It’s an old observation, but an accurate one: public speaking is the #1 fear for many people. This, unfortunately, includes many writers.
Public speaking, like most things, is less scary when you’re well-prepared. I’ve been reading my work in public for many years, and here are some things I’ve learned. They may help you.
I go to many readings given by authors, and I’m amazed how often they seem to be unprepared. I understand that, if you’re reading a new piece – or a work in progress – your reading might not be as polished. But you’ve got to read it – out loud – several times before you do it in public. You also need to time the piece, and make a note of that. If you only have ten minutes to read, you don’t want to pull out a work that will take twenty minutes.
2) Select the right piece for your audience
You may have a racy, R-rated piece, only to find out that some of the audience has brought children along. Another possibility is that a recent event would make your piece feel insensitive. What if you’d planned to read a story that involved an airplane crash, and, as you drove to the venue, you found out that an airplane really did just crash? Or (this happened to me) you’re scheduled to read on a Monday night during football season. Monday Night Football is on, and your audience turns out to be entirely female. Will they appreciate your planned piece on boxing as much as a mixed-gender audience would?
The best way to handle this is to have more than one piece prepared. Bring a clean piece and an R-rated piece, or a funny piece and a sad piece. Give yourself options. Even if you’re there to promote your latest book, have at least two sections (clean vs. blue, or funny vs. sad) of the book prepared.
3) Don’t read directly out of your book!
Surely you have an electronic copy of your book – print that out, double-spaced, in large type, preferably on cover stock. Why? Because the lighting where you read may be poor. (At the last Noir at the Bar event I attended, the lighting was so bad the audience could barely see the author!) If it’s double-spaced with large type, it’s easier to read – even in bad lighting. And printing it on stiff cover stock will keep the pages from crinkling as you progress, and make it less likely for them to blow away if someone opens an outside door and lets in a sudden breeze.
I’ve only ever seen one author who could justify reading out of his book. This was a fantasy author who drew over 75 fans to a bookstore reading. Some of the fans were so ardent that they actually dressed up as characters from his books! The author began by announcing, “I’m going to read the first chapter of my new book. I see many of you have purchased it already. Would one of you like to lend me your book to read from? Afterward, I’ll autograph it, noting that I read from it tonight.” Unfortunately, I don’t have fans like that, and you probably don’t either. So read from pages, not a bound book.
4) Prepare your script
This is another reason to read from double-spaced pages rather than your book. If you can do character voices (as I do), you can eliminate some of the “he said/she said” attributions – it will be obvious from your voice who is speaking. You also might want to cut or change some words from the book version: homonyms that might be confusing, curse words, or simply words you have difficulty pronouncing. And finally, there is much more room to make notes on a double-spaced page than in the tight confines of a bound book. I make marks and notes on the page, indicating that I should pause here, or look up at the audience here. I even differentiate the dialogue of different characters by typing in different colors. I read a noir story last night at a library event. On my pages, the narrator’s dialogue was in blue, the character of “Colin” had his dialogue in red, and the very loud thug called “Moose” was in boldface. That kept me from getting confused, and my character voices were spot-on.
5) Type your introduction
Someone invited you to speak: an organizer, a librarian, a bookstore owner, whomever. They might or might not be a good public speaker. Make things simpler by handing them your introduction before you start. Do it the same way you prepared your script: large type, double spaced, on stiff cover stock. You’re making their lives easier, and you’ve increased your chances of getting an accurate introduction immensely.
If you’re truly phobic about public speaking, following these tips might not be enough to make these events fun. But you’ll feel more confident if you’re well prepared.
Tony Conaway is a freelance writer, ghostwriter and editor. He has co-written ten business books for such publishers as McGraw-Hill, Macmillan and Prentice Hall. His fiction has appeared in eight anthologies and many publications, including Blue Lake Review, Danse Macabre, Rind Literary Magazine, the Rusty Nail, and Typehouse Literary Magazine.
Some of his odder writing gigs included writing a script for a planetarium show, and co-writing jokes used by Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. He has blogged often about reading in public; you can find his most recent post on the subject (with links to previous posts) right here.
You can Tweet him at @tonyconaway or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.