Last week I promised some tips for authors who are beginning to get speaking invitations. Here are a few things I wish I had known and done, when I was just starting out.
It’s okay to say no. It’s exciting and flattering to get an invitation to speak. Even if there’s no money involved, it means that someone wants to hear what you have to say. But is it worth your time? Will it grow your readership? When I first began, I never said no. Even if it meant a five or six hour drive, round trip, I was there. And often, I arrived to a room with no more than ten people in it. Now, when someone I don’t know asks me to speak, I ask a few questions: What is the purpose of the meeting? Am I the only speaker, or will there be others? Is there a central theme for the meeting? How large is the group? Will there be any sort of publicity for the event? Will a bookstore or the organization itself sponsor the sale of my books? Can my trip be dovetailed with other events in the same city?
One you are published, your time becomes even more scarce. You’re promoting your current book, editing a second, and perhaps writing a third. All at the same time. You must do everything possible to grow your readership, and say no to anything that consumes your time to little purpose.
So you’ve decided it’s worth it and you’re planning your presentation. Consider these questions: What is your motivation for speaking, and what is your audience’s motivation for listening? Do you want to build your credibility? Teach your audience something? Make them laugh? Figuring out your goals will help you craft a winning speech. You should also consider your audience. What are they expecting to hear? My presentations to pre- published writers who have limited knowledge of the publishing world are very different from speeches or breakout sessions delivered to publishing veterans.
Pick a memorable title. I am the first to admit I am simply terrible at titling a speech. You should take some time to develop this skill, because as your speaking credits grow, you’ll be submitting proposals to speak at larger venues such as national or regional conventions or conferences. Often, speakers are chosen as much for the appeal of their titles as for the content itself. This is especially important if you are speaking at a breakout session where your audience has a choice of which sessions to attend. For example, a session on the kind of clothing worn in the 19th century could be called, “Dress in the Victorian Age” or it could be called, “Buttons, Bangles, and Bows: How the Victorians Dressed.” A couple of years back,a friend spoke at a writers’ conference on Theme in Novels. Sounds like a graduate class in English Lit, right? But she called it Theme: It’s not a Dirty Word” and the room was packed.
When writing the presentation itself, use a variety of material, depending on your topic. Statistics, examples, quotes, and personal stories keep your presentation lively. Remember that you are not there to show off what you know. You are there to deliver what your audience needs to know. Always prepare more material than you think you will need. Most of us are a bit nervous when speaking. I am, even after all these years. When we are nervous, we tend to speak faster. Finishing your 60 minute session in 40 minutes can induce panic. Keep an extra activity, an extra example or anecdote tucked away for such occasions.
Allow time for Q and A. This is the part of any presentation that I absolutely love. It’s chance for me to step away from the podium and interact with my listeners one on one. Most speakers reserve Q and A for the last 10-15 minutes of a presentation. But to do so runs the risk of having your presentation lose steam as people get their questions answered. They start checking the time and thinking about the next session they want to attend, or about what’s for lunch, or about their next editor appointment. A more effective way to handle Q and A is to schedule it near the end of your time, stop it when there are still one or two hands in the air, and then move to your strong closing statement. I always acknowledge those whose hands are still in the air by saying, “I’m sorry we didn’t get to everyone. I’ll be here for a few moments afterward if you want to talk.”
Craft a strong ending by using a relevant quotation, asking a provocative question, or telling a story that illustrates your main point.
Practice your presentation in its entirety and time it. Cut or add as necessary. It’s better to be a bit short than to drag on too long and make your audience fidget. And speaking of time, give your audience clues such as “In the ten minutes we have left, I’d like to….” Or at the beginning: “There’s no way to cover everything there is to know about self editing in the hour we have today.” This helps your audience relax and focus on your talk.
When you are clear about your intent, your audience’s needs, and are confident in the content of your presentation, go out there, look them in the eye, and have a great time. Remember that they chose to come and hear you. They want you to succeed. Good luck!!