Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Public Speaking for Writers 101

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.


SzélsőFa said...

I'm going to have an event about the topic of family (I've blogged about that in my Gondolatok az erdőben blog.)

I'm planning to make it as interactive as it can be.
Any tips on that?

Steve Malley said...

I took some public speaking classes at Uni -- ah, the pain of watching my mumbling played back on videotape...

Good points about the jokes and exaggerations. Gotta be careful with the exaggeration though, as not everyone has the same sense of humour. Or a sense of humor at all, but that's another story...

I'm a fan of the tall tale myself, but it's been known to backfire.

Anonymous said...

I haven't spoken in public very often. The results have not been very good. I can use these pointers.

AvDB said...

As far as planning goes, always have more information than you can cover. So, if question time is a bust and there's only crickets when you say, "Who has questions?" you can fall back on those bits you didn't get around to covering. It's better standing there grinning while everyone shifts uncomfortably in their seats.

Also, with the jokes/tales/quips gone flat--move on as quickly as possible. The longer the silence, the longer the offense has to sink in with everyone else. Humorlessness is like a virus. It'll spread like wildfire. Containment via distraction is the key to survival.

Chris Eldin said...

The thought of speaking in public makes me terrified. I hope I never have to.

I like your tips though. They're excellent for *other* people. :-)

Travis Cody said...

Make your point, but don't belabor it after it has been made.

When I was finishing up my degree at night school, the one thing my class and I were all guilty of in the beginning was beating that dead horse into a bloody piece of meat.

But I got better at summarizing facts, and realizing that I didn't need to list every fact in support of my premise. I learned how to make my point and still be entertaining.

Stewart Sternberg (half of L.P. Styles) said...

I love public speaking, and I am good at it. I enjoy talking before a large crowd. I even thought about becoming a trainer or PR consultant at one time.

Here's what I enjoy about it: creating an intimacy between presenter and audience. When I speak, I involve them as much as possible, personalizing content, making eye contact, riding the energy sent out by the crowd, sensing its highs and lows and working with it for the living thing it is.

Angie said...

I don't mind giving a talk if I have a specific topic. If I've just written a paper for a class and have to give a presentation on it, or if I'm doing something training-ish (which I've done both in college where I was a TA and for a job where I was doing some training) I'm fine. I know the subject and I can take questions and I can come up with good examples and all -- no problem.

It's the sort of general, subjectless talks that terrify me. I chaired an SF convention a couple of times and one of my jobs was to get up and speak at the Meet the Guests reception. More recently I've seen chairmen just stand up, introduce the MC (who's one of the major guests) and sit down, but back when I was doing it, it was custom for the chairman to make a few remarks. O_O I bombed both times, and deservedly so. "Get up and be entertaining" isn't the sort of direction that computes for me. I can get up and be informative, if I have a subject to talk about, but the more "casual" speech eludes me.

Angie, hiding under the bed at the very thought

Lisa said...

I think it would be really interesting to see an author speak or read and then open up more of a dialogue with the audience. I have to do presentations frequently and it helps so much if I ask my audience questions or ask for their opinions or ideas instead of just asking if they have any questions. It makes it more relaxing for me and I think for them as well. Often when I go to a reading or a signing, I'm nervous just attending so I never ask questions. I'm sure most of the authors are too and I'm guessing it's the one-way situation that is the norm.

JR's Thumbprints said...

I've seen public school teachers with many years of experience "freeze up" in a room full of convicts. I would offer my advise to them, but more times than I can count, they'd dismiss me as "not being a real teacher."

Problem is, after they've exhausted every damn method they can think of in front of prisoners, they usually end up quitting.

It's not only important to know how to speak, but also to know your audience. Same with writing.

Sidney said...

I think Orson Wells was a great prevaricator. It probably adds to the legend.

Writers are usually telling things the way they should have been anyway. Who's to say it's not true in some other universe, some great variation on quantum immortality variation?

Lana Gramlich said...

I wish I could speak in public even 1/8th as well as you do. You seem like such a natural, I love to watch you do it. I'd be more like Butters from South Park--likely to piss my pants & run off the stage, crying. *L*

Bernita said...

good points.
Like the mild exaggeration of anecdotes - cause everyone usually understands that's what it is.
One thing though, I dislike it when a speaker comes out with some tired joke that's been around the circuit ( or the internet) forever.

Michelle's Spell said...

Hey Charles,

All excellent points. I, too, remember my first class which I taught when I was 21 and so shy that I could barely say my name. I got used to it and now teaching class is as natural as breathing. But readings still make me nervous because I'm sharing something that may or may not go over and it's my writing. Usually, I have really generous audiences, but once I read a story with a fairly graphic description of an abortion in it to a stunned, relatively conservative audience (didn't know it at the time but did during the bad wine/cheese portion of the gig) to many shocked expressions. The best story I ever heard about this was a relatively well-known writer was reading what he thought was a comic story and nobody in the whole audience was laughing or paying attention. But he could hear one person laughing so hard he was panting. So he told himself to keep reading for that one person. Turns out that it was a German Shepherd someone had brought for the reading. I love that story -- the things that keep us going!

Charles Gramlich said...

Thanks everyone for their comments. A few things here I'll include as I post more on the topic. Interesting to see that quite a few of you have had pretty good experience at public speaking and even enjoy it.

Erik Donald France said...

Charles, excellent points. I'm in the middle re: public speaking. Depends partly on the audience, size, and topic. But I totally agree with your suggestions, especially the time limits and q & a window.

I did see Anne Lamott once make fun of G.W. Bush as much to provoke her audience as amuse herself.

Travis Erwin said...

That all sounds like very sound advice. I have not done a lot of public speaking but I'd like to think I did a fairly good job when I have stood up and talked.

I have read bits of my work at a few functions and I hope the day comes when there is even more intereset for me to do so.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Someone else said it and I think it is very important to know your audience. When I teach I need to be very aware of the type of class dynamics I am in front of cause it can make class fun or real painful depending upon personality types. You have to be able to read your audience and speak in a way that will reach them most effectively.

Great post can't wait to read more!