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Public speaking tips for authors.

Authors Aren’t Mute: Public Speaking Tips for Authors

This is a guest post by Simon Raybould.

First things first, authors aren’t silent—are they?

Here’s the thing…I’m an author too. And in the past I’ve been a researcher at a university. (Quite a famous one too, in my field.) But like all cliches there’s some truth in the idea that people have a preference for either:

  • Verbal communication
  • Written communication

Some smart-alec folks can do both of course, but not everyone. They’re probably the same people who can balance spoons on their nose while doing time on the treadmill and tell the difference between types of chocolate down to three percentage points of cocoa. They need a life! 😉

So what about those of us who have a written-comms preference? How do we do the whole ‘Presentation Thing’ without losing our minds?!

(By the way, I’m using the term ‘presentation’ here as a convenient shorthand for formal presentations, 60 second intros at networking events, poetry readings, author tour evenings, whatever…)

I’ve been on both sides of the fence, so here are the top few tips for writers, based on the research of how to make presentations (and ten years experience!).

The idea you won’t like

People like me, writing lists like this, always do this—and it annoys me, too! ‘Just change your mindset’ we say ‘and it’ll all be sunshine and unicorns’. Just like that—as though changing your mindset was as easy as changing your t-shirt. But stick with me, please.

The thing is, most authors look at presentations as something to be avoided (at worst) or mitigated at best. As a result, we concentrate on avoiding failure, disaster and general end-of-the-world stuff. It’s a perfectly sensible approach. But doing this means we concentrate on what failure looks like and we can define it pretty easily. It’s generally a combination of:

  • Falling off the stage
  • Forgetting your words
  • Being laughed at
  • Bursting into tears
  • General mockery
  • Hot flushes and cold sweats
  • Wanting the earth to swallow us whole.

When I ask ‘So what does a successful presentation look like then?’ I’m usually greeted with a combination of blank looks and a paraphrase of ‘Well the opposite of those things, obviously!’. It’s usually said with an expression like I’m a moron for not knowing the bloody obvious.

But there-in lies the problem. If you can define failure, but not success, guess what’s going to come to mind the next time you make a presentation, read your work, audition, interview on the radio, whatever? Yeah. That’s right: the disaster stuff.

Here’s the big mindset idea.

Before you start, ask yourself a couple of questions:

  • What do I want to (reasonably) get out of this presentation in general terms (bookings, applause, requests for interview, back-of-the-room book sales)?
  • How will I know if I’ve achieved that? (For example, selling 16 copies of your book; getting two radio interview invitations; being asked back to next month’s event…)

All of a sudden the world’s a different place because two good things happen. The first is that you now have a muuuuuch better idea of how to design your presentation, what to do, what to say, how to dress etc. You do those things in a way that fits best with improving the chances of success.

The second good thing is that you now have a better chance of handling the nerves. Psychologists have known for a long time that emotions on the fear spectrum (nerves, anxiety, fear, terror) tend to come from uncertainty. If you’re uncertain about how to ‘win’ your presentation, no wonder you’re anxious about it!

Oh—one last parting idea (but it’s a big one!)—if you can’t think of what success looks like you have to take long hard look at yourself and ask why the hell you’re doing the presentation in the first place!

An idea you’ll dislike less

Sleep. And exercise.

Yes, I know—trying to get a good night’s sleep the night before The Big Event is asking a lot. I also know the actual effect of a bad night’s sleep. I’ve read the research. But it’s not as bad as most of us think it is!

Why not? I mean we all know that a bad night’s sleep leaves us performing so far below our best we might as well be drunk, right? Well yes—but only because we’re missing more than one good night’s sleep.

Most of us are running at a sleep deficit which we try and make up at the weekend or, if we’re uber-mach, pretend we’re not running and go through life under-performing and denying it.

Get a good few nights’ sleep for the week or so before the night before The Big Event. That way, when you can’t sleep you’re only carrying one night’s sleep debt for your presentation, not half a week’s worth.

And exercise? Well that sort of goes without saying, doesn’t it? Being fit and exercising regularly is a pretty widely known way of feeling better and combating nerves.

If it helps, by the way, sex works too.

My personal advice is not to have sex at the gym.

An idea you’ll feel neutral about

Practice. Actually I might be wrong, you might not feel good about that, so let’s try something else. Let’s try replacing the word ‘Practice’ with the word ‘Prepare’.

There are two types of preparation I want to draw to your attention:

  • Rehearsal
  • Technical

Rehearsal is what actors and musicians do and it’s not just going over their piece again and again and again. It’s about going over the one bit they can’t do and doing that—and just that—againandagainandagainandagain until they can’t get it wrong. Then they do that again just a bit faster. And repeat. Now that they can’t screw up the worst bit, they move onto the second-worst bit. How does that work for you? Easy—just find the thing about your gig that frightens you the absolute most and look very carefully at what you can do to deal with that.

Then do that thing.

Do it more and more…and more…until it’s as done as it can be done. Then move on.

Simple, I know, but simple doesn’t mean easy. And simple doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. I do it all the time, as a professional: I might just practice one slide’s content or telling one story…

The other thing to prepare—the technical—is the one that everyone misses out. Don’t just rehearse your performance, rehearse the things that support it.

Not knowing how to turn on the microphone can panic you, so rehearse that (at least find out how in advance!).

Arriving late at a venue can make you nervous, so deal with the journey timing in advance.

And make sure you have mobile phones charged, books packed and so on.

Use a checklist. Trust me on this, it’s the voice of bitter experience!

An idea you’ll actually like!

I guess I should mention sex again here! 😉

What?! You want a new tool? Siiiigh. Okay. It’s called Sentence Zero.

When you’re nervous, your voice comes out ‘skinny’ and breathy—that’s because you’re using the high-pressure air at the top of your lungs. (I’ll not go into the science stuff here, you know what I mean, I’m sure.) What you want to do is use the lower-pressure air from the bottom of your lungs instead—and Sentence Zero is how you do that.

Think of the first line of your presentation—that’s Sentence One. For simplicity’s sake, let’s pretend your Sentence One is: ‘Hello. It’s fantastic that 319 of you all want to see me read from my new book on a cold, wet Tuesday night in Watford’. Now figure out something you can say in advance of that, which finishes with the word ‘and’.

Let’s pretend it’s ‘Gosh, the paint on the back wall is exactly the same as my granny’s bathroom, and’. Now say them both, Sentence Zero and Sentence One, without a break and using the same out-breath. But (and this is important) only actually vocalise Sentence One. That should be all your audience hears.

The tool works because you’ve used up the high-pressure air from the top of your lungs (the stuff that makes you sound like Minnie Mouse on helium!) as you say (your silent) Sentence Zero, leaving you to orate you Sentence One in a style worthy of Brian Blessed.

Hands up, who still gets chills whenever they hear ‘Gordon’s alive!’? No? Just me then?

Dammit!

…and there you go!

I’m not pretending these four ideas will stop the nerves—and nor should they—but they’ll help. They’ve helped hundreds of my clients and they’re used by professionals, too.

They won’t work straight away though—give them a go, figure out what went wrong, do it again, better!

Change the world. Make the world a better place. Do your thing and do it in public.


Dr Simon Raybould

Dr Simon Raybould spent two and half decades as a research scientist and has also worked as an actor, lighting designer, teacher, and fire-eater! He’s the author of three books on presenting, one of which became a best seller and two of which sank without trace.

He’s now one of the UK’s leading presentations trainers and designers. See more at presentationgenius.info and if you want some training by him see presentationgenius.eventbrite.co.uk for his only public UK training this year.

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