Monday, June 30, 2008

Speak To Me

As a writer, you're the best representative for your work. That means you're going to be meeting people and talking about your work. A lot.

Since Whiskey Sour was published in 2004, I've spoken to tens of thousands of people in the course of visiting more than 1200 bookstores and attending over a hundred library events, conferences, and conventions.

In most cases, the talk is one-on-one, chatting with a bookseller, fan, or potential fan about my work. I've covered pitching and handselling in previous blog entries.

But in some cases---and these cases are becoming more frequent---I'm speaking to groups of people. This requires a different approach.

If you're like most of the world, you fear public speaking. The very thought of getting in front of a group of twenty, eighty, seven hundred people is enough to induce nausea.

I'm here to say: Get over it, you big baby.

Being asked to speak is a golden opportunity to spread your brand, strengthen your name-recognition, and kick-start the almighty word-of-mouth that we writers all crave. But before I get into the things that you need to keep in mind when speaking in public, let's dispel some of those irrational fears.

Dying in front of a crowd isn't dying in real life. Though having a joke bomb is uncomfortable, and looking out over your intended crowd and seeing people sleeping is a huge kick in the ego, neither of those things is fatal to your lifespan, or even your career. Humiliation isn't that big a deal. You're a grown up, and you need to realize that it isn't necessary for everyone to like you. Who really gives a shit what some stranger in the front row thinks of your speech, your book, or you in general? How is their acceptance going to make you a better person? It isn't.

People want you to do well. This isn't high school, where people are forced to be there. When you speak in front of a crowd, these folks came specifically to hear what you have to say. They're either already fans, or they want some information and/or entertainment. They're rooting for you.

People don't care if you bomb. Have you ever seen a really bad speaker? Have you ever watched someone crash and burn in front of an audience? As a result, did you throw fruit, call them names, or try to physically pull them off the podium? No. You tuned them out. That's all. That's the worst that can happen. If you screw the pooch on stage, people tune you out. You should be used to it. Every time you're in public, people tune you out. Malls, traffic, concerts, events, and everywhere people gather, we ignore each other. People ignoring you while you speak should be no more damaging than people ignoring you on the beach, even though their beach blanket is three feet away from yours.

Now that we've established the worst that can happen is boring a few strangers, here are some ways to make sure you don't bore them, but instead thrill them.

1. Know your audience. I've spoken to third graders, high school kids, high school teachers, college students, grad students, newbie writers, professional writers, library patrons, librarians, booksellers, book clubs, and fans of all types. In each case, they had different expectations of what they wanted from me. In every case, my job was to make sure these expectations were exceeded. If you're unsure what a group's expectations are, ask.

2. Prepare. Once you understand what is expected of you, you need to tailor your speech to their needs. The more of your audience you incorporate in your speech, the better their reaction will be. Then practice practice practice.

3. Act and react. A speech isn't a monologue. It's a dialog, with you doing most of the talking. You need to keep an eye on your audience, and make this an interaction. People tend to dislike being lectured to. But they can be made to feel included by simple things such as eye contact, asking questions, and your responses to their reactions. You aren't talking to an empty room. And audience is an organism that needs care and feeding. DO NOT read directly from your notes, or recite memorized passages. Communication is a two way street.

4. Evolve. If you're a Marx Brothers fan (and you should be) you may have heard that the best bits from some of their most popular movies were refined by performing them in front of audiences. They would change lines from town to town to figure out which got the biggest laugh. As you speak in front of more and more groups, you'll discover what works and what doesn't. Keep what works. Hone what doesn't until it works too.

5. Watch yourself. It's good to encourage feedback at the end of any speech in the form of Q & A, or by simply asking the person who invited you to speak how you did. But chances are you can be lied to, and told you were better than you actually were. If possible, record your performance and watch it later. You'll learn more from that than anything else, by far.

Here are some quickie Dos and Don'ts for public speakers.

DO introduce yourself to members of the audience beforehand. A smile and a handshake helps get them on your side before you go on stage.

DO make sure you stay within the time limit, while still leaving room for questions at the end.

DON'T use speech hesitations like "uh" and "um." It's annoying and unprofessional.

DO use note cards so you keep with your agenda, but don't read from the note cards.

DO thank the audience at the beginning and ending of every speech.

DO stick around after the speech and make yourself available for extra questions, comments, and feedback.

DON'T be a jerk. Ever. Maybe travel was hellish, and you got half the crowd you'd expected, but always remain upbeat, gracious, and professional. One speech leads to another, and even speaking to a crowd of two people can result in future opportunities.

DO dress for success.

DO give your audience a way to get in touch with you after you leave. Mentioning your website is essential.

DON'T oversell your wares. Sure, you want people to buy your books. But this isn't a commercial for them. People want information and entertainment, no ads.

DO have water nearby if your mouth gets dry. But don't drink so much during a long speech that you fill your bladder.

DO ask if a bookseller will be at the event to sell your books. If not, ask if you can bring your own.

Finally, as more speaking engagements are offered to you, you'll find that you have to set some rates. When you're just getting started, at the very least you can still ask to be compensated for travel expenses. As you become sought after, what you charge is up to you. My current rates are between $300 and $2500 per event, depending on proximity and what is expected of me. If you're unsure of what to request, offer to take an average of what they paid their last three speakers. But always make damn sure they get their money's worth.