Shining at Book Readings: Speaking with Confidence

Absolute Blank

By Melissa A. Muro

Last year, I went to a book fair to visit with my two favorite authors.

The first author clutched her book tightly against her chest, looking at the floor, as she came into the room. She made her way to the table, sat down, and read for the entire forty-five minutes. She slammed the book shut after she finished, rose from her chair, and headed out of the room. The entire audience let out half-bated breath, clamoring “what just happened?” and a string of “what about my question?” threaded throughout the room.

Disappointed, I left to attend another book reading given by the second author. He strolled into the room with great ease, catching the attention of his audience with a warm smile. He took his seat and expressed great dissatisfaction in being so far from everyone, so he came down to our level. Instead of flipping open his book right away, he explained to the audience how the idea came to him, the steps he took to complete it, and the experiences, good and bad, that happened to him while writing. He didn’t read too much from the book because he wanted to allow time for questions and answers. As the speech came to a close, the audience left with a great sense of satisfaction.

At some point, every writer will have to make a presentation of one type or another. Good speaking skills are a necessity whether you are presenting at a writer’s circle, writing seminar, pitching session, or a conference.

The ability to speak well in public is a talent that will serve you throughout your writing career, for many reasons. Those who can do it are well-respected, admired, and more inclined to be asked for a return visit. It builds confidence, credibility, and gives you an opportunity to express yourself on many different levels. The ability to speak well is the most sought after skill in our society. Besides, the writing world needs more articulate spokespersons to wipe away the myth of writers not being as good in real life as they are on paper.

There is no need to rush into the room, read your book as fast as you can, and leave. The art of speaking in public and leaving your readers with a warm, fuzzy feeling takes no more than a few skills.

Background Image: NSW RISG/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

INTRODUCTIONS: The chances of you having to make the introductions are minimal because you will have been invited to speak. The announcer/host will lead you into the room and make a small opening for you. At most places, there are flyers or booklets with a little profile about you and your work. However, some programs do not have people to make introductions or have ready-made flyers. Fear not!

When making your own introductions, take your book with you and show it to the audience. Tell them who you are and give the audience a little personal information about you. If you are visiting the city, talk about your funny, sad, [insert emotion] experience in traveling or checking into the hotel. If the place you’re reading at is local, talk a little about what place inspired you to write the book. The point of the first few minutes is to thread the group closer together.

This advice also applies to flyers. When making your own promotional flyers to inform the public about you, be sure to include the title of your book and the “5 Ws” (who, what, when, where, and why). Ask local businesses if you can post them. In some places, bookstores will do a little promotion—ask to see if the bookstore or the establishment you’re going to be visiting has something like this.

ACT NATURAL: Don’t try to be someone you are not in hopes you’ll get your audience to like you. People are drawn to those who are authentic. How will they know? The sincerity and passion that comes from your voice and mannerisms. Have good posture, smile—let your confidence shine through even though you might be nervous, make eye contact, dress well, and allow your body to speak through hand motions and facial expressions.

If you are a person who likes to dress up, then wear a nice, presentable outfit free of stains and tears. If you enjoy wearing jeans and a T-shirt, then wear a nice pair of jeans free of stains and holes, along with a comfortable shirt.

Keep in mind, first impressions are everything. As you stand in front of the mirror, ask yourself: Is this how I want to be remembered?

ELIMINATE THE NEGATIVE: If you hated your book, editor, book cover, or think that your book is lousy and you’re surprised that it even made the shelves, don’t share such details with your readers. People come to see you speak about a book that they enjoyed. Let that feeling pervade across the room and this will lend to future book sales.

If the audience tells you that your book was lousy, that’s a different story. Sometimes at readings, there will be a person who will try to trash your work. Keep in mind, not everybody will love what you have written. Handling this situation requires proper care. If a person has harsh comments about your book, simply acknowledge their comments, keep your composure while addressing the situation if you feel the need to defend your work, and move onto someone more positive. If the person continues to be negative, end the situation by saying, “Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Now let’s move on.” One author stated at the beginning of the question and answer session that there would be only one question/comment per person. This is usually good because it alleviates the pressure of having to listen to the same person.

Another way to avoid negative comments about your book is to focus on what readers did like about the book. Have an open session where readers can discuss what parts they thought was funny, life changing, or ponderous (this will depend upon the theme of your book).

STUDY THE ART OF PUBLIC SPEAKING: If you are uncertain about what to say or how to keep the momentum flowing, make a visit to book fairs, conferences, and seminars featuring other authors. Whenever you get the chance, watch and learn from them. Good public speakers are not born; they are developed. Make a study of good speaking skills by reading good books on the subject, attending a seminar on the subject, or by joining a club such as Toastmasters International. Don’t be afraid to “steal” your style/approach from speakers that impress you!

REHEARSE, REHEARSE, REHEARSE: It’s a good idea to do a mock book reading—practice your reading—before actually reading your work before your audience. Pick a chapter or section of your book you want to read aloud. Make sure a timer is close by to monitor your reading pace—some places have timed reading sessions. Keep practicing until the words come out naturally.

Take every opportunity to practice talking in front of people. Start with your family, friends, and co-workers. Remember, practice makes perfect. After preparing your mock book reading, go through a practice run. Start by telling your “audience” what your book is about. This gives the book a context that it wouldn’t have if you just opened up the book and read straight from there. Keep in mind, you know your characters, the plot and every other intimate detail of your book, however the audience may or may not. Make any necessary modifications. Work on gestures, emphasis, and pauses.

The next step is to record your speech on audiocassette. Hearing yourself talk about your book allows you to become more familiar with your material. This also gives you an idea of how long your speech is. Be sure to check with the place you’ll be speaking at and inquire about time limits if there are any. Do this until you are comfortable.

If you don’t have a tape recorder, try videotaping yourself. This will give you an idea of what you will look like to your audience. Any stiffness or forced behaviors that do not reflect the essence of you will become more apparent. Be aware of your mannerisms; keep the ones you like and eliminate the ones you don’t.

BRING A COPY OF YOUR BOOK, PROMOTIONAL MATERIAL, AND BUSINESS CARDS: Show the audience what your book looks like. Expand on what you liked about the cover and if you want, read a few pages from your book, perhaps beginning with your favorite scene. Place promotional material on the desk or table. If there is not one, place it on chair and mention to the audience that you have left some information about your book.

One memorable author had a question and answer raffle. She asked some questions about her book and those who got the answers right received a little souvenir.

Another author wrote a murder mystery with the central character as a maid. She had the title of her book emblazoned across little dustpans, obtained from a small craft store. The dustpans were used in a raffle to help promote her book. In conjunction, she had bookmark flyers and foldout brochures with all of her information: the release of her next book, her website, and email address. The information allowed other aspiring authors and interested readers to follow her progress.

Business cards should reflect your personality and/or the feel of your book. At a screenwriter’s festival, a young woman gave me a business card. The layout adhered to the script format and everyone remembered her. At a writer’s conference, an older gentleman handed me his business card. All of his important contact information such as email, fax, phone, cell phone was along the bottom. The graphic and the title of his job were in the center, reflecting the feel of his genre. On the back of his card were the titles of his most recent books.

MAKE YOUR SPEECH INTERESTING: Going back to the example in the beginning, the reason why people felt comfortable with the second author was because he made his speech memorable. He added personal stories that related to the development of his book.

Share the humorous experiences of researching your book, putting your book together, the frustrations of a single chapter, and jokes. A touch of intimacy gives your audience a good feeling and a deeper knowledge about your book. Your audience is more likely to remember you and want to read/purchase your current material. I know when I read books of authors I have met, I like to share with people about what I know and what the author was thinking when s/he wrote the book.

Be sure to talk about the new book you’re working on or any future projects to give everyone a sense of something to look forward to. Allow enough time for questions and answers to avoid the first scenario. The audience loves the notion of talking to their favorite author. When you have completed your speech or book-reading, open the floor for further discussion. Make eye contact with people, point out a specific person who has his/her hand raised, listen, wait a few seconds to digest the question/comment, and give a sound answer.

MAKE THE PLUNGE: Cast your fears aside and accept the invitation to make a public appearance.

Now go make that public appearance with confidence.

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