It’s a fact of freelancing life—writers need to promote themselves. For pointers on how to more effectively and confidently promote yourself at speaking engagements, it helps to regularly attend—and constructively critique—presentations put on by other writers. You’ll pick up great ideas on format and delivery, get a better feel for pacing, gauge what does and doesn’t work well in certain situations and venues, and come away with a more comprehensive understanding of all that’s involved in creating and presenting a dynamic program.
What follows are some “Do’s” and “Don’ts” that I have learned over the years concerning public speaking:
Don’t Be Arrogant
You’d think this is a no-brainer. But, after attending a talk by the author of 44 successful young reader books, I realized that even established, award-winning authors can have an off day (I’m giving her the benefit of a doubt here). As an upstart freelancer, I was thrilled to attend this author’s presentation—until she started talking. The place was packed so she could have lit an impressive fire under her audience. Instead, she not only demonstrated impatience and dismissiveness towards basic questions, but she exuded haughtiness and—
worse—boredom. As the minutes ticked by, you could feel the energy in the room draining away. If this incredibly talented writer was having a bad day, she could have come right out and said so. We all have them, and writers are pretty compassionate people. As it was, I could only wonder why she chose to alienate her audience that night.
Don’t Overload Your Audience
I was thrilled when an award-winning Christian writer offered an all-day writing seminar, lunch included. But, by mid-afternoon, as her audience rapidly dwindled, I realized she was delivering way too much information, much of it via a pretty boring power point presentation. During breaks, attendees grumbled that the lecture hall format was non-inspiring (darkened room led to lowered eyelids) despite the wealth of information the author was imparting. In contrast, her anecdotal stories and Q & A responses were lively and enjoyable.
Lesson learned: Don’t over-rely on power point, slides, or handout materials! Balance a program with plenty of first-hand stories and writer-to-writer interaction. And, if the audience starts to fade, dig deep, and try to bring them back! In this case, the author might have stopped the show altogether, and invited her scattered attendees to come on down to the front for a more intimate, extemporaneous conversation.
Be Personable and Personal
A local banker and 2016 Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of narrative nonfiction was a perfect example of the power of personal. His talk about a World War II pilot who heroically lost his life overseas (before he could return home to the author’s mother) was so heartfelt and powerful, attendees were left wanting more when his talk ended. Only as an adult, after discovering an old letter in the bottom of a trunk, did the author realize that he bore the deceased pilot’s first name—a revelation which prompted him to learn all he could about the airman and, eventually, write a book.
This savvy author hooked his audience in two ways: First, by delivering a riveting family tale and, secondly, by elaborating on his totally unexpected transformation from banker to author. Writers never tire of hearing how other wordsmiths got their start. Knowing that we can become successful at any age or stage, despite our varying backgrounds and occupations, gives us hope and encouragement as we peck away at our own writing dreams.
Even a half-smile will do. I was spellbound listening to one author who left a challenging 20-year career as a New York City street cop to become a successful crime novelist. His stories were gritty and engrossing; his presentation fabulous. But, it wasn’t until halfway through his talk—when he suddenly smiled!—that I realized just how hard I’d been concentrating on absorbing his every word. With just one smile, the tension in the room eased dramatically as the speaker morphed from ‘tough city cop’ to ‘relatable fellow writer.’ Smiles are inclusive things so, no matter how heavy your subject matter, give your audience a break now and then. Smile!
Deliver Creative Perks
After her first two chick lit romps were published, a full-time pastry chef-turned-author delighted her audiences by speaking about how she incorporated her love of baking into her novels. The woman distributed beautiful homemade bookmarks. But, better still, the meet-and-greet reception that followed her talk served delicious cakes baked from recipes featured in her books! Talk about an unforgettable, fan-friendly, book-based idea! After savoring the author’s lively talk, her audience happily devoured those luscious sweets.
Having an online writing presence may be essential for self-promotion but nothing beats the personal satisfaction of meeting people face-to-face in a more intimate setting. If your goal is to offer programs at schools, libraries, bookstores, coffee shops, or pubs, it pays to attend, critique, and learn from the strengths and weaknesses of programs given by your fellow wordsmiths.
No two people are alike, so some things will work well with your individual style and others will not. But, by broadening your repertoire of possible approaches, you’ll gain invaluable insight and inspiration to help you organize, shape, and deliver your own very best presentations.
Wendy Hobday Haugh has been happily freelancing for 40 years. To learn more, visit www.wendyhobdayhaugh.com.
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