As a published author, you’re expected to speak at writers festivals, libraries, book clubs and to writing and community groups. But, if you’re anything like me, the notion of public speaking might fill you with terror.
I’m not, by nature, a public speaker. Speaking to an audience, no matter how small—even a group around a table—used to make me anxious. As a student, I had to rehearse questions I wanted to ask in front of the class. If I ever had to do a presentation, I couldn’t sleep the night before, and I’d spend the day panicking, cursing myself for putting my hand up and thinking of excuses to pull out.
Prior to my book coming out, I was dreading the public speaking I’d have to do. Yet, here I am just over a year down the track, and it’s probably the thing I’ve most enjoyed about being published. I look forward to author talks—it’s a thrill and a privilege to have people turn up to hear you speak, and to be able to talk about your own book feels positively self-indulgent.
So, I thought I’d share a few of my tips for giving a good author talk. This list is by no means exhaustive; it’s just a few things I’ve noticed along the way:
- The audience is on your side.
They truly are. People haven’t come to criticise you or trip you up; they want you to succeed. It’s not like you’re a politician on Q&A, and I’m yet to come across anyone argumentative in the audience. In fact, there’s always someone nodding and smiling encouragingly who I can look at if I’m needing a boost of confidence.
2. If you’re not feeling confident, fake it.
No one will know this is your first time unless you tell them. No one will know your gut is roiling or that your knees are jelly or that you’ve hardly slept. Pretend you’ve done it a hundred times before.
I borrowed this tip from my son’s piano teacher, something she calls ‘champion pose’. You can read more about it here, but before I was due to go onstage or give a talk, I took five minutes to go to the bathroom where I stood in front of a mirror, flexed and told myself I was good enough. I said things like, ‘You’ve got this’, ‘You know what you’re doing’, ‘You can do it’.
Apparently, it works by raising testosterone levels, so you strut out feeling pumped. I don’t care how it works, even if it’s placebo, the very fact it does is enough. Plus, it’s good to remind yourself that you can do this.
It’s a quick little weapon to have in your arsenal if you’re feeling anxious before a gig.
3. Remember the talk is for the audience, not the author.
What’s the point of giving an author talk if the audience isn’t interested? Audiences have given up their time and gone out of their way to hear you speak, so you want to make it worth their while, give them something they’ll enjoy, be entertaining.
So, think of your audience when you’re preparing your talk. For example, vary your talk depending on whether it’s for a book club or a writers’ group or for a group of business people. What you talk about should depend on their interests.
And try not to bore them. Keep an eye on the audience and if they’re fidgeting or restless, wind up that topic as quickly as you can even if you’re only halfway through.
When an audience is engaged, they’re very still and you can hear the proverbial pin drop. I got to know the parts of my talk that engaged people—the personal anecdotes—and added more of those, and I abbreviated the parts that sent them to sleep—the research sections (I’m speaking generally here—I recognise authors are invited to speak about their research at times).
4. Talk About Yourself.
Audiences always sit up straighter when authors speak personally. They want to hear about your book but, really, they want to get to know you, the author.
I find it as hard as the next person to talk personally, but it is possible to talk about yourself without feeling like you’ve overshared. I told audiences about books I’d read as a child, or stories and poems I’d written when young. I talked about being a doctor and changing careers in midlife. I spoke about my writing process because people have no idea what it’s like to author a book and they’re incredibly interested. I told them how long it took to write and how many drafts. Audiences are interested in the downsides, too—the rejections and disappointments.
Because my story was very much based on my family history, I talked about my grandparents and, because my story is about two sisters, I mentioned my own sister and her death in 1987. At this point, the room always went still and quiet, and after almost every talk, someone would come up to me, often in tears, to share their own story.
5. Prepare beforehand.
This goes without saying and, as someone who gets really anxious, it helped allay my anxiety to know in advance what I was going to say. A talk might lack spontaneity if it’s over-rehearsed, but it’s preferable to being under-prepared.
6. Give the audience something to look at.
I prepared a slideshow, which took me about 12 hours to set up, but I used it, or variations of it, for nearly every talk I did.
Before each event, I went over the presentation and reminded myself of the order of the slides. I also tweaked it depending on the audience (see above). It evolved over the course of the year, and is now an almost completely different talk to the one I gave at the beginning. That made it more enjoyable for me as I wasn’t saying the same things over and over.
7. Include Humour.
This is probably self-explanatory—every audience loves a funny anecdote!
Bonus tip: you can recycle anecdotes because rarely do the same people attend your talk twice!
8. Be Yourself.
Treat the audience like they’re a friend, and talk as you would to a group of people you know well. Be authentic and honest. Don’t just talk about the wins, but include the hard bits, the rejections, failures and embarrassments. Tell the audience about the time you forgot your husband’s name, or when you wanted to hand back your advance because you thought your publisher would change their mind when they saw the hash-job you’d made of the edits.
Tell them the mistakes you’ve made and what you’ve learnt, not just in writing, but in life in general. Audiences love seeing the human side of you.
9. Involve the audience in your talk.
Ask questions of the audience as you go—who’s a writer, who likes reading, who’s read your book, and always make time for audience questions at the end.
10. Arrive in plenty of time and take spares of everything
I try to arrive at least 30 minutes before the start time to give me plenty of time if traffic’s tight, which happens as many talks are at peak hour. It also allows time to set up and check that everything’s working, sort out any problems and, hopefully, still have time to mentally prepare for the talk ahead. (And do champion pose!)
I have a bag pre-packed with everything I need, and a list I check before I leave the house. I take a spare of everything because things go wrong. I take my own computer as sometimes there’s a problem with the computer at the venue. I have a copy of my talk on my lap-top, as well as on a USB, as well as in the cloud. I have plenty of cables to fit almost any socket, so I can use my laptop if needed. I also bought my own remote control, one I’m familiar with and that I know has plenty of battery. (I take spare batteries, too!)
11. Be polite.
Be polite and gracious and smiling, even when something goes wrong because, at the end of the day, it is unlikely to be life-threatening, or even limb-threatening, and the audience probably won’t even notice.
I’ve had events with no bookseller organised (which is why I always carry a box of books in the car). I’ve had a computer freeze mid-talk, so I carried on without the slideshow and the audience barely noticed. Equipment has been missing, the sound not working, the computer software out of date and not running Powerpoint. There have been questions from the audience that have been difficult to answer.
Yet, despite all the things that have gone wrong, I can honestly say I’ve never had a ‘bad’ author talk.
12. Don’t do a post-mortem
Don’t go over every tiny detail of your talk afterwards, berating yourself for what you omitted or wincing at something that came out the wrong way. Most likely, the audience didn’t even notice or, if they did, they didn’t mind, just as you don’t mind if a speaker occasionally stumbles.
So go easy on yourself and let it go.
The thing is, as a result of giving author talks, I’ve learnt more about my book, not just from my own preparation, but from things people have told me about my story. I know it so much better and am now able to speak about it on a deeper level than when I first started.
I’ve also gained in confidence and grown as a speaker. I don’t get nervous at all anymore, and my talks are more candid, less rehearsed. I talk less to ‘script’ and treat it more like a chat with the audience. They return the chattiness and there’s a lovely feeling in the room.
So, that’s my tuppence on author talks. Like I say, it’s by no means comprehensive, but something to start with to make your author talk special.