The first time I had to teach a class I thought I was going to throw up. Mouth dry and yet acidic. Gut screaming for a release that would not come. Eyes darting left and right for an escape that could not be found. It was a 50 minute class and I’d prepared and practiced 50 minutes of notes. I completed these in 15 minutes of supersonic mumbling and dismissed the class with, “That’s about it for today.”
By week two I was actually making it all the way through class and was speaking clearly enough to be heard, and within a month I found myself enjoying teaching so much that I decided to become one. I still enjoy it to this day. Certainly, I still get nervous at times, especially when talking to a new audience, but it’s butterflies that energize rather than the physical agony that once terrorized.
Perhaps strangely, I’ve never written a “how to” essay about public speaking. It’s something I do all the time, but unlike with writing I don’t often think about the steps involved. That’s me saying that I don’t know what I’m going to put into my next few blog posts. It’s really going to be me thinking out loud, and it may not be terribly well organized. Maybe I’ll find some insights into my own teaching, and maybe there’ll be something to help other writers who find themselves invited to give a talk. I know many writers who hate public speaking, but I think it’s becoming more important all the time in developing a writing career. So, here goes, and please feel free to disagree or make counter arguments if you wish.
1. Time constraints: Unless specifically asked to do so, never plan a talk lasting more than an hour. I would suggest planning one of between 30 and 40 minutes, and that you time yourself through the talk at least twice during practice. Anything shorter than 20 minutes is likely to feel a bit like a cheat to those who invited you to talk, but people’s attention will lag toward the end of forty minutes no matter how interesting you are.
2. Question time: It is very important that you either allow questions throughout the talk, or have a question period at the end. People want to have a chance to be heard and to express their own opinions, and they will feel incomplete if they don’t get this chance. The best talks are interactive with the audience.
3. Personal anecdotes: Relate personal experiences that tie in with your talk, and this is especially effective if the story is humorous. However, always make yourself the butt of the joke. Do not poke fun at your spouse or children to people who are strangers. It'll make you look bad. And be careful of your audience if you make fun of public or political figures. George Bush might be easy to crack jokes about, but you might find yourself talking to some people who voted for him.
4. Telling Lies: Regarding personal experiences, is it OK to embellish or exaggerate these for the sake of getting your point across? I think it oftentimes is, and that writers can be particularly good at doing this. I don’t lie outright, and I don’t twist facts, but I will admit to exaggerating certain elements of a story for comedic or dramatic effect. Descriptions that audience members can visualize will stay with them. They will remember the point because they remember the story.
OK, that's about it for today. I’ll continue with this topic for my next post. Let me know what you think, or if you have any specific points you’d like me to consider or bring up for discussion.