Some time ago, at a literary festival, I was in the authors’ green room talking to a new writer whose first public appearance as an author was that very day. She was clearly very nervous, though trying hard to look as blasé as the rest of us more experienced speakers must have looked to her. (This of course was far from the truth—most of us still get stage fright to one extent or the other). Finally, she burst out with, ‘I wish I lived a hundred years ago, when writers didn’t have to do this performance thing!’
It wasn’t quite accurate, of course—talking about writing has a long history, with Charles Dickens and Mark Twain just two writers from the past who were greatly in demand as speakers—but many of us writers can understand her feeling.
It’s true enough that these days that talking in public is expected of every writer, and not just the famous ones. (The seriously famous ones can simply refuse to do it, thereby adding to their fame, ironically). Writers can’t just write any more. We can’t sit in our garrets away from the world creating marvelous worlds which will satisfy our readers; we can’t just expect our work to make an impact on its own. We are expected to show ourselves off. To go on stage, and not just to talk about our books or read from them as Dickens and Twain used to do, but to make ourselves known as personalities, and even as that dreaded word ‘brand’. It seems that the reading public can’t get enough of seeing and hearing writers in the flesh, whether that be at festivals, conferences, libraries, schools, bookshops, book clubs, community organisations, or writers’ groups. And the pressure is strong, to be articulate, entertaining and informative in public, in speech, and not just the written word. We’re expected, in fact, to be performers, and not just writers. But talking is different to writing. You might be a fluent word person on the page but words might fail you miserably in speech.
Now some of us, who are naturally comfortable with the stage, enjoy performing all the time. Many of us enjoy it at least some of the time. And some of us hate it nearly all the time. But each of us has to learn sooner or later ways of dealing with that expectation we will perform. One way of course is to refuse all invitations to speak. But for most authors, that’s not really a very helpful option. And not only because it’s not helpful in terms of your career—it would also mean you miss out on the positive sides of being on the book-talk circuit, which not only includes connecting directly with your audience, but also getting to know fellow writers. I’m not the only writer to have formed lasting friendships with fellow authors I first met when we spoke at the same event. And in our big country, there are many author friends I only ever catch up with when we are speaking at the same event. Of course, connecting directly with your audience can be a great pleasure and a great success—but even if an event turns out to be a fizzer in terms of connecting with audience or books sold, there is usually the compensation of meeting fellow-toilers in the author talk field. And the gossip’s usually pretty interesting too. :)
I’ve been speaking in public about writing for a couple of decades now. Mostly, I enjoy it, though, always, I have a certain amount of stage fright before it. (Indeed, I think if I didn’t, I wouldn’t give a good performance.) Mostly, too, I establish a good connection with audiences. I did a lot of drama as a child and teenager and it’s likely that early training helped, as did the fact that in my big, loud family, the ability to speak up and express yourself was pretty much a necessity if you didn’t want to be steamrollered flat. But I don’t naturally love being centre stage–there are times when rather than speak in public I would much rather hide in a corner and read a book, and I curse myself for ever having accepted that invitation. But once you’re there, you’re there, and you have to make the most of it.
So how to make the most out of it? Here are some things I’ve learned over the years.
- Remember, like any actor will tell you, each audience is different. One size definitely does not fit all. It’s not just a matter of the type of event or the age of your audience or the social environment. There are some generalisations you can make, such as that primary school kids are generally easier to engage than high school kids, but talented high school kids can be very rewarding indeed to speak to; a regional festival audience will often be more appreciative than a more blasé big-city one which is more focused on the stars. But aside from those kinds of generalisations–and there are always exceptions to them–there is a strange alchemy happening which means you can never be sure until you’re actually on stage what mood an audience might be in: the most important thing is to never take it for granted, or plough regardless on some pre-determined path. Which brings me to the next point:
- Don’t prepare too much. These days, I never write out a speech, unless it’s going to be published later. I hardly ever write down more than memory jottings. In most circumstances, when I’m talking about my own books or the writing process, I have found it works much better if I ‘wing it’, and am more spontaneous than planned. If I’m asked to speak on a particular theme, such as on a panel with other writers, I will think about the topic beforehand but hardly ever write anything down except for memory jottings or a striking image. The thing is that on a panel, especially when you are not the first speaker, if you’ve planned too much what you’re going to say,you may find that the other speakers are saying pretty much the same thing as you—which is kind of boring for the audience! Better to stay on your toes and improvise. And if you have a tough audience–an experience I’ve had more than once–then if you are too focused on a plan, you will be thrown off track much more easily.
- Don’t improvise completely, though, even if you have a tough audience. These two points may seem contradictory—but in fact they are part of the same strategy. What you should try and have in your author-talk toolbox is a series of possibilities which you can pull out depending on your instinct about the audience.For example, I was asked to speak about my books to a very rowdy group of kids at a tough school, and it became clear in the first few minutes that listening to a writer talking about her books was very far down their list of priorities. So I quickly switched tack and began telling them a story about a long sea voyage I was once on as a child, and the adventures we had. Well, they liked that well enough; but they liked it even more when I told them I came originally from France. All they wanted after that was to get me to tell them their names, and the names of things, in French. Peals of laughter ensued as they repeated them, and the whole hour passed happily if noisily that way. At the end of it, one of the teachers came to see me. I thought at first she might be going to rebuke me for cowardice; but what she said was, ‘Thank you. I’ve never seen the kids so engaged, and for a whole hour, too!’It’s not always how it might seem, though—another group of kids in an equally tough school hung on to every word of my talk, and later, sent me gorgeous illustrated stories they’d written, inspired by it. Whilst a very wealthy private school was another really tough gig, where I got blank, mocking looks and a ‘who are you’ atmosphere and little response to anything I said. In the end, it was just a matter of getting through it and not losing my nerve. And wouldn’t you know it, at the end of the talk, a few kids stayed behind to talk to me—they’d loved the talk, but of course couldn’t show it in front of their peers.Speaking in front of young audiences by the way is very good training—they respond more viscerally.
Adult audiences, especially the generally polite ones at festivals, seem like a piece of cake then!
- Don’t be frightened of stage fright! As I mentioned earlier, for me, that certain nervousness before I go on helps to hone my performance, just as it hones my observational instincts in gauging the audience mood. A little uncertainty is no bad thing; though obviously being too nervous is not helpful!
- When speaking on a panel with other authors, don’t go over your allotted time. It’s very annoying for the other speakers, and doesn’t give a good impression to the audience either. (Hopefully a good chair will stop this problem happening anyway!) And as I mentioned, be prepared to adapt what you planned to say in light of other people’s contributions, and respond perhaps directly to a point they’ve made—this makes for a much more interesting and organic feel which will engage the audience much more than speakers just trotting out pre-prepared speeches.
- Don’t expect too much from your talk. And yet don’t be too dismissive of the possibilities. They are not always measured in book sales or even immediate audience engagement. Who knows what effect it will have? Maybe none. Maybe no-one will remember it. We have so much information and entertainment coming at us all the time, that it can be hard to keep anything in mind for very long. On the other hand, you never know—something in what you say might inspire a budding writer, or lastingly touch a reader’s heart. That’s happened more than once over those two decades, for me. And that is what makes it all worthwhile.
Over to you—as writers, what is your experience of talking in public? And as readers and listeners, what do you think makes for the best kind of book talk?