The skill we all need

With Obama in the house, the age of ineloquence is over. W is back in Texas, where he can goof up in private. The mumblers and perspirers among us have to face the fact that speaking poorly just isn’t in style.

Being able to speak more confidently off the cuff, deliver a public testimony, or design a complex public presentation is important in nearly everyone’s jobs. But I want to talk to the published writers out there first and foremost.

Books aren’t selling so well right now and editors may not be biting — but that makes this the best time to 1) look deep within one’s heart and commit to writing what matters most 2) slow down and spend more time on revision and 3) develop some of the other professional skills that will matter when the economy wakes up again. I truly believe that.

I signed up for a writing class about 12 years ago just in order to learn how to read my writing out loud — and to learn how to suffer a public critique — without shaking uncontrollably and turning bright red in the face. I’ve spent years trying to get more comfortable at the podium or with a mic in hand, and I’ve made some progress, but I still get the sweats whenever I stand in front of a group. Last year, after hearing an experienced public speaker say he stank until he’d given his first 200 or so public lectures (I think that was the number), my girlfriend and I challenged each other to give as many lectures as possible. We made it to 20 or 30 before we stopped counting. It’s really hard to rack up that much experience.

Lately, I’ve had to make some quick story pitches relating to both books and film — a briefer but equally essential kind of public speaking. Every author knows what it’s like trying to explain their book, elevator-pitch-style, over and over (to an editor, to a bookseller, to a stranger on a plane). Until one learns how to do it well, a lot of emotional energy gets wasted, energy most of us would rather spend writing. Wouldn’t it be great just to learn how to speak well, once and for all?

This isn’t just about getting over nerves. There is a whole continuum of growth. I used to be content just to survive a reading or interview without choking up. Now I’d appreciate it if I could slow down and actually be more attuned to the audience — rather than the sound of blood whooshing in my own ears — so that I can connect and appreciate. I’d like to learn to read with fewer — or no — notes. I’d like to become more spontaneous and confident. I’d like to learn how to design an interactive reading that doesn’t go too long, peter out, or suffer from technological glitches: Powerpoint gone awry, fuzzy mic. I’d like to get more efficient at preparing for talks so the preparation isn’t so overwhelming. Mark Twain, I believe it was, said a lecture took him 3 weeks to prepare; that’s an awful lot of unpaid labor. It’s worth it if the lecture really rocks; not so much if you go home groaning and wincing at your own stumbles.

Ironically, my writing persona often interferes with my speaking persona — something I only figured out in recent years. The writer in me favors creativity and hates to repeat (which is why I can’t tell a joke), reserves the right to edit and revise endlessly, and needs control. The speaker in me must accept that a good speech is the result of many rehearsals and repeats, must speak without editing or apology, and must embrace the unexpected, including small turnouts or fritzing computers or occasionally unhelpful bookstore staff.

Little things count. I just read some advice suggesting that authors shouldn’t take questions last, because it’s anticlimactic, especially when there are few questions. Sometimes, the confused audience doesn’t even know when to clap. (Better to announce the talk is almost but not quite done, then take questions, then wrap up with a final anecdote or short reading. So simple, but I never thought of that.)

Naturally comfortable speakers also fail. I just heard a very good poet at a multi-poet reading in another city read some of her latest work, which people liked so much she decided to read just one more poem, then just one more, and then just one more, including even a partially finished poem. The audience response dropped off, of course. She should have stopped when she was ahead.

What other observations have you made? Which public speakers or presenting authors knock your socks off and why? If you attend readings, what mistakes do you see authors making again and again? What are your worst public speaking moments, and what skills would you like to develop?

4 thoughts on “The skill we all need”

  1. Worst reading experience: At the FREEZE, opening day. Outdoors. Minus 15, few people, snot dripping off the tip of my nose, mic cord drops out of mic as I read, front end loader fires up halfway through, I can’t turn pages with huge gloves, take off glove and hand freezes, lips are frozen, no mic stand, no lectern.

  2. All who turned out for the (literal) first Freeze readings deserve a special page in the book of courage. Talk about a tough venue.

    I think the biggest mistake authors make is to glibly, or shyly, assume that their books will speak for themselves. When an audience assembles, there’s a collective assumption that they are there to be engaged. Beginnings matter. So, as Andromeda points out, do endings. Not to mention everything in between. The energy infused by the speaker carries the moment.

    Twenty years of teaching, eleven before tough public school audiences, injected a lot of confidence into my speaking. Worst moment: while lecturing before a high school class, I looked down to see my half-slip puddled around my ankles. Not one of the students so much as snickered. Which shows that even the most persnickity audiences are secretly rooting for you.

  3. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    You win the prize, Scott (if I had a prize to award). I can visualize and sympathize with all of it. Bravo for surviving that.

    To Deb — loved your image, too. And you’re right about people rooting for you. That’s part of the discomfort of being in the audience — we so want the reading to go well, especially when we know the speaker! Sometimes I sweat as much from the audience as from the podium.

  4. I can sympathize with the slip around the ankles. Amazing that no one snickered.

    Most of my public speaking has been in front of children, sometimes large groups of them. Technology glitches can be a disaster. But my most memorable experience was when one of the children sitting in the front row threw up at my feet. It actually didn’t turn out that badly, thanks to the teacher who hustled the boy out. I just kept on with my story — and watched where I stepped.

    My main techniques for holding the attention of kids are telling stories, involving the audience, and keeping things moving along. Visuals can be useful, too.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top