Public speaking tips for writers (putting a bag over your head is not one of them..)

I am a writer. I am an introverted writer. The thought of public speaking makes my skin prickle and my head swim and yet it is something writers are often expected to do, and to be honest, despite the fear, it is something I am eager to do. The chance to meet readers. To talk about my books. A couple of weeks ago, on World Book Day, I gave my first ever talk to 250 primary school children on reading, writing and following your dreams (you can read about that here.) Beforehand I was lucky enough to get some tips from my good friend and fellow author Graeme Cumming who is so adept at public speaking he belongs to a Speakers Club (for fun!!!). Thankfully I got through my own talk without fainting/vomiting/crying/all three and I’m delighted to welcome Graeme onto my blog today to share his wisdom with you. 

Getting up and speaking in public is stimulating. For most people, though, that stimulation isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Over the years, research has shown that, when it comes to fears, public speaking tops most lists. Fear of dying tends to rank about 4th or 5th, which kind of puts things in perspective.

Some time ago, it was pointed out to me that, for pretty much anyone to be successful in their chosen career, at some point they’d have to speak in front of others, otherwise you limit your opportunities.

Up to then, I’d been thinking I could get away with it. In meetings, I didn’t ask questions, I never volunteered to make presentations, and the closest I got to being the centre of attention was if I made an off-colour joke. I realised things needed to change, otherwise I’d still be a low-grade building society clerk when I retired.

Fast forward… well, quite a lot of years, and here I am embarking on a new path with my life, that of author. One book out and two in the pipeline. I’m a writer. But does that mean I no longer have to speak? Not a bit of it. Sure, we have social media to help us connect with our readers and the wider world. But that doesn’t mean to say we don’t need to get up and speak to groups. There are book launches, invitations to speak to peer groups, libraries, book clubs or schools. We may even have to make a presentation to agents or publishers.

A lot of people ask me: what can I do to eliminate the fear? The bad news is that it never really goes away – at least, not in my experience. I first started practicing public speaking nearly 30 years ago, and I’m still nervous if I have a new engagement.

But that doesn’t mean to say I have the same fears I started with. Those have been worn down as a result of practice and experience. Like any activity, the first time you try it, you feel apprehensive – usually because you don’t want to make a fool of yourself. But the more you do it, the easier it gets, and you even begin to look forward to it.

In the absence of having the opportunity to get loads of practice, though, here are some things to remember that’ll help with the nerves:

* Your audience have come along to see you. They’ve made an effort to come out and they’re interested in what you have to say. They’re already on your side

* Since most people put public speaking at or near the top of their worst fears, an audience will have a degree of sympathy and understanding that it’s a nerve-wracking experience. They’ll forgive your mistakes because they’re just glad they’re not doing it.

* You may be about to make your first ever speech, but the audience don’t know that. They also don’t know what goes into giving a speech, so they have very little to judge you on. Pretend you do it every day of the week, and they’ll assume that’s the case.

* If you’re visiting groups who regularly have speakers, they’ll have seen some dire performances. By coming along with something you’ve prepared well for, you’ll already have a head start on a lot of their previous speakers.

That last point about preparation is important. Don’t go into a situation hoping you can wing it. Only a very few people have that ability. So do spend some time preparing what you want to say. You don’t have to be word perfect – though my own preference is to rehearse – but you do want to know in advance what message you want to get across to your audience.

Something else to bear in mind is avoiding the temptation to give excuses in advance for why you’re about to give a rubbish speech. We Brits seem to have apologetic genes, but we should never say sorry for our performance. Most of the time, the audience won’t know the difference. What you consider to be bungling will seem like it’s just part of your style of presentation.

There are techniques you can learn to improve as a public speaker, and if you do face the prospect of having to do it, they can be useful. Even though I’ve been involved in public speaking at one level or another for nearly 30 years, I still like to practice, which is why I joined a Speakers Club. These are safe environments in which to learn and develop, and are usually relatively low cost. Some people will go on training courses for Public Speaking, which are intensive and you learn a lot quickly. But, unless you practice regularly, you can lose the skills just as rapidly.

I hope these tips and comments will help, but if anyone has any questions or would like to learn more, please do contact me via my website and I’ll be happy to assist.

Thanks so much Graeme for taking the time to share your experiences. I’ve found it really useful.

Graeme Cumming is the author of Ravens Gathering, “a dark and creepy piece of horror and mystery writing”. His talk, “How to Become a Bestseller” gives an insight into the modern world of writing and publishing. For fun, he is also currently Education Director at Sheffield Speakers Club. You can read more about Graeme and his work at www.graemecumming.co.uk.

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43 thoughts on “Public speaking tips for writers (putting a bag over your head is not one of them..)

  1. Thanks Louise and Graeme for the sound advice. I’ve only given one reading – a few years ago – and found every time I made a mistake or tripped up I gave an involuntary ‘tut’ sound at my own incompetence. I’ve always wondered if the tiny audience thought I had a tic!
    Practice is the key, I’m sure you’re right. And not just infront of the bathroom mirror! Many thanks

  2. A great post and very reassuring. I recently gave my first solo author talk and for weeks beforehand it felt like I was about to jump off a cliff. It went well because I had a lovely small audience but it really helps to read stuff like this to encourage me to push myself out of my comfort zone! 😀

    • I’m not noted for being reassuring, so thanks for that, Jackie! That jumping off a cliff feeling isn’t uncommon, and – as I’ve indicated – it doesn’t necessarily go away. But it does get easier with practice. I hope there’s something in the post that you can take with you to help with your second solo author talk.

  3. Thanks for the post, Louise. Great advice, Graeme. As I was reading your advice, Graeme, I was thinking that speaking in public is like presenting your writing to others to review, you shouldn’t apologize for what you’ve written before the person has a chance to read it. And so I was pleased to read the part about not apologizing for your speaking abilities.
    In my writing group, we frequently read parts, if not of all, of the piece we’ve brought to the group, which has greatly improved my speaking abilities. It’s something small and a safer way to start. I’m wishing we would have started this before I gave my first speech to kids about writing, but even reflecting on that, I think my fear of how it would go was much worse than the experience.
    Although, to be honest, most of the time when I speak in public it’s like blind panic. I don’t know what happened during, I just discover with some relief I survived it. I imagine that’s very similar to what an alien abduction would be like.

    • Fortunately, I haven’t the experience to compare with an alien abduction, but I’ll let you know if I find out.
      Blind panic, though, is not unheard of. There are techniques you can learn to minimise that feeling, though I’ve yet to eliminate it completely. And you’re right to mention that the fear is worse than the actual experience. It’s true in so many aspects of life, but seems even more pronounced when you have to get up and perform in front of others.
      I hope the tips I’ve listed here will go a little way to alleviating that fear for you in future.

  4. Reblogged this on graemecummingdotnet and commented:
    Isn’t it great that you can call a bestselling author a friend? A chance meeting at a Conference about a year ago, and now Louise and I get together periodically for lunch and exchange our highs and woes about our writing experiences.
    Louise’s story is an inspiration to all writers, me included, and I’d encourage you to learn more about her on her website, FabricatingFiction. So it was a bit of a surprise when I was asked if I could help her out…

  5. 33 years high school history teacher and ran for political office a few times. I have no fears and think I am fairly polished . But now in my seventh decade the problem has become I can’t remember what to say. I make three copies of notes just in case but I lose all three copies within an hour of the speech.

  6. Great information and encouraging words. I hoped I didn’t have to speak in public after becoming an Author, but stepping into my fear and learning how to speak confidently, I have opened many doors and created great opportunities to grow my business. If it scares me I now say, “Yes.” Thanks Louise. 💕💚

  7. Thanks for the good advice. I had a law professor – when he asked a question, no one would raise their hand to answer. So he told us about ” the number”. He said that with regard to public speaking, everyone has a number. Your number might be 5 or 26 or 102. That part you didn’t know. Every time you answered a question or spoke in public you were one number closer to being a confident public speaker. So we all tried to hit our number.

  8. I’d just like to add one more point with my psychology hat on – systematic practice is also a good approach (if you have the time and can manipulate the means) for example practicing a speech in front of 1 person then a few then several and so forth can quickly reduce the nerves!

    • If it can be done, that’s great. Very often it can’t (as you’ve alluded to), which is why I’m an advocate of regularly attending a speakers club, so you at least get the practice of getting up in front of others. You’re right, though, the more you can practice, the easier it becomes.

  9. Thank you so much for the tips. I hate public speaking and try to avoid it like the plague, but on rare occasions I am asked to speak. Like you, I feel preparation is the key. I take an index card with notes or key words as reminders, in case my mind goes blank once I’m standing in front of the group eagerly waiting my presentation 🙂

    • As Louise has said, index cards can be a good idea. I know a lot of speakers who use them. Personally, I find them distracting, which is why I prefer to rehearse (over and over), but it’s all down to personal preference and what works for the individual. Whichever way works, as you’ve touched on, preparation makes a world of difference!

  10. A great post and some excellent tips on public speaking. I also do a lot of public speaking and it definitely gets easier with practice. It also helps to be the expert in the room and to know that your knowledge far exceeds that of your audience. I have started to quite enjoy it and include lots of relevant humour in my presentations. Now if you have some advice about being interviewed on TV with only a top and no other prepping, I would love to hear it. Talk about nerves!

    • I think humour is a very good way forward with talks. As long as the audience isn’t laughing at me… The TV thing was fine because it was so last minute I didn’t have time to get nervous and it was only in my lounge. I knew it wasn’t live so there was no pressure.

    • Love that thought: it helps to be the expert in the room. And sometimes you’re not, but they don’t know it! Humour is also good, though not everyone can do it, so I’d never advise anyone to be humorous if it doesn’t come naturally to them.
      As for being on TV and no prep, I can’t provide any guarantees. What I would say is that, at Speakers Clubs there is a section in most meetings where we practice impromptu speaking. Essentially, one person will call members up to speak on a topic that they usually give to the speaker as they’re coming up to the lectern. Although it might sound like the worst nightmare of a lot of people, it’s great practice for those occasions when you are put on the spot.
      Thanks for taking time out to comment.

Constructive criticism appreciated

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