One goal I made at the beginning of the year was to continue coaxing myself out of my comfort zone. I believe this is something we should all be doing continuously, both in our personal lives as well as in our writing lives. If don’t keep challenging yourself beyond what’s comfortable, you’ll never go further than you where you are at the moment and that can lead to a rut. So when I was asked to read a segment of White Elephants at an event last Friday, I knew in my gut it was something I had to do…no matter how terrifying it felt initially.
The event was the Exporting Alberta Awards, which helps local authors with promoting their work outside of the province or country. I knew beforehand that I’d be surrounded by fellow authors eager to support and learn about each other’s work. Somehow that was tremendously comforting to me because each person in that room was either exactly where I was, or had been where I was at some point.
Now, to say that public speaking is not my forte is a huge understatement. I avoid it like the Plague. But I also know that doing readings or lectures are phenomenal ways of reaching out to readers as well as widening our audience. So what I’d like to do today is share some of my tips for my fellow rookie public speakers on making that reading a huge success.
Do your research. Even before picking out what you’re going to read, you need to learn about your audience, the venue and a few other details. What are the demographics of your audience? Does the bookstore/venue expect an interactive session or just a reading? Will there be a podium or will you be standing alone with your book? Will there be a microphone or will your voice have to carry its own weight? Will there be a stage? Will people be seated at tables or chairs facing the reading area? Is there a time maximum for the reading? These little details help prepare you for how to carry yourself and your voice as well as give you an idea of what to read.
Choose the passage that packs power. In my case, I was reading to fellow authors who I knew were as curious about my work as I was about theirs. But I knew I had to pick something that would hold water with their phenomenal work. When selecting what part of your book to read, choose something that gives the strongest idea of what your book is about that will leave the audience wanting more. If you have a time maximum for your turn, be sure to also bear that in mind when making your decision. I actually timed myself for the different passages I had in mind until I found the one I could read within the five-minute allowance.
Bring a strong support system. If you’re allowed to have guests, bring the person or persons who give you the greatest strength. Those people can be who you look at when you feel nervous while you’re reading. (I took my BFF of almost 30 years and when I stumbled on my words, I’d look at her and she smiled or shot me a wink. That gave me the courage to keep going.)
Start with humor. This is a preference thing but I find starting with a funny quip not only helps break the ice with the audience but also eases me a bit hearing the laughter at something I’m intentionally saying funny. At this event I opened by saying, “I should let you know right now that I tend to shake a bit when I’m nervous. So if you see me vibrating up here, there’s no need to call 9-1-1; it’s just my nerves.”
Make introductions. In some cases, this is done for you but it’s always good to introduce the general idea of your book and where you’re reading from in the book. It helps to bring your audience into your scene so they can be as close to it as you are.
Just keep swimming. Even the veteran public speaker stumbles over her words or loses her place once in awhile. If that happens, just keep going. Most people understand that nerves can grab a speaker’s tongue here and there. Your message will still come shining through even if there are a few trips.
Stick around afterwards. I was shocked when after my reading I actually had people come up to chat with me. Not only did they want to talk about the book and how my reading affected them but they also wanted to chat about my other work and where to find it. It’s also a great way to make connections with other writers or writing/publishing professionals.
The last piece of advice I can give is to make sure you bring extra copies of your book, a pen, some business cards (if you have them) or other information about how readers can connect with you.
As nervous as I was the weeks before the presentation right up to the moment my introduction was read, it turned out really well. I connected with my audience, several people were brought to tears and I had the most amazing woman come up to me later to sign a copy of White Elephants. She said, “I’m a grandma who is taking care of my granddaughter because her mother also had addiction and mental health issues. It was very brave of you to bring your story here and it warmed my heart to see that despite everything she’s going through right now, my young granddaughter has the chance to turn out healthy and well. Like you.”
There was more to the conversation but her words touched the depth of my soul and I took it as a sign that it was something I had to do. It pulled me out of my shell just a bit more and I got to reach out to another family in need. That meant more to me than any other reason I did it.
So, there you go. If public speaking or reading isn’t your ‘thing’, it’s okay. But I recommend all writers sharing their work in this way at least once. It’s an amazing feeling actually seeing how your words affect others rather than just being told.
Feel free to share your own reading experiences here. I’d love to read your tips, suggestions or pearls.