Writers don’t just write; they may also be called upon to give readings and talks, to do book signings and workshops. But writing is a particularly solitary activity and public speaking is high up on the list of things people fear most, so maybe the idea of appearing in public strikes fear in your heart. It’s possible to avoid all these activities, of course, and just do the writing, but publishers like authors who are willing to engage with the public and there is money to be made from appearing in public, either directly, or through increased book sales, so it is worth accepting invitations when they come.
There are many different occasions when you may have to speak in public; and many different venues and audiences, but there are a few things to think about whatever the situation:
- Choose your outfit sensibly and make sure it is comfortable and appropriate. If you always wear jeans, you are not likely to be comfortable in a suit, however formal the occasion, but you can make sure the jeans you choose are clean and uncreased and that your shirt or blouse is ironed.
- It’s a good idea to have a glass of water to hand. Remember that still water is less likely to give you hiccups than sparkling and a bottle of water that you can put the top back on is less likely to cause chaos if you knock it over.
- If you are to be interviewed, you can ask for a list of questions in advance. But don’t write out your answers word for word or you will be tempted to read from your notes and come across as stilted and unnatural.
- Try and make eye contact with the audience. Don’t just focus on the front row and those sitting in the centre: try and reach out to the people at the back and at the far corners and connect with them, too.
- Even if you have been introduced by the host, you may spend a few minutes before a reading by saying a little more about yourself, or about what you are going to talk about. This is a time to make an initial connection with the audience and to check whether they can hear you; this way they won’t miss the opening of your main talk.
- Watch your breathing. If you are nervous, your breathing is often too shallow to project your voice to the back of the room. So be conscious of where your breath is coming from: if it’s only up in your chest, you are going to be exhausted at the end of the session and half the audience won’t have heard what you had to say. So take a few slow deep breaths at the start and during pauses as this will help to calm you down as well as slowing your reading or speaking and helping you avoid gabbling.
- If you are reading – whether from a book, from notes or from a digital device – you may find it helps to stand up. Reading is usually a private activity and we are used to keeping an introverted posture, with our heads down, focusing on the words. Standing to read is less natural and will make you more conscious of the need to speak to the audience.
- Poets in particular need to decide whether they are going to read or perform their work. Unless you are taking part in a slam or a poetry performance, there is nothing wrong with reading from the page, or at least of having the poem printed out in front of you in case you forget the words. Most writers are not actors and don’t have their work memorised, so it is nothing to be ashamed of.
- Before the event, practise reading the piece aloud.
- Whether it is poetry or prose, you may want to mark up the text with any additional pauses or special intonation.
- Rather than reading directly from a printed book, you may prefer to print out the extract in larger print, so you can leave off your reading glasses and make true eye contact.
- Once the reading itself is over, you may be more comfortable if you sit down to answer questions, whether these take the form of an interview by the host, or questions from the floor. (If no questions are forthcoming, you can kick things off by telling an anecdote that relates to what you just read, or referring to questions you have been asked on other occasions.)
Finally, remember that many, if not most, of the people in your audience have come especially to hear you: they want to hear your poems, to know more about your books, your writing, your experience as an author. Unless you are a deliberately provocative writer, they probably didn’t come to heckle or to criticise. You aren’t a politician who may have to cope with bitter opposition: your audience want to like you; you are among friends.
Do you enjoy giving readings or do you find it an ordeal? What are your tricks and tips to make it go smoothly?
If you’re giving a talk or a reading, do you need some leaflets or brochures to hand out to the audience? Tantamount has worked with lots of authors and professional speakers, so do get in touch if you need our help with any kind of marketing materials.