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!