So I’m delivering serious remarks to a big crowd in a big ballroom at a Mariott Hotel in Minneapolis. It’s the Western Literature Association’s annual conference. I’ve practiced, timed myself, and the audience is with me. I’m building up to a feel-good ending that will both summarize the speech and send the crowd off thinking about their own narratives, their own lives–when the lights go out. The audience laughs. I curse (if I remember correctly). They laugh louder, but are clearly as annoyed as I am. The lights come on again–there’s a titter of relief. I continued my remarks–but lights go off again. Then on. Then off. I rush my ending, git r done, but I couldn’t be more annoyed. Afterward, the Marriott staff apologizes: it was someone (on staff) in the adjoining ballroom testing the lights. Some klutz who didn’t know that the both ball rooms, divided by large panels, were on the same light switch. I can’t tell you how pissed I was. Later, people congratulated me on my talk, and did not seem to remember the light thing, so I sure as hell didn’t bring it up. All of which, friends, is part of the territory of public speaking.
But enough about me. Let’s say it’s your turn. You’ve forked some lighting. Published a book. Written a script that got produced. You did something that some group –teachers, librarians, historians, art reviewers, journalists, bicyclists –loves, and so they invite you to come talk to them.
Ideally these invitations happen incrementally. You build up your public speaking chops gradually. Over time. But that’s hardly ever the case. It’s more like this: you’ve spent two years laboring on your project mostly in solitude. Just you, writing, working. Private, dogged labor–that suddenly hits with a splash and proves that there’s a God of Hard Work. And now, suddenly, you get invitations to speak.
These will range from keynoting large conventions to appearing at interest groups in someone’s living room (book clubs are nearly always a gathering of mature women). It’s like Ground Hog’s Day: you come up from your hole, blinking at bright daylight, and suddenly it’s, “Please Welcome [your name here].” You’re on.
I’ve been there, and I have a few tips that might help you when your time hits. But MIGHT is the key word here, because you have to develop your own approaches to public speaking. However, the list below include sure-fire tips on getting your public presenter chops:
- Do not buy new clothes. Or wear clothes that hang in your closet but you don’t often wear. The goal is to be comfortable in your skin. Don’t overdress, don’t underdress. Wear clothes that you don’t have to think about. (Be aware of clothes/colors/patterns that show best on tv or in photos. Read up on this. Patterns, for example, are a no-no.)
- At the venue get there early to check out the stage, the acoustics, the mic well before the audience arrives. You might well end up arranging chairs, and no shame in that.
- Mics: if there’s ANY question as to whether you need one, you do.
- Have a fully or mostly rehearsed opening. It’s terribly easy to fumble your way into your speech, and it can be hard to recover from that. Have something sharp like “Good evening. It’s great to be here before this group of librarians–but also a little scary. I once stole a library book.”
- Not saying (#5) you have to be comedian. Just saying that you need an authoritative opening of some kind. This will give you confidence going forward. Tell them what you’re going to do, then do it.
- SPEAK SLOWLY. Add that note in big-ass letters to your speech notes, on your hand, etc. The bigger the audience, the slower . . . you . . . should . . . speak. The slower you speak, the wiser and more authoritative you sound.
- Acoustics. If you address that person in the back row farthest from you, you will then cover everyone in between. Any question about acoustics? Ask the audience if they all can hear. They’ll appreciate your empathy.
- Have a fully, or mostly rehearsed conclusion or last line. It’s terribly easy to just peter out. Don’t do that.
- Remember: your public speaking voice is NOT the same voice you use in conversation. It’s your better voice. Clearer. More enunciated. The one from deeper in your pipes, your diaphragm.
- And one last thing: people in the audience have given you the gift of their time. Reward them by making the remarks at least somewhat ABOUT THEM. Yes, it’s about you, your new book, your new invention, etc.. But make sure you intersect with their hopes, dreams, situations. Try to include “We” and “You” licks, rather than “I” unendingly. You’ll be a hero for that. There are lots more tips, large and small (keep a lozenge, unwrapped in your pocket), but you’ll learn those soon enough. If there’s one larger thing to keep in mind, it’s this: every speaking gig is serious and demands your full powers. You’ve been given a rare opportunity. Treat it accordingly.
Below, me doing a commencement. It was windy and about forty degrees, so I wore my Twins cap. Why not, right? And you–you can do public speaking too. Be prepared. Be yourself. Treat the opportunity as the gift it is. Good luck!