Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Insecure Writers: Don't Be Afraid of Public Speaking!

NOTE: It's the first Wednesday of the month, so it's time for The Insecure Writers! For those who don't remember, it's an online group created by Alex J. Cavanaugh for writers. You, too, can join us anytime!

A few little birdies have recently expressed a wish for a post on public speaking for writers, and after delaying said post for too long (I blame the A to Z Challenge), I figured the IWSG would be a perfect opportunity to put together a list of tips and tricks. I originally wrote this up for the talented writer Julie Flanders, who was about to go to various events to promote her new book, and was - understandably - a bit apprehensive. I think most writers can understand this fear - viscerally, with some stomach-clenching dread and sweating palms - because for most of our working lives we have to be able to sit, alone, in silence, and write...and then every once in a while we're suddenly expected to leave the solitude of our desks and be outgoing, charming, consummate public speakers and marketers.

It's a weird shift.

BUT, there are a few very concrete things you can do to make this whole speaking-in-front-of-many-staring-expectant-people-without-turning-into-a-blithering-idiot thing much easier, and much more do-able. I learned these valuable skills because I got my degree at Emerson College, and because said degree was a BFA in acting, believe it or not. For those of you who aren't familiar with the school, it's a specialized college for communication and the arts, and it was founded by an orator - all of which meant that, at least while I was there, classes in Public Speaking and Voice & Articulation were mandatory. I was highly irritated about this at the time I was in school, because I was 18 and knew absolutely everything about everything and knew that actors didn't need this silly stuff, but now, quite a few years later, I have to admit that I'm pretty damn grateful that they made me go.

So, I've compiled this list (as an outline - what else???) from the training I received both in public speaking and in acting, which, as you might guess, aren't all that dissimilar when it comes down to the basics.


Public Speaking for Writers (and Other People Who Don't Want To Be the Center of Attention)

1. Body Language is Key: This is the first and most important tip - learn to use your body to help you instead of hinder you. If you're nervous, your body will show it: you'll have trouble making eye contact; you'll speak too softly and too quickly; you'll be sweaty and shaky; you won't stand up straight, and so on. All of this just increases the nerves in a nasty endless cycle. So instead, you pretend to be confident by making your body confident. The amazing thing about this is that when you force yourself to physically embody confidence, it actually works. You can calm yourself this way. And even if you still feel nervous, you won't come across as nervous to anyone watching you. If you have the patience for it, I'd recommend practicing this, so that your muscles and your body get used to how it feels, and then when you're in front of people, you can easily and quickly slip into this physical stance:

  • Stand up tall, with your shoulders back. 
  • Make sure your feet are under your hips, about hip-distance apart, with your knees very slightly bent (locked knees = danger of fainting = very bad), and your weight evenly distributed between both feet. 
  • Take deep, even breaths - you have to really concentrate on this one, and keep up that concentration until breathing like this becomes a habit. 
  • Speak slowly and clearly. 
  • Put your voice a lower register. If you have any familiarity with voice training, try using your chest register. If you don't, that's OK: just try to put your voice in a strong, deep tone. If you're a visual person, try imagining your words in a color you find confident and strong. For me, this would be a deep burgundy. 

2. Set An Intention, and Embody It: I remember this clearly from my public speaking class. It was specifically about giving speeches, but it applies to any public speaking situation. What this means is that you stop worrying about how the audience might feel, and think instead about how you want them to feel. So, you ask yourself, how do I want my audience to feel? As an author speaking, you might want them to feel interested, comfortable, curious, and/or also humorous or sympathetic, but really, this is up to you. I would just recommend staying simple, and picking only two or three emotions. Then hold onto that intention, consciously, as you speak, and let those emotions color your own words. Even just having this intention will help, but if you want to get more advanced about it, there are specific strategies for different emotions - it has to do with rhythm, tone, etc. For that, I would recommend getting a good book on oration.

3. Speak, Don't Read: Practice your speech or presentation or reading enough that you essentially know it by heart, and don't have to read it off of note cards or Power Point or from your book. You can use your notes, and refer to them in case you forget, but when you have what you want to say memorized, you're free to do something lovely - look up!You can look at your audience and interact with them, you can be more human and less robotic, and that will increase your confidence. You'll come across as human, confident, and approachable, instead of anxious or flat. If you're worried about looking at your audience, well, see below.

4. Concentrate on Heads, Not Eyes: I've never been a fan of the 'imagine everyone in their underwear' advice, because then I'm thinking way too much about putting people in underwear and not nearly enough on what I'm saying. I know that it can be weird and scary to make eye contact with people in your audience (although, if you can do it, it can also be really powerful), so if eye contact freaks you out, don't make the cardinal mistake of never looking up; instead, look just over the tops of your audience's heads, either at the scalp level or about an inch or so above them. The smaller the audience and the room, the less you can get away with this, but generally as long as you have a few rows of people, and you're at least a few feet away from them, it'll look like you're looking at the row right behind each of them. Now, if you're talking to ten or twenty people or less, this won't work, but if the group is that small, hopefully it won't seem as scary! This also won't work if you're doing a question and answer, of course; then you do have to look at the person talking. In that case, try to concentrate on the person who asked the question, and imagine you're having a conversation with just that person, instead of a whole group of people.

5. Be An Actor: If all else fails, you can look at this as an acting exercise, and no, you don't need to be a professional for this! You're just playing the role of the smart, confident, charismatic, talented author, who feels no fear in front of large groups, and is a super star when it comes to public speaking. It might sound silly, but so much of the fear of public speaking comes from worrying about what everyone is going to think of you. If you're not you, but are just an actor in a role, you can detach yourself a little bit from that fear. It's like the role is a shield, protecting you. We're all capable of this; we all played games where we took on many roles when we were kids. You just have to dig deep and bring that powerful imagination back to the surface.


And that's it for the basics! I hope one or all of these help you, and ease at least a little bit of that fear. If you have any questions, ask away in the comments, and I'll do my best to answer. And of course, if you have any tips of your own, please share them!

74 comments:

  1. So glad you decided to do a post on this! I can attest to how much your tips help. You could be a public speaking coach in your free time. :)

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    1. Thanks so much, Julie!! I'm so glad they were helpful!

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  2. Excellent advice! Thank you, Liz. :)

    IWSG #215 until Alex culls the list again.

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  3. Great tips! I'm terrified of public speaking, despite the fact that I was in plays in high school and a TV news anchor in college. It's just different when you're looking out across a group of people and they're waiting for you to speak. With acting, you're looking at other actors and with TV news, you're staring at a camera! It's not the same as those eyes staring back at you.

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    1. LOL! I understand - they ARE different. That's why I put in that tip about playing the role of the confident author. That way, it's much more like acting!!

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  4. I've tried some of these same tricks when I have to speak in front of people. I always practice my talk so many times I have it completely memorized. That way I don't have to worry about forgetting what to do no matter how nervous I get.

    The biggest lesson I learned is that the audience wants you to succeed. Thanks for the post, Liz.

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    1. Yup, the memorization really helps, not only with the event itself, but also with giving the speaker confidence. And that's a great reminder about the audience!

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  5. Another friend of mine went to Emerson too. And great tips! I think I like the idea of speaking and not reading the best. I always do better if I just try to have a conversation with the audience.

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    1. Thanks :) Yes, that's a great tip, too, to think of it as a conversation.

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  6. This is excellent advice. I'm sure Emerson prepared you incredibly well. I get very nervous in front of big crowds but have found thinking of it as an acting exercise very helpful.
    Elizabeth Hein - Scribbling in the Storage Room

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    1. Thanks - I think they did :) I hope these help!

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  7. I've been telling myself I want to join the local Toastmasters group to try and acquire some speaking skills.

    Excellent advice, Liz!

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  8. Excellent advice, and timely for me, as I near the time when I might have to do some public speaking. Thank you!

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    1. Oh good,I hope they help! Good luck!

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  9. Not to be a spaz or anything, but WE WENT TO THE SAME COLLEGE. I loved it there, but I think I was way too introverted to really fit in. I find public speaking terrifying, but when it has to do with my writing, it makes it a bit easier. I've done a few poetry readings that were a lot of fun.

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    1. That's not spazzy, that's awesome!!! I know what you mean- it's not really a school for introverts, unless you're in the writing or speech pathology programs :)

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  10. I'm pretty sure if I have to speak in public I will be very insecure about it, but I'm going to keep this post to help me. Thanks for sharing, Liz! :)

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    1. Yeah, those insecurities never fully go away, but hopefully they DO lessen :)

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  11. Some great tips! I admit it's not my favorite thing to do.

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  13. I got my Master's at Emerson! Good points, all. I did public speaking and debate in high school . . . Everyone thought I was going to become a district attorney because of the way I ripped into people. Now I'm just a mild-mannered writer. ::shrug::

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    1. You did? Did I know that? Very cool :)

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  14. This was so helpful, Liz. I haven't had to do any public speaking as a writer yet, but I'm bookmarking this. My I do know I do better when I know my subject well and am passionate about it. So I hope that will help when the time comes.

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    1. Yes, that definitely will help!! It always does :)

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  15. I'd add this, which someone said to me once. You're stuck doing it, you might as well enjoy it. In other words, 'expect to enjoy it', and you may just.

    The other thing, which is a rather odd juxtaposition, is to visualize various disasters and think what you might do about them if they happen.

    It never hurts to be prepared.

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    1. I like that - it's similar to setting an intention!

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  16. I have had to do more than once-public speaking. As a credit Counsellor I had to go to different schools and agencies to talk about who we are and budgeting, money management etc... Standing up straight, talking lower and I would say slower to almost "feel" the words helped my confidence. These are great tips and so true. the last thing i want to do is picture most people naked because most do not look like George Clooney or Mark Wahlburg, most look like an aging berr drinking old German man who likes speedos. I alos love the tip about being a actor-that is a great tip and one I will use when I need to

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    1. Haha, totally true!!! Me neither. So glad this is helpful!

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  17. Great info! I've always loved acting. If you can gain control over your rapid breathing, the rest is easy! I read recently that it's not about you when you get up to speak, but rather about what you can give to the audience:)

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  18. Woot! Once upon a time, I wanted to be a stage actress. Then I looked at the statistics, examined my personality, and decided I wouldn't make the cut. But your advice had me nodding. A lot of great, helpful tips.

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    1. Of course you examined the stats - LOL! I love it.

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  19. I'm weird in that I love public speaking, but I hate traveling to get to engagements. lol Great post, Liz!

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    1. LOL! That I don't have tips for, unfortunately :)

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  20. I like public speaking though I was pretty shy as a kid. Teaching teenagers kind of gets you over that. Great tips.

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    1. yeah, I bet it does!! Thanks, Susan :)

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  21. OMG, this is incredible. I have to speak at 4 friends' weddings this summer and have saved this post to read the day before. Thank you!!

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    1. Oh wow, I'm so glad!! Four friends?? Sheesh! That is a lot. I hope its fun and easy!

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  22. Also, knowing the proper speech format is key. Start with an introduction and please, for the eternal love of our great Lord, don't start with "I'm here today to talk about..." If you get the crowd engaged (usually through humor) right up front, you'll be far more confident. I prefer to use analogies in my intros, but there are a bunch of different ways of going about it. After your intro, in which you list the main topics you're going to cover (hopefully in a clever manner) and then you actually talk about them. Finally, make your conclusions (if you can, try to tie your conclusion to your intro) and thank your audience. (You probably know all this already, but it's the best advice I can give for anyone who doesn't in case you get further questions from people. It took me several years of extemporaneous speaking in school to get good at the process.)

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    1. Awesome additions, Patrick - thank you!

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  23. These are some great ideas. Breathing right and knowing the material is critical for me.
    One other thing that helps me a lot is to make sure that I'm wearing something that looks great on me. :) I think it helps me get into character, like you say, and act the part of someone who is in charge and confident, not the scaredy-cat I really am!

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    1. yes, totally! It's just like a costume :)

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  24. Good advice! ^_^ I took a drama class back in college, and whenever I have to speak in front of more than a few people, I find myself falling back to that mental state. If the people you're talking to want to listen to you, it's weirdly easy to just think of it as a performance. Helps me get past my usual introversion too. Oi.

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    1. Yup, exactly! If you're not YOU, you don't have to be an introvert, at least for that one night :)

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  25. Great advice. I was lucky to get a lot of public speaking training in my Waldorf Teacher Training courses, and it has seriously paid off as a writer. Practicing your speech, reading, etc. aloud is also seriously important. I find my cat makes a great practice audience.

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    1. It's so useful, isn't it? Both the training AND the practice - although I don't have a cat to listen. I have to make do with a mirror! ;)

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  26. Fantastic list. I'll be stealing it to use in my classroom.

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    1. Thanks, Leslie! I bet as a teacher, you're pretty good at it already :)

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  27. These are really good tips! I always rehearse my presentations before I do them. It really helps.

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  28. These are fantastic tips, Liz, and some really great advice. I've given many author visits and presentations over the last year and a half. The elementary audiences are very welcoming but if I ever find myself getting nervous, I tend to focus only on the children and not the adults. I literally keep my eyes on the little ones and quickly scan over the teachers and principals. This helps me to stay focused on the age group and my words and thoughts centered on what they can grasp. And if I ever think I am acting too silly or animated, I remember that my visits are for the kids and not the adults. And the sillier, the better for the little ones=)

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    1. That's a great tip for all children's and MG authors. Thanks so much!

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  29. you have an interesting blog. thanks for sharing, I enjoyed reading your posts.

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  30. It's so easy... not! LOL. It's sounds simple but it's hard to put into practice, especially that first time.

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    1. Oh yes, it always sounds so much easier than it really is!

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  31. Excellent advice. Even though I'm a teacher, I'm not a fan of public speaking. Weird, I know.

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    1. Nope, they're two totally different things. I can understand your dislike!

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  32. Great advice! I had to introduce an author for her book launch and believe me, I was literally shaking!

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    1. Oh no! I bet you did great, though :)

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  33. Great tips! I did some public speaking a few years ago. The anticipation is the worst thing about it ;)

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    1. So true!! I hate the lead-up, no matter how many good tips I know!

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  34. Hey Girl!

    Okay, okay, okay...it's been awhile, but I'm sure you haven't forgotten about me.

    Have you?

    ACTING experience! Do you know how much that plays into my writing? TONS. It helps me get into my characters with a depth that I wouldn't know without the experience.

    And public speaking. I remember my first speech...10th grade. On origami. The art of paper folding. I had to teach the class how to make a whale. Holding up that piece of paper, I was shaking like a leaf. Whew...many speeches later, I am at ease. And yes, I simply "act" like someone giving a speech and I get through it.

    I also look at tops of heads rather than make eye contact. I make eye contact and I lose my train of thought. Also, now that my sight is getting worse, I can't focus on people, so that helps. And singing, too. Hell...I'm a freaking ham.

    Good to see you. Don't be a stranger. Hey...are you interested in doing the "blog train?" I have to pick three people...four simple questions about your WIP...nothing major.

    M.L. Swift, Writer

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    1. YAY! Mikes back!!

      Wait...Mike who??

      Just kidding! I'm so glad to see your digital face 'round these parts again :)

      I feel the same way about acting and characters - it's give me a way into their brains, a way of conceiving someone's tics and habits and loves.

      Hmm, what's the blog train? It's not the writing process one, is it? Because I was tagged in that one a few weeks ago. If not, if it's something else, then sure, I'd be glad to be picked! :)

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    2. Crikey! Yes, it's that one. Heheheh. Yeah, I'm trying to blog a little more. Gonna do the blog train thing next Monday and try to throw something out a little more often. Also working on a post of what's been up in my life, where it's going type thing. Writing as much as I can and have been submitting to a few mags and anthologies. Will be awhile until I hear.

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    3. Oh...then unfortunately I'm out of the running :( thanks for thinking of me, though! I'm looking forward to reading those posts, whenever you get a chance to write 'em. And I'll cross my fingers for you - good for you for submitting!!

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  35. Fantastic tips. I did some of this and want to try them all out. Public speaking is not my forte.

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  36. Okay, so I'm two weeks late, but I finally made it to this highly anticipated post! Thank you so very much for sharing these tips---the body language & intention tips are the two I'm going to work on, for sure. Not that I have any speaking engagements planned at the momet, but now I've got the motivation to set one up---for practice, of course. :)

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  37. I definitely feel a lot of people just read off what they wrote on the page--especially a writer's tendency. But the truly phenomenal speakers are those who really speak.
    Great post!

    - Sabrina

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