Many authors dread public speaking, and it’s the number one fear people cite. I recall attending panel discussions at science fiction and fantasy conventions in my twenties, thinking, I could never do that. Then, there was a point in my life where I had to let go of that fear. I realized, if I want to do the work that calls to me, I have to be able to speak in front of a group.
That moment helped me push through the sometimes awkward learning process. Here’s the good news; there are many easy skills that you can learn to be a better presenter. The bad news is; it’s a process of skill building and just plain getting used to doing it. It gets easier with time, but you still have to do the time.
Here are a few tips to improve your public speaking, and we’ll start with tools that have nothing to do with speaking.
First, a note: This post is part of the Author Allies Autumn Mixer. Check it out for more resources for authors and author service providers!
A novel has a beginning, middle, and end, and so does an event. There is the entry, rising action, and the resolution. Event design is perhaps better referred to as the design of an experience. People hear the word design and assume that it means visuals and graphics, but the word design means “to plan.”
When you are doing any public speaking, whether that’s a reading at a bookstore, a workshop at a conference, a panel discussion, or a presentation in an auditorium, you are offering a (hopefully positive) experience. There are ways to help structure the experience you’re offering to meet your intention.
Are you presenting before or after someone? How long do you have? What type of an event is it? What are people there for? What experience are they seeking? You’ll want answers to these questions, and more, so that you can design an experience (your presentation) that makes sense with what else is going on and other factors such as the time of day, time allotment, and the type of venue.
What shape is the room and how are people sitting? What are the acoustics like? Are people welcome to arrive late? Where are the doors? Where are the bathrooms and do they work? Let me offer a few facilitation disasters that had zero to do with my public speaking ability and everything to do with the setting. There’s a bookstore with a back room where the walls don’t go all the way up to the high ceiling so the sound from the store carries over. There is a curtain instead of a door, and the bathrooms are located in the back. Thus, we consistently have ambient noise from the store, and the awareness that what we’re saying isn’t necessarily private. We also consistently have people wandering into the back. This creates significant distraction for workshop participants.
Once, I was hosting a day-long conference in St. Louis at a large art center. The main room where we held our keynote presentations had concrete floors and a high ceiling. During the morning keynote, there was this loud crashing sound. It turned out the staff was moving tables and chairs. This went on for about twenty minutes. It was loud, it was distracting. During our afternoon all-group session, the heating system kicked on, which was also incredibly loud. I had been told by the venue manager that once the HVAC kicked on it would stay on for a certain length of time and there was no way to shut it off, so we were stuck with the sound. I have pretty good voice projection, but even I had a challenge speaking over that.
At another large event I hosted, we had about 80 people in attendance, and one bathroom. The toilet backed up. It was a brand new venue and they had not yet purchased a plunger, so I had to send out one of my own event staff to buy a plunger.
None of these things has anything to do with your charisma or public speaking prowess, but they obviously affect the experience of your participants! It’s easiest to mitigate problems like this ahead of time by scoping out your venue, and getting a thorough overview from the event manager or venue coordinator.
Axiom: Ask for what you want, or you can’t expect to get it. If you’re presenting at a hotel ballroom and the doors in the back are open and there is noise bleedover, you can ask, “Would someone in the back please close the doors? Thanks!”
Do you have control over the temperature? I sometimes teach at outdoor festivals. One time I was teaching a leadership workshop. It was about 95 degrees with 100% humidity, and my participants were flushed and sweating. The only control I had over the space was moving us out from under the sweltering canopy tent, and into the grass next where there was a little more air. I’ve also taught workshops at venues where it was raining and miserably cold.
The point is, temperature is just one factor that affects the comfort of your attendees. If your attendees are uncomfortable, they probably aren’t going to be paying attention to you. Or, worse, you could be giving an amazing presentation, but because they are uncomfortable, they leave feeling cranky and reflect on it as a bad event.
Again, work ahead of time to find out what control you may have over things like temperature, shade, seating arrangements, or other issues that affect comfort.
Sometimes you can’t fix the problem, and other times you may be able to make some changes to ensure your group’s comfort. You can ask, “Is everyone in the shade? If you need to move to get out of the sun, please do.” Just shifting how the room is set up can make space for people to get to the bathroom, for instance. Sometimes all you can do is address it. “This is an all-day workshop and there’s only one bathroom. If you need to use the bathroom during the presentation please do, you won’t be offending me.”
You’d be surprised how often giving verbal permission and asking people to make themselves comfortable can shift a difficult situation.
Sometimes for longer workshops, I’ll tell people that if they need to sit on the floor, or get up and stretch, that that is perfectly acceptable as long as they don’t make a ruckus. Or, if we’re doing a standing exercise and they need to sit, that they can sit. If they are cold they can sit further from the door. Find ways to help people be more comfortable.
Now let’s get into actual speaking. I should offer a caveat. I don’t really attend book readings, so I have a slightly difficult time wrapping my brain around what the draw is for people who enjoy that. I am more interested in panel discussions or workshops. What I can tell you is that almost every single time I’ve been to a reading, I’ve been bored out of my mind. Why? Largely voice, volume, and tone.
Many authors doing a reading aren’t projecting. Plus they have their nose buried in the book and are speaking down. If people can’t hear you, they aren’t having a good experience. Plus the shy, unconfident vibes are not sending the message you want to send.
Voice and Tone
Most authors don’t have an engaging reading voice. Some folks read in a monotone, others in what’s called “poet voice.” Several of my public speaking mentors have pointed out that reading something off of the page is usually the least engaging thing a presenter can do. I’ve been to many events where people were reading off the page; their voices are angled at the page, they have that “I’m reading this off a page” cadence, and they lose the evocativeness of body language and eye contact.
I recall very few presenters who have read from the page where the presentation was evocative. One author achieved this doing a reading at a book launch for an anthology.
- What she did well: It was a nonfiction essay about her own personal experience, and it worked well to let her own personal voice come through.
- What she didn’t do so well: She read almost the entire essay. She had me for the first half. The second half, I was struggling to focus.
If not Reading…Then What?
If you aren’t skilled at reading from the page, keep it to a minimum and use other techniques instead. What are other things you can do to make a presentation more engaging?
This is a great way to break up your talk, and people love the behind-the-scenes stuff. There are a few anecdotes people often want to hear from me, including leadership disaster stories and facilitation train wrecks. Particularly stories where I’ve (accidentally) set things on fire.
For my fiction, I’ve amused people with stories such as how when I wrote Werewolves in the Kitchen, I had never experienced a ménage a trois and the story is an M/F/M ménage, so I polled my friends who had experienced that to see if my scene was realistic.
Anecdotes don’t have to be funny, they just have to be real. One of the more challenging aspects I faced in facilitating personal growth work was learning to be personally vulnerable. However, it’s one of the finest applications of charisma there is…because it’s genuine. If I’m telling people about a really difficult experience in my own life, that inherently draws people in. In fact, it’s one of the only ways to get people to open up about their own experiences because I went first and made it safe to do so.
People want to feel that they have a connection with you. Further, many people are dying for an opportunity for you (or anyone) to listen to them, even if it’s just for a minute. Engaging the group in a discussion facilitates both of these.
If the group is small enough, I start out with a go-round (sometimes called a check-in) where I ask people their name and what brought them there. If I’m offering a workshop teaching facilitation and public speaking, this is crucial. I need to know what people want to learn so that I can offer them useful tools and tips.
If you have a larger audience, a check in might be too complex. With 20 people each taking one minute, that’s 20 minutes of (for instance) a 90 minute workshop. That’s about as much time as I’m willing to devote to that process. If I have 30-40 people, I might ask them to say their name, and then ask people if they have any burning questions of things they’d like to learn. This is more in the brainstorming or popcorning format.
You want to balance inviting participation without putting people on the spot, and that’s usually all in the question. You also don’t want people to drone on talking about their life history for several minutes.
I might set something like that up like this:
“I’d like to get a sense of what brought you here tonight for this presentation on (public speaking/graphic design/marketing strategy for authors). So we’ll go around the group and if you can tell me your name, and in just a few words, any burning questions you might have about the topic. If someone’s already brought up your topic you can pass. We’ve got thirty people and I want to spend less than ten minutes on this.”
A broader question:
“Before we start, I’d like to go around the room and find out if there are any particular topics you’d like me to cover or any questions you have. Keep in mind we have only an hour together so please keep it brief.”
Again, it depends on the size of the group, the intimacy of the space, your topic, and the context of your presentation. There’s a big difference between a nonfiction author presenting to an auditorium and trying to ask questions, and a day-long workshop with twenty people. Or between a fiction author doing a reading/signing, and a fiction author presenting to other authors on marketing techniques.
In other words, you have to go back to some of the foundational principles of event design. Who is your audience? What experience do they hope to have?
Structuring Your Session
Just as your workshop might be happening within the flow of a larger event, so too does your presentation build on itself and create its own flow. Here’s a typical workshop format I use:
- 1-2 minutes: Introduce myself and the topic
- 1 minute: Group agreements
- 5-15 minutes: Check in/go around, “What do you want to learn?”
- 2-5 minutes: Introduce topic part 2, go into more depth
- 5-10 minutes: Discuss topic with group
- 2-5 minutes: Topic part 3
- 5-20 minutes: Engage group in an exercise
- 2-5 minutes: Topic part 4
- 5-10 minutes discussion
- 5-20 minutes: Closing exercise or closing check-in
Typically I try to find some way to offer a check-in even if it’s just brainstorming, except for very large groups. When I discuss the topic I try to keep that to 2-5 minutes of talky-talky. Why? Lecture’s the least effective method of teaching. People will start to tune out. I’ll usually shift it to discussion so that people can internalize the concept, or an exercise. In essence, I pulsate talking with discussion and exercise. The more you can engage your audience in participating, the better experience they will have.
Exercises and Participation
Depending upon the amount of time I have, and the number of participants and the amount of space, that’s really going to impact what kinds of exercises I can do. One exercise is pretty simple; I have people pair up and discuss the topic for a couple of minutes. It builds energy and helps them to connect the topic to the work they are doing. I might then have people bring up any salient points or questions to the larger group.
A note on choosing exercises: your introverted audience members will resent being made to stand up in front of the group, unless there’s specific context (like it’s a facilitation workshop). Thus, for any exercises requiring people to do something, I either have the whole group doing it simultaneously, or if it’s an exercise where one-four people are doing something in front of the group I offer people the choice of whether or not to do it.
More introvert-friendly exercises can include journaling, talking to one other person, sitting with their eyes closed and visualizing their goals and what they’d like to achieve, creativity work like making collages, or taking short quiz to identify their leadership qualities.
Pro Tip: If your audience is going to sleep, stop talking. Have them do something or get them to ask questions.
Here are some additional more advanced facilitation techniques:
Awareness of Voice
You’ll want to get an outside view of how you speak. I recently met a woman who spoke in a very overdramatic way. Actually, she wouldn’t stop talking and interrupting. Her voice was this continual sing-song of “OMG!” and “Awesomesauce!” and a host of other clichéd words.
A lot of presenters can’t “hear” their own verbal tics. Do you speak in a monotone or mumble? Do you Um and Ah? Some presenters trying to overcompensate for a monotone will go way overdramatic. Some people naturally speak in an overdramatic way, but many people will hear it as “fake” or, at the very least, it’s exhausting to listen to outside of a few specific contexts.
Fear of public speaking is usually a fear of rejection. In your reptile brain it goes something like this: “If I screw up in front of people they’ll laugh at me, they’ll realize that I suck, because I’ve always sucked, and everyone has always actually hated me, and they’ll reject me and I’ll be alone forever and die.” While this is anything but a “quick fix,” understanding if you have poor self esteem can help you to identify a some core areas of self improvement you face as a presenter.
I engaged in a process of personal growth and development including using tools from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It took years, but I slowly built up my own personal confidence. Now when someone is nodding off in my workshop I think, “They must be really tired,” instead of, “OMG, everyone knows how boring I am and they hate me.”
In other words, true confidence always makes for a better facilitator. You can build this with time.
Dealing with Hecklers
Many people ask me how to deal with rude participants. I’ve written two blog posts recently on this topic geared toward the Pagan/alternative spirituality community, but they also apply to geek and fandom subcultures, and to facilitation in general.
Focusing Your Skills
It will serve some authors to focus on getting really good at readings. Most who do a good job at this have some acting and performance training, however, you may be able to get some resources through organizations like Toastmasters.
My skillset is based on facilitating workshops and presentations in an extemporaneous format. While I usually have an outline for a workshop, I don’t plan exactly what I’m going to say because I work to respond to the mood and the needs of the group I’m working with.
I often say, don’t swim upstream. Learn what works for you and go with that. Also, be patient. You won’t become an amazing speaker overnight. You’ll get better with practice, so keep going.
If you’re interested in further work on the topic, here is a short article I wrote on charisma and building an authentic author platform. http://authorentrepreneurship.com/2013/11/01/charisma-and-authenticity-leadership-public-speaking-and-building-an-author-platform-by-shauna-aura-knight/
Join one of my email lists: Get updated when I release my upcoming book, the Facilitation Handbook, as well as notifications on more facilitation resources and some freebies I’ll be offering. http://www.shaunaauraknight.com/about/contact-me-2/
Contact me with questions: I love getting questions as it often prompts me to write articles (like this one). I am also available for hire as a consultant for one-on-one facilitation coaching or for workshops on public speaking and facilitation for anything from small groups to large conferences. I also do consulting for graphic design, cover design, and other marketing strategy work. Contact me at ShaunaAura (at) gmail (dot) com with any questions.
Check out my Graphic Design for Authors series on the Author Allies web site http://www.author-allies.org/graphic-design-authors-part-6-collateral-design-strategy/
Are you an author interested in more resources? This post is part of the Author Allies Autumn Mixer. Click the link to find more resources for authors and author service providers.