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Public Speaking Tips for Authors

Public speaking is one of the principal ways authors promote their books. But speaking to large groups terrifies many people and they do it badly. As a commercially published author, I’ve had a lot of practice in reading my work to an audience and here are my tips on how to make a success of it.

Why Public Speaking Is Important

Public speaking enables you to build a reputation and a following, and it helps to promote your books. Interacting with your audience can also give you a sense of what it is about your writing that really works for them.

Practical Public Speaking Tips

Preparation: Choose your ‘reading pieces’.

Get together four or five pieces that you are confident about reading out.

As a guide, people read aloud at about one hundred words a minute. I’d recommend not reading for more than ten minutes at a time, so your reading pieces should be about one thousand words.

Remember that what works when read aloud is not always what works on the page.

  • Funny always works (but make sure that people actually find your piece funny… nothing is worse than a failed attempt at comedy).
  • Punchy usually works – something that grabs the reader, with a strong premise or a big twist.
  • A unique, interesting authorial voice really helps.
  • The opening of a novel often works. A section from further in often doesn’t.
  • Descriptive passages, however beautiful, don’t always work.
  • Long, slow character pieces don’t tend to work.

Print the pieces out at a font size you can read easily at arm’s length and put them in a display book folder so you can find them on the night with no problem.

Preparation: Rehearse

Record yourself reading the pieces you’ve chosen aloud. Once you’re comfortable with that, record yourself reading on video, so you can note any mistakes and fix them.

Practice reading your pieces until you’ve at least semi-memorised them, i.e. you are very comfortable reading them, but you still have the written versions ‘just in case’. If you can fully memorise the pieces and so deliver them with no written prompt, so much the better.

On the Night: Practical Considerations

Double check your materials. This is a true story that happened to me: A literary festival asked me to read at it, and I was quite tense on the night as it was a big audience, but my story had always had a positive response in the past. The compère called me to speak, and I stood up and walked to the front of the hall. As the compère introduced me, I flicked through the pages of my story to check they were in the right order. I discovered that not only were they not in the right order, two pages were completely blank.

Luckily, after a few minutes of panic, I managed to read the story off my phone. But don’t let something like this happen to you. Check and double-check your materials.

Don’t drink too much. It’s tempting to have a few glasses of wine to dull your public speaking nerves, but the pitfalls are obvious. The absolute last thing you need is to be drunk, or even tipsy, when you’re trying to read your work to an audience.

Make sure you have water. One of the side effects of the inevitable adrenaline surge is a dry mouth. Obviously, that makes it hard to speak. Avoid that croaking effect by making sure you have water to sip as necessary.

On the Night: Mental Preparation

Mindset. Take a professional attitude. Remember, you aren’t a charity and the audience is not doing you a favour by listening to you. People may have paid to come to hear you read. Even if the event is free, they’ve taken the time to come down when they could be doing something else. You’re a performer, entertaining your audience.

Confidence. You are a writer. Because you’ve prepared properly, you know that your reading pieces will work and that you can read them well. There’s no reason not to be confident in your work.

Accept the adrenaline surge. Remember that everyone gets nervous before going on stage—it’s an entirely normal instinct and adrenaline is actually necessary for an excellent performance. I like to say to myself, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’. I’ve literally never heard a single reader at a spoken word event being heckled or booed, no matter how bad their reading was. Perfunctory applause and a few blank looks is probably the absolute worst outcome, and that’s not so terrible, really.

Introducing Yourself

Don’t apologise. This is the number one mistake I see beginners make: edging onto the stage looking as if they don’t want to be there and nervously stammering something like “I’m sorry to inflict this rubbish on you.”

Pre-apologies mark you as an amateur—did you ever see a professional come on and start by apologising? If you start with apologies, it damages the audience’s confidence in you and gets your reading off to a poor start. If you’ve followed my advice, then you’ve chosen a piece that will work and you’ve practiced it until you can read it well—don’t forget that. Have confidence in your work.

Introduce yourself. The temptation is to just dive straight into your story. But it’s better to make a few introductory remarks to give the audience a few moments to settle down and start paying attention properly. If you can seem confident and in control, it really helps, and if you seem relaxed, then the audience relaxes. A humorous observation or two can help to get the audience on your side.

Stand up. Hunching over your piece of paper reading from it makes it look as if you lack confidence in your material. Even worse is remaining sitting down. Instead, stand up and consciously pull your shoulders back to open your body up.

The Reading Itself

Perform. Remember: you’re a performer, entertaining your audience. So, as you read, keep your head up and make eye contact as much as possible. Use your hands to emphasise. Vary your voice. If you can do character voices, great, but if not at least vary your pitch, tone and volume.

Don’t break the spell. If you make a mistake, don’t stop to apologise. Don’t backtrack or read sentences again to get them right. Most people won’t notice and it’s the sweep of the story that’s important, anyway.

Slow down. This is a mistake I see a lot: the author panicking and rushing to just get through the reading and be able to get offstage again. It feels like an eternity when you’re standing on stage, and it’s easy to think you’re boring the audience. You aren’t—audiences at author readings are quiet because they’re listening.

One reason reading something funny works is because the laughter helps you feel like the audience is appreciative. But even without that feedback, the audience probably isn’t bored. Remember that, and resist the temptation to panic and start gabbling.

Don’t give up. Even if you’re convinced no one is listening and your reading is a complete failure, it’ll be over after a few minutes. Keep going. At worst, it’s practice and an experience, and it’s probably going better than you think anyway.

Wrapping Up Your Reading

Don’t apologise. Again, this is you telling your audience to think negatively about your work. Why would you do that?

Acknowledge applause. In my experience, even the disastrous readings end with polite applause. Many end with enthusiastic applause. Either way, smile and make eye contact with the people who are clapping.

Take questions. If there’s opportunity, invite questions from the audience. It’s useful to prime a friend with a simple question to start.

Sell yourself. The end of your reading is the moment of maximum audience goodwill. So, if you have a book, show it to the audience, ask them to buy it and offer to sign copies. If you’re available for work, then say so. Give out business cards. Network.

After Your Reading

If necessary, cut your losses. If your reading really was a fiasco, just get your stuff together and leave. Not every author reading goes perfectly. If, overall, the reading was not a success, consider why, learn lessons and remember that next time will be easier and better.

Accept compliments. If your reading has gone well, then you may find yourself surrounded by well-wishers. A simple smile and “thank you” is all that’s necessary for any compliments the listeners pay you.

Don’t engage with ‘crazies’. People who’ve read your stories sometimes feel that they have some kind of relationship with you. Occasionally, they feel that there’s something ‘wrong’ with your work, and they need to explain why to you at great length. It’s not your job to counsel them. If someone wants to argue over minutiae, monopolise your time or makes you feel uncomfortable, then saying something like ‘Sorry, but I really have to talk to the other attendees’ is a good way out.

Learn From Your Experience

It’s very useful to get a friend to video your reading. Afterwards, review the video and think about how it went. What, if anything, went wrong? How can you fix that problem? Did you apply all the tips I suggested?

Don’t forget to note what went right, too. Congratulate yourself and remember to do those things in the future.

How to Gain Public Speaking Experience

  1. Toastmasters. Toastmasters is an organisation designed to help people improve their public speaking skills.
  2. Writing groups. Many writing groups expect their members to read their work.
  3. Writing courses and writing retreats. They almost always expect attendees to read their work.
  4. Spoken Word Events and open mic nights. One of the best ways to build your experience. Check the local listings magazines and websites for when spoken word events are on.
  5. Libraries and bookshops. It’s often possible to arrange a reading at local bookshops and libraries.

It works!

Here’s a video of me reading at a bookshop event:

If you’d like to discuss your experience of public speaking and author reading, or you’re interested in arranging an author reading, please email me. Otherwise, feel free to share the article using the buttons below.