March, also known as NZ Book Month, was a whirl of events. School visits, speed dates, publisher parties and evening events. I did a lot of talking, which is not a big stretch for me, but the fact that most of it was to strangers always manages to inject an element of fear. As an author you do not have to participate in events like these. I have invested a lot of time over the years in public speaking - talking to children and adults about my books, the techniques of writing and my personal experience and I have observed two results. 1) More people now know who I am. 2) I am much more comfortable with public speaking. If you would like to achieve these two results then I would recommend you get out there and do it too. I have surprised myself many times over the years, with all the things I never thought I would do or could do but gave a go, and I have discovered it does get easier and I have got better at it. I believe you can too. I have blogged about public speaking before. If you check this topic out on the internet there is plenty of advice. But after NZ Book Month I have some new things to say on the subject which might help you if you choose to speak publicly too.
So here is my brand new, road tested and approved, ten flavour list of advice on public speaking for authors.
1) Give plenty of thought to what you wear. First impressions count. Yes I am an author who prefers comfy clothing and yes I invariably joke about how much I like wearing pyjamas to work, but if I am invited to speak publicly I want to appear professional. I want to appear as someone who looks like she can get the job (writing a book, speaking to a group of strangers) done. There will be aspiring authors in both adult and child audiences - would they want to be you? I want to look my best because then I feel good and if I feel good I give a better talk. I don't want to have any internal worries about my appearance because they will distract me from what I am saying. That also means not wearing anything experimental or too tight or that relies on any special engineering or weather conditions. And as a children's author I am always keen to reflect that fact with my choice of clothing. Nothing too out there or weird (unless that is part of your schtick) but I always try to wear accessories that are colourful and a little unexpected.
2) If more people are going to know who I am, what do I want them to remember about me? What is my brand? I am a children's author - I love books, and I love writing them. I am my books but I am other things as well. I know children's books as much as I can. Children especially feel a connection with you if you know about the books they are reading. I'm approachable and willing to share what I know. I can be a little bit naughty or silly. I am a little bit unexpected in a way they might remember. What is your brand? Will they remember it?
3) Why am I there? For the Speed Dates in March I had twenty minutes to talk on developing characters. For the evening events the theme was Stories Over Supper - I focused on what stories were behind my stories. If its book week in a school I'm promoting the benefits and joys of books. If you find a reason for your public event it is not so hard to shape your content. Be generous - it shouldn't just be about selling your own books. People may not always buy my books at these events but they may remember who I am and that they liked what I had to say. This never hurts.
4) I always ask - am I adding value? Will my audience benefit from my talk. What might they learn? What can they take away from it? Will it help them? I try remember what I wanted to know when I was starting out, or things I heard that were most interesting.
5) The only way to get better at it is to do it. I have learned lots of strategies through experience. I aim to be ready for anything. What will I do if that group is twice as big as I expected. Or that group is only made up of one person. There's background noise. There is no chair or table for me. Oops the whiteboard pens don't work. At the Speed Dates I spoke to ten different groups. Nine of them knew the answers to some of the questions I posed at the beginning of the session and were quick to respond which got the discussion on my topic started, but one group stayed silent. I switched my talk around to better fit this group and steer the discussion in the right direction. Be prepared to change what you are saying to accommodate different skill or knowledge sets. The more often I give talks the better I get at adapting what I am saying.
6) It is hard to be talked at the whole time. Try and vary things. If it is appropriate, ask questions of your audience. Visual aids are good.
7) Everyone gets nervous before public speaking. Even the seasoned professionals. Don't panic about nerves, because lets face it, this is unlikely to make them go away. The quicker you accept them, the less likely they are to get in the way. I like to speak without notes because I never mastered the art of making my notes sound conversational (even though I can write this way in other contexts - like now). My nerves make memorising speeches prone to failure. I try remembering the beginning of each segment of what I have planned to say. These beginnings are the triggers that remind me of the rest of my content. Update (thank you to Crissi Blair for reminding me about this) - it is good to have some way of keeping tabs on where you are in your talk (so you don't repeat yourself or miss things out) especially if you don't have your talk written down. If I'm work-shopping/teaching I like to write key points on a whiteboard and this helps me know where I am. If the talk is short I tend to organise it in a linear way so one point leads seamlessly into the next. Find which approach works best for you. Yes it means some talks might go better than others, but if you are always trying to do number 4 your audience will still get something out of it.
8) Audiences want your talk to go well. They are not willing you to fail. They are not the enemy.
9) Take some time to pack a bag. I brought a set of collapsible airport wheels so I don't have to carry bags around. I always have my own whiteboard pens, ball point pens and a pencil. I have copies of all my books. Depending on the event I may have an extra copy of my latest as a giveaway. If I'm talking on particular writing skills I make sure I have an example of whatever I'm discussing. Mark up your books if you are doing a reading. Some things that are fine to be read silently don't work as well out loud. I have visual aids even if I don't end up using them. If its a long event have a bottle of water. Wear a watch. Wear layers because some venues are too hot and others too cold. Have the phone number and name of the event organiser written down in case you are running late or get lost. Smile.
10. Whether your audience is one person or 100, they deserve your professionalism, preparation and attention.
Like going for a run or doing a hundred sit ups, it can be hard to push yourself to give talks. But just like exercise you are likely to (be sweaty and red in the face) feel very good afterwards. Children will ask for your autograph, or tell you, you are their favourite. People will buy your books or tell others about you who get in touch to ask if you can speak at their event, or school, or writing group. Some crowds are harder than others. Maybe only one child in that class secretly dreams of being an author (just like you when you were that age). Maybe the others have no interest whatsoever. You only need one - aim your talk at them. Maybe no one will come and talk to you after, or buy any of your books. But you will be one more talk the wiser, and next time you will be even better and more experienced.
Here I am in action reading from Made with Love, at Paper Plus at Meadowbank Mall (thanks to my niece Mia Szymanik for the photo).
Educational Resource: A Winter's Day in 1939
- Educational Resource: The Were-Nana
- Educational Resource: The Half Life of Ryan Davis
- Educational Resource: Made With Love
- Educational Resource: The House That Went to Sea
- Educational Resource: A Winter's Day in 1939
- Educational Resource: While You Are Sleeping
- Educational Resource: The Song of Kauri
- Educational Resource: Fuzzy Doodle
- Book List - Complete List of my Publications