Learning to be Comfortable with Public Speaking
by Jacqueline T. Lynch
Imagining your audience in their underwear is almost always a bad idea.
This is one of the most oft-repeated hints to overcome a fear of public speaking. As writers, our imaginations tend to be more active anyway, so digressing from your speech to imagine your audience in various undergarments can be disastrously distracting… and maybe even somewhat unpleasant.
Writers, possibly most, also tend to be introverts, but this is not the real problem surrounding a fear of public speaking. Being an introvert and being shy are not necessarily the same thing, for being an introvert has more to do with contentment in one’s own company and not needing the stimulation of other people to be happy. Introverts understand extroverts probably better than extroverts understand introverts… and this comes from a lifetime of society telling us that introverts are inadequate losers.
This general acceptance that it’s better to be extroverted than introverted may make many writers despair at ever being good at promoting themselves. Successful public speaking for writers depends on many helpful tips, but chief among them is to not fixate on yourself; think of your audience instead. Think of them as your guests and be concerned for their comfort as you would if they were visiting you in your home. Can they hear you properly? Did they travel in the rain to get here? Are they elderly? Have they wandered into your talk by accident? Welcome them. Sometimes a little pre-speech small talk, one-on-one, helps to break the ice. When you stop thinking about yourself, you are no longer self-conscious, and being self-conscious is what makes us nervous in front of a crowd.
Remember, it’s not about you. It’s about the subject of your talk.
The first time I gave a talk before a small crowd a couple of decades ago, I was terrified. My hands shook so much that when I took a sip from a cup of water as I spoke, I tossed it up my nose and nearly drowned myself. My voice shook, and I hyperventilated to the point where I thought I would faint. It wasn’t pretty. Funny, yes, but not pretty. When the talk was over and members of the audience began to ask questions, I relaxed quite suddenly and completely. I was astonished to discover they were interested in what I had to say, and I was equally interested in what they had to say. I still love the question-and-answer segment at the end of the talks because the audience often has much to share.
In the years since, I’ve learned this most important tip: that I was not really the focus of their interest. Either my book or the subject of my talk was why they came out in good weather and bad to the bookstore, the library, the auditorium, the club – wherever I happened to be speaking. Remember, with humility, to present the topic and then stand in its shadow. You’re an introvert; you know how to do that.
You’re there to share the interest and excitement you feel for the subject. They’re interested, too, or they wouldn’t be there (unless they really did wander into your event by accident). That’s okay, too. Whether or not they respond by buying your book should not necessarily your goal. It’s nice when it happens, but don’t take it personally when it doesn’t. You can always bring flyers with information on where they can purchase your book online. It’s not unusual to see an uptick of your online sales after a speech.
These are the philosophical tools of public speaking, but there are practical tips that may help you overcome nervousness as well. For instance, if you are offered a microphone, take it. If you are not used to projecting (and what introvert is?), your voice may not last more than fifteen minutes before you start croaking like a frog. With a mic, you can speak softly and not strain your voice.
Breathe. It sounds simple and somewhat stupid, but when you forget to breathe your heart rate goes up and you hyperventilate. Just breathe easily and naturally to relax, nice and slow. Speak clearly and slowly. First, it helps your audience hear you and keeps their interest more than if you speak fast. Second, speaking slowly keeps you from getting all wound up. Focus on the words. You’re a writer, those are your tools.
Have a cup of water on hand in case your throat gets dry. Don’t throw it up your nose.
If the venue at which you’re speaking has access to a digital projector, then perhaps you could put together a PowerPoint presentation to go along with your talk. Bring it along on a thumb drive/ USB stick. The audience loves to look at photos and images, and it will take their eyes off you, which might make it easier for you. This is excellent for non-fiction, but for a novel you can still assemble images that will complement your talk – location scenes of the setting of your story, or background information on your research.
Always prepare a speech and rehearse it many times. Don’t wing it. You don’t have to read it verbatim to your audience if you’d prefer not to, but at least if you go blank you can quickly pick up the thread of your talk by glancing down at your page.
It may take several of these talks for you to feel comfortable in front of a crowd; it did me. Eventually I found public speaking easier, and the experience was helpful when I was asked to be a guest on podcasts as well as radio and television programs. Public speaking provides interesting extensions of your writing career, and are opportunities that will bear fruit in many ways. Don’t shut yourself off from them because your nervousness seems too painful. Don’t use your writer’s imagination to imagine you can’t do it.
However, if you’re speaking via TV, radio, or internet podcasts, your audience really could be in their underwear. Just try not to imagine it.
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