How to Succeed While Speaking in Public

I periodically get asked to give tips on public speaking, so I thought it might be useful to write some things down. I don’t think all authors should be required to do public appearances, but it’s one of those things that, if you’re good at it, can be a real asset to your career. Perhaps I’m lucky in that I’ve never really experienced any kind of social anxiety and I love going to cons, so I try to plunge head-first into in-person author promotion situations, hopefully with élan and charm. Not everyone’s bag. I tell people that your author promotion strategy should play to your strengths. I’m personally not the best at social media and online marketing, for example, but some authors are really great at it. But I also try to be game and take a “try anything once” approach to promoting myself, so if you are also like that and want to try a speaking gig or public reading, here are some quick and dirty tips.

Side note: I was on my high school debate team and then taught debate for quite a long time after that, so I have some fluency with public speaking. The style of debate I did—policy debate, if you’re curious—requires debaters to both read pre-prepared speeches and articles and to speak extemporaneously in response to an opponent’s arguments. Those are likely the two types of public speaking—reading aloud or speaking on panels—you’d do as an author, so I try to apply debate principals to public speaking. To whit:

Tip #1: Print it Out.
If you’re doing a reading, print it out in a format that is easily read. I usually blow the text up to giant-size, but my vision is terrible, so your mileage may vary with that. You can also make changes to this print-out, which I’ll outline below. You can read directly from your bound book, and some writers do that well, but it can be awkward to hold. I’ve seen people read from ereaders, which you can also do if that’s your preference, but I have a debilitating fear of technological failure at critical moments, so I always go with a paper copy.

Tip #2: Practice.
If you’re reading from your novel, practice at home first a few times. Probably obvious, but every time you read, you’ll make fewer mistakes. Some people recommend reading to a mirror, but I find that wiggy, so I practice by reading to my cats, who are usually unimpressed.

Tip #3: Adapt and Change.
Not all prose passages are well-suited to a public reading, because they were written to be read by a person holding a book. Sometimes, you need to make a few changes. When I’m planning to do a reading, I’ll read my chosen excerpt aloud first and then mark it up as needed. This includes:

• Adding dialogue tags if it’s not clear who’s talking. (I don’t do voices.)
• Cutting long bits of description that are important for later in the novel but only slow down the current scene.
• Deleting words I don’t feel comfortable saying out loud to an audience full of strangers. (The first time I read at Lady Jane’s, I had to take the word “cock” out of a scene because I kept giggling when I read it. I’m twelve, basically.)

That’s usually it, but circumstances may vary, or you might read from two scenes and need to put a bit in the middle where you explain what happens in between. If you’re not great at improvising, write everything down.

Tip #4: Fugeddaboudit.
Debaters are trained not to think about what they’re reading, because thinking too much will just tie up your tongue. My mind often wanders while I’m reading. But you still want your reading to have emphasis and personality. In debate, we’d circle words in our speeches that we called “punch words” or words we wanted in particular to emphasize. So as I read, when I see a circled word, I know I should change my tone when reading it. I’ve also considered highlighting different characters’ dialogue in different colors so I know to change my tone when speaking, but that’s some advanced level stuff there. (Do audiobook readers do that? I always wondered.)

Tip #5: Stand Up!
Stand up straight and hold any papers/books below you so they don’t block your face. Speak to the audience, not the paper. In debate, we used to build podiums out of books and boxes so that the paper we were reading from was at the optimal height. It’s generally my habit to hold the paper about mid-chest high and hold my head up while looking down to read, occasionally making eye contact with a spot in the audience, particularly if I’m pausing for impact or a laugh line. More on this below.

Tip #6: Make Notes.
Say you’re on a panel on a particular topic. If you don’t know the questions in advance but do know the general thrust of the panel, write down a couple of things you want to be sure to convey. You may never get to that answer, so go with the flow, but at least you have something prepared if your co-panelists get quiet.

Tip #7: Create Your Own Shorthand.
I teach classes at conferences sometimes, and my teaching involves a lot of improvising and extemporaneous speaking. That’s another debate skill. Often when constructing a rebuttal, you’ve got a couple of minutes (tops) to work out a five-minute speech that responds directly to your opponent. Debaters use a lot of shorthand. They have a stash of arguments they tend to use over and over, so they write down a couple of symbols as a reminder to make those arguments. Teaching works kind of the same way. When I’m developing a class, I’ll teach it to my cats first—they are never impressed—mostly to work out if it will fit in the given time parameters, and from there, I jot down a few points I want to be sure I make. Anything I’ll have trouble remembering—specific examples, usually—I’ll definitely write down, but most things I can remember just by writing down a few words. I will then glance at my notes but mostly speak off the top of my head.

This also means, incidentally, that you’re actually speaking to your audience instead of the paper on which you’ve written your speech. That’s another debate trick; speaking at the judge means both you are connecting with the person actually judging whether you should win and by necessity standing up straighter and thus speaking more clearly. And connecting with your audience is key in these sorts of public speaking situations. You’re reaching out to potential readers, after all.

Tip #8: You Have Something to Say!
Presumably if you’re teaching a class, sitting on a panel, or even doing a reading, somebody somewhere thinks you have something worthwhile to say. I know just telling you to believe in yourself doesn’t necessarily work, but know that what you have to say matters. I hope that gives you some confidence.

Tip #9: Tell Jokes.
I find audience response validating. If someone makes a comment or asks a question, that usually means they’re listening and engaged, which is what you want. That’s harder to gauge during a reading. Jokes tend to get laughs, so I usually choose to read an excerpt with some laugh lines, because if I hear laughter, I know people are still with me.

Tip #10: Be Polite and Professional.
You always want to present yourself in the best light. You can do that by being respectful of your co-panelists and your audience. This also means not hogging attention or talking about your own books too much. Some self-promotion is okay, but if you’re on a panel, stay on topic and answer questions and give the other panelists room to speak. (I was that kid in your classes you hated who always dominated class discussion, so this is something I try to be conscious of.) Enthusiasm is good, too, for the topic or your genre or what have you. Talk up books by other authors, too, where appropriate.

Connected to being professional is dressing appropriately for the venue. When in doubt, business casual never hurts. There’s a larger discussion to be had about clothes and your brand, but again, put your best self out there. Spend a little time on personal grooming. Not every conference requires you to dress up, but wearing ripped tee-shirts to a professional conference is not the way to go. If you’re not sure what’s appropriate, ask someone who has been to the venue before.

Bonus Tip: Relax and Have Fun!
Easier said than done, I know, but seriously, public appearances should be fun for you. Take a deep breath and try not to worry. Put your best self forward and you’ll be great!