Public speaking & how to be better at it

Sunday, April 22, 2012

I am really exceptionally shy. As I get older, I get a lot better at pretending I'm not. By the time I'm thirty I plan to have everyone totally fooled into thinking I am an extrovert. There's still a long way to go. I really want to start a foundation for the support of introverts.

Relatedly, a couple of years ago* I started speaking in schools (Booked Out speakers agency are the greatest people ever) and at writers festivals (mostly organised by my publisher). At first the idea of speaking to a class of fourteen-year-olds for an hour mostly about myself made me implode with nerves, but then I actually did it, and discovered that there were no ill effects apart from the nerves making me speak at lightning speed and in monotone.

Over time, I've managed to get (I hope) a little better. Entirely through practice. So here's my advice, for anyone who is terrified of speaking in front of large groups of people (you're not alone! people are scary!):
  1. The more nervous you are, the slower you should speak. Time moves in a very strange manner when you have a microphone and a roomful of sullen teenagers staring at you. You think that you are speaking at a normal pace, but then you finish your hour-long speech in fifteen minutes. Speak slowly. Also, remember that even if you've given the same speech a dozen times and are incredibly bored of it, it's new and fresh for the audience. Be excited about what you have to say!
  2. Imagine yourself as an audience member. I don't tend to talk a lot about myself or my book specifically, mainly because I am young and haven't done many interesting things yet, but also because seeing a speaker that is totally self-involved is usually pretty boring if what you're really interested in is what that speaker can teach you. So I imagine that I'm a fifteen-year-old kid at a school writer's festival, a reader, and think, what would I want to hear about? (Obviously this is not much of a stretch for me.) When I was fifteen, I was interested in how the publishing industry worked, and how people go from being kids with no idea what they're doing to people with careers, and I was really interested in how real live authors wrote their books. So those are the sorts of things I talk about.
  3. Do not react to people making weird faces at you. Sometimes people look bored when they are actually very interested in what you have to say. Sometimes they are just bored. When you are looking out at the audience (which you should be doing most of the time), look to the people who look interested or cheerful or who laugh when you want them to laugh and think positive thoughts about how great your speech is, because look, this person is interested! Don't start rushing through a speech because everyone appears to be giving you death stares, because maybe they're just tired.
  4. Talk about things that you are passionate about. If you think what you have to say is interesting and important and exciting, then you'll give the sort of speech that'll make the audience think what you're saying is interesting and important and exciting, too. Well, hopefully. I love talking about writing, and the publishing industry, and all the awesome bookish people I have met and the bookish things I do. And I hope the fact that I'm excited to talk about that gets other people excited to read and to write as well.
  5. Take notes, not entire scripts. I used to write very detailed speeches, every single word. Which is okay for a short speech, but not if you're presenting for an hour. I ended up reading everything out in fifteen minutes. Take notes and you can ramble and elaborate on things and also you don't appear to be a robot. (I have problems with not saying enough rather than saying too much. If you ramble in speeches, maybe you should write down every word and time yourself.)
  6. Use PowerPoint. So that everyone isn't staring at you the entire time, employ PowerPoint wherever possible. Include important points and a graph and maybe a mind map. If you ever lose track of what you're talking about, you can glance over at the PowerPoint and catch yourself up. I love PowerPoint. I especially love the two capitals in the one word. PowerPoint.
  7. Think about public speaking. Seriously think about it. You are a human, communicating to other humans. Why are you nervous? You've been doing this your entire life. Plus, you have notes. It could be way worse. You could be an alien species trying to communicate with humans and not know any of our languages! The best way, I find, to turn something I am terrified about into something I am definitely not terrified about is to think about it in such detail that it seems totally inane. When I get worked up about finishing my novel and having a career that involves writing novels to the point where I can't actually write, I think to myself, hey, it's just a bunch of words. Public speaking is the same. It's just a bunch of words you're saying to some people to inform them about some stuff. Nothing to be afraid of.
*Before November of 2009, I had only ever done public speaking at primary school. I have anecdote here! To give you an example of my crazy amount of success as a speaker, when I was in grade six I won the Table Topics award when my class did a Toastmasters course. I know you're jealous. Also technically Table Topics meant you had to come up with a speech on the spot, but the lady who led the course - affectionately referred to as 'the Dragon Lady', I don't know why - had me write the speech and it was all pre-arranged. Also there were only sixteen people in my class. Being twelve was good.
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