The difference between the private and public face of the author is, more often than not, marked. While we’re slouched over the laptop in pyjamas, make-up free and tangle-haired, images of our glossier selves adorn Facebook, Twitter and other online, and real life, outlets.
The day-to-day job of being a writer is solitary. Most of us are introverts, most comfortable in the company of imaginary people and worlds. But when a book is out, we must transform, metamorphose into a public figure. It’s not always easy, though the benefits include face to face contact with readers and booksellers and bloggers and other wonderful industry people.
Recently, with the publication of Crossing the Line, I’ve spoken at a number of events. Despite a background as an actress, and experience of public speaking as an author, I still find it bone-shudderingly terrifying. In an effort to – hopefully – help others, I’m sharing some of the things I’ve learnt.
Planning is a good idea. Even if you’re a natural pantser. You can’t go back and edit a speech once it’s done, unlike a book. If the thought of planning brings you out in hives, at least have a rough idea of what you’d like to cover. Nerves can also bring on Totally Blank Mind Syndrome (TBMS) and it can happen at any point in a talk.
Prompt Cards with one or two key words on each are a good idea. I make them small enough to hold in the palm of my hand. Brilliant at combatting TBMS.
Practise, especially if you have a set time to fill. I had thirty minutes to fill at the Northwich Festival Literary Lunch event recently and initially I feared I’d run out of interesting things to say after ten minutes. I rambled for almost an hour in my bedroom during the first run-through… Humm
Be yourself – Sounds obvious, but it can be hard. It has been for me. I recall one event when I was starting out and found myself on a platform with three other authors, one of whom was international bestseller Sarah Rayner (who is gorgeous and now a dear friend). Sarah and I were on third and fourth and were initially delighted about this. BUT, the first author stood up and delivered a talk that wouldn’t have been out of place on Live at the Apollo. It was amazing. The audience were rolling in the aisles with laughter. I don’t think I’m funny, let alone a comedian – and I was gripped by The Fear. How could I possibly compete with that? The audience would hate me, be massively disappointed etc. etc. Sarah reminded me I could only be myself. She was right. And the audience were happy – they welcomed the variety in style and tone. And people can smell a phony a mile off.
Own your anxiety – This might not work for everyone, and it depends how nervous you get, but I’ve found that telling my audience I’m nervous instantly makes me less so. And then, if – when – I stumble over words or my hands start shaking, I’m less concerned because I’m not ‘giving anything away’ because I’ve already admitted to the fear!
Make eye contact, (if you can). Connected to the above. When I make eye contact with audience members they usually smile, or nod, or another gesture to signal they’re engaged and enjoying.
Audience expression doesn’t paint the whole picture – When I’m speaking, I do look at my audience (see above). Almost always, there’s someone who looks bored, half-asleep, even angry. This used to terrify me, and my nerves would escalate. But, surprisingly, after the talk, at the book signing or during the QnA session, these same people would often tell me how much they enjoyed it. I’ve learnt that some people close their eyes when listening, others have a resting bored face, or a resting bitch face. It doesn’t necessarily mean they were bored, or they hated me, or found me beyond tedious! Some might, but they’ve not sought a chat afterwards, and I’m never going to please everyone.
If the audience is small, it’s harder for them than it is for the speaker – The pressure we feel when we’re part of a small gathering (say, less than ten) is immense. If you find that ticket sales haven’t gone all that well, remember it’s not your fault and the audience who are there deserve the best of you. It’ll be hard for them, too! And the intimacy of a small group has its own rewards.
Finally, (and connected to audience faces) people are on your side! They’ve paid to see you and hear you speak. They’re interested. They love authors and they might already be a fan. If not, they might be about to become one.
Feel The Fear and do it anyway – if you’re asked to give a talk and you’re available, say yes. You might just enjoy it!