Speak Up!

   Posted by: Faith   in Rye Thoughts

In a previous post, I mentioned the issue of writers as speakers. Let’s face it: If you’re an author, you’re going to be doing public speaking, whether you like it or not. No question. It could be a lecture, a book reading, an interview, or a sales pitch – but public speaking is going to become your new best friend.


Because public speaking sells books. Public speaking generates awareness about your topic (if it’s non-fiction) or interest in your material (if it’s fiction). Public speaking improves your platform as an author, and that’s really what it’s all about these days. Unfortunately, most writers tend to run screaming at the thought of standing up and talking… all alone… in front of hundreds of people. I know what you’re thinking: Can’t someone else read it for me? Why can’t I just write the speech and then have someone else say it? Writers don’t want to talk to people for real, that’s why they’re writers!!!

Not in today’s publishing industry, sorry to say. You may be a writer first, but you’re a speaker second. And in order to be an effective speaker, you need to learn a thing or two about becoming a dynamic public speaker. Again, you ask: Why? What’s the point?

If you can’t learn to be an engaging and exciting public speaker… who’s going to stick around to listen? Do you think anyone will want to buy your book if you stare at your page, speak in monotone, and fumble over every second word? I’m sorry, but your audience members are going to start staring at their watches and daydreaming about the evening’s dinner plans. Of course, you won’t notice – your eyes are glued to the page.

What does it take to become an effective public speaker? David Malasarn over at The Literary Lab wrote an excellent blog post a few days ago dealing with this exact topic, pertaining in particular to book readings. In my experience, even the best book ever written can become boring and lifeless when read by someone who looks and feels uncomfortable in front of an audience. Here are a few little techniques I employ when speaking (or, reading out loud) to an audience:

  • Make eye contact.

From the moment you step behind that microphone, to the time you step off the platform, you need to make eye contact with your audience. I would say that the most important moments for this are: right BEFORE you speak, and as SOON as you finish. When you step up to the microphone, gaze over your audience. Smile. Look people in the eye. Introduce yourself & the work/passage you’re reading while looking at the audience. If you absolutely cannot look at individual people, train your eyes to look just above their heads, but just – it will still look like you’re addressing the audience, but too far overhead will make them wonder what’s on the ceiling that happens to be so interesting…

At the end of your reading, look up! Say “thank you” to the audience (not to the ceiling, or the paper in front of you, smile (yes, again!!!), and then step down.

What about while you’re reading? I’m trying to suggest baby steps here, but honestly, you should be looking up at your audience while you’re reading. Presumably you’ve practiced your reading enough times to know it fairly well, so that you don’t have to read word for word off the page. Looking up and making eye contact with audience members is one of the author’s most powerful tools when speaking. You’ll be able to see if people are interested, if they’re having trouble following, if they’re on the edge of their seats… and even if your story is crud, if you gave a dynamic reading, guess what? They’ll probably still buy your book. You’re selling a product. Make it exciting, even if it isn’t.

  • Intonation makes or breaks your reading.

If you read your passage entirely in monotone, you’ll lose at least 50% of your audience (but I’m guessing far more) within the first ten minutes. People’s attention spans, regardless of how exciting you are, tend to wander around 35 minutes into a speaker’s presentation, so you can imagine how quickly a boring speaking will lose his or her audience. Make it exciting! Get loud with the action, quiet with chilling suspense, alter how quickly or slowly you read according to the needs of the text. You don’t need to do accents or voices – in some cases, this might just annoy people (think of a few audiobooks you’ve tried to listen to lately… yeah, exactly). But give your story life in real time! The more invested you are in the reading as a speaker, the more invested your audience will be. And guess what happens then? That’s right: They buy your book.

  • Slow down.

Practice before you get there. Read over your piece once, twice, a hundred times, until you know it inside out and can get through it without stumbling. And then? Once you’re up in front of that microphone, smiling at your audience, first sentence ready to roll off your tongue? Take a deep breath… and read. Slowly. No, slower than that… almost, almost… are you hitting every syllable (within reason, of course)? If you start to trip over words, you’re reading far, far too quickly and will lose your audience. Look at a nearby clock. Did you have 15 minutes slotted, and you’re already halfway through the piece after 5 minutes? You’re still too fast. You need to read at a pace that is too slow to your own ears. Don’t be ridiculous about it – no one likes a speaker who drones on forever – but the correct pace, the perfect pace, will seem far too slow to you at first. Get used to it. The best way to do that? More public speaking!

If you’re a competent writer but an incompetent public speaker, you’re going to find yourself struggling within this industry, especially in today’s market where the author is required to push 50-60% of her own books. You do that by getting out into the community, talking to others, and using your platform to build your profile to the point where people want to read your books. Public speaking is perhaps the most crucial way to do this, but if you don’t get it right… you’ll find your efforts do more harm than good.

Who knows… after a few tries, you might actually enjoy it!


Question: What has your experience been with public speaking? Do you enjoy it? Is it your worst fear? What steps have you taken to conquer your fear, and what are your tips for others who are still trying to overcome it?


This entry was posted on Thursday, July 16th, 2009 at 2:01 pm and is filed under Rye Thoughts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 comments so far

Susan B

Hi there, Faith,

Good blog entry. Public speaking has never been my favourite activity, but as you say, it’s career-crucial for the aspiring/published author. I take every opportunity to speak to groups – whether it’s an extension of my job as a librarian, a chance to read my work to a live audience, to participate in an author panel, or to give a radio interview. Yes, I’ve done all of the above, and quite successfully. Your tips are practices that I consistenly use, but if someone has a severe case of nerves to battle, I’d suggest taking a public speaking course at a local college or joining a group like Toastmasters.

July 16th, 2009 at 4:21 pm

Great post Faith! In the past, I was afraid of public speaking but in high school I took debate and that was a part of speech. Then in college I had to take speech again and you know what? Public speaking is not so scary after all. You’ve laid out some practical points here, very helpful. Thank you!
And thank you for stopping by my blog. :-)

July 17th, 2009 at 11:55 am

Susan – I’ve heard of/seen ads for Toastmasters, but I don’t really know anything about them so I hesitate to recommend. Have you had a good experience with them or know someone who has? I’d love to be able to tell people ‘this group is great, give it a try’!

Jessica – Thanks for coming by and commenting! Public speaking really does get easier when you’re forced to do it repeatedly, fortunately!

July 22nd, 2009 at 8:08 pm

I think Toastmasters is a pretty reputable organization, Faith. I recall one of the “braggers” at W!C saying that she’d reached the silver level (whatever that is) and indicating that they’d helped her quite a bit with her public speaking. The course I took on public speaking through a community college was run by a Toastmasters’ leader, and I found it (and him) to be quite good. Hope that helps.

July 24th, 2009 at 5:05 pm

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