to step in front of a crowd, I want to entertain first, and then bring the information they’ve requested. Audiences hear personal experiences that relate to them and I usually manage to do that with humorous stories from my childhood that tie into their memories or experiences. That mix of old recollections usually makes them smile, and I have ‘em.
More than once I’ve heard, “Your story reminded me of something that happened when I was a kid. I’d forgotten until you said something. Thanks for reminding me of those/that wonderful time(s).”
Here are a few things I’ve learned through the years, and they might be useful to those of you who are just starting out, or who don’t really like to speak in public in the first place.
- People want to laugh, but don’t try to be funny by telling jokes. Only do that if you’re really, really good at it. Wait, never mind. Don’t tell jokes, period.
- Don’t talk at your audience. Don’t preach. A conversational approach to storytelling and teaching is the best. Again, draw on your own experiences to make it more personal to the audience.
- Make eye contact. Don’t forget to look front, left and right. Find that person who’s engaged and talk to him or her, then find someone who out there with a blank look on their face and speak to them, no matter how uncomfortable you feel. (Lordy, I remember a guy on one Bouchercon panel who leaned back in his chair to expound one some subject, tilted his head back, closed his eyes, and talked for a good five minutes to the ceiling. Gilstrap and I wanted to flee the scene and find a bar, and would have if I hadn’t been on that panel and sitting right beside the guy. Gilstrap got the giggles while I had to maintain at least a little composure.)
- Which brings me to speaking on panels. Years ago I was on another five-person panel seated on chairs above a crowd of about two hundred. Our discussion went well until the moderator asked the gentlemen on my left to talk himself and thrillers. He rose and stepped to the edge of the stage leaving an empty seat between myself and Texas author David Wilkinson, cleared his throat, opened the book he was hawking, and read to excess. I mean it. He read for days. And as usual, the mischievous kid in me awoke after a while and I leaned across the empty seat and introduced myself to David. We shook as if we were sitting at a livestock auction, and talked among ourselves and to the other panelists while the author droned on to what felt like the end of his novel.
- Be energetic. For the love of God, be energetic!
- But don’t talk too fast. I was watching one of my favorite movies the other day, A River Runs Through It, and listened carefully to Robert Redford’s cadence. It was slow, but not plodding, and his inflections kept my attention, making it feel like he was talking to me.
- Don’t dump volumes of information on your audience. They’ll retain little of it unless they’re born note takers. I usually get them to laughing, throw in a bit of important writing info, and then slide into another story or something they can relate to, and then back to technique before another story that usually occurs to me on the spot.
- If you’re inexperienced, start out talking to book clubs. They’ll be forgiving, then polish your “act” in front of local civic organizations and clubs who are always looking for speakers. But remember, small groups are sometimes hard to engage. I’ve found that the larger the group, the more fun we all have.
- I avoid power points. I don’t use technology. It defeats me. Simply visiting with the audience as if we’re sitting in a living room makes it easier and I don’t have to lug around a heavy thumb drive, hoping someone has the equipment to project the image from a laptop.
There are thousands of pages of information out there on public speaking. You can join Toastmasters or some such club or organization that teaches the steps and techniques to stand before a crowd, but it might not be for you.
If not, outline your program, then practice in front of a mirror until it comes smooth and effortless.
Sounds simple, don’t it?
Practice, practice, then practice some more. It’ll pay off in the long run.
For example, last month in front of large group of Dallas writers, I realized I’d spoken to them before. Something different was necessary to avoid picks and torches as they stormed the lectern, so I tried something different. I began my presentation near the end, but realized the whole structure was built on earlier parts that were linear in construction, so the next thing I knew, I found myself doing the entire presentation backwards, and it worked!
They all remembered I’d been there eight years earlier, but more than one attendee said they loved the presentation because it was chock full of writing advice…and I was best speaker they’ve had in years.
But it was the same talk, and I wondered as I left, if I’d just competed with myself.
Who knows, but at least they were entertained, and learned something about writing, and that’s why I was there.
Gads, how pretentious this all sounds, but it’s the only way I know to get this point across. I apologize for my perceived arrogance and hope this helps you in front of a room full of strangers who want to learn and be entertained at the same time.