Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Tips For Authors Giving Talks: When Things Go Wrong

1. Plan your talk. Even if all you're doing is talking about your book and how/why you wrote it, plan what you're going to say. Write down any anecdotes you want to tell - I can guarantee you will forget them. You're also likely to get them in the wrong order, and that will throw you. Write down any important names or facts as you will forget them too. I speak as someone who has forgotten a) her name and b) the title of her book when giving a talk. And it was being recorded. Oops.

2. If your brain freezes, stop and look at your notes. Take your time to find a place where you can confidently start again; no audience will expect you to do it all from memory.

3. If your notes have mysterious got into the wrong order, stop, smile and say something like, silly me, I've got these mixed up, I'll just get them into the right order. Then sort them out and continue. So long as you look in charge, things can go haywire and the audience will still be happy.

4. Sometimes you can get very conscious of your hands. They seem to be just hanging there, like useless slabs of meat. The actor's trick is to press your thumb and middle finger together. This gives your hands something to do and stops you feeling self-conscious about them.

5. Making eye contact with the audience is good, but can unsettle you. You can find yourself locked into eye contact with someone in the audience. If you're a new speaker another actor's trick is to look at the audience members between the eyes. This gives the impression that you're making eye contact, without actually doing so.

6. If your mouth dries, lick your teeth. Amazingly, this works instantly.

7. If something goes horribly wrong, acknowledge it. Don't try to battle on, hoping that no one will have noticed. The chances are they will. Smile, apologise, sort yourself out, then carry on.

8. On the other hand, they almost certainly won't notice if something goes wrong from your point of view. Let's suppose you realise half way through that you've missed out an important fact, anecdote, point, whatever then either incorporate it as soon as you can, or leave it. No one but you knows what you were intending to include in your talk, so they really won't know what they've missed. I once acted in a Restoration comedy opposite an actor who gaily missed out pages of dialogue. We'd jump around the text like rabbits on heat, with myself and the other actors trying desperately to get back on course. I don't think the audience ever realised there was ever a problem and if it didn't make much sense, well, they just accepted that.

9. Track time. I take off my wrist watch and put it where I can see it. I like planning my talks on index cards, and reckon on one card per 5 minutes. It's an easy way of keeping track, and seeing if you should be speeding up or slowing down.

10. What to do if you run out of material? Ask for questions. I have been known to prime a friend. in the audience with a question I'd like to be asked. (I once did this when sharing the platform with a very famous author. Because I knew everyone had come to the talk for them, not me, I primed my friend Ginny to ask me a question, so I'd not be entirely left out. She asked her question first, and set off a series of questions that were all aimed at me.) Alternatively, you can start your talk by saying you're going to open the floor to questions at the end, so you want people to think of some really good ones. If there's one of those horrible sticky silences try 'A question people often ask me is....'

Tomorrow I'm going to be covering how to make your talk not boring.

There are still some places on the How to Sell a Novel day course in Bath on 3rd July - click here or contact if you want more info.


Karen said...

I hope I'm in this position one day - and at the same time dreading it! Very good tips.

An author gave a talk at the library where I work once, and started by saying her neck and chest would go red and blotchy to begin with, but not to be alarmed - it wasn't some horrible disease, just nerves getting the better of her! When it happened she said 'see?' and everyone laughed and relaxed. I'm sure if she hadn't mentioned it, we'd have been anxious for her and wouldn't have enjoyed the talk so much.

Sarah Duncan said...

Karen, that's a brilliant example of an author being in control and making something that could go wrong work to her advantage. Thanks for sharing it.

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

Good tips Sarah! I really like your down to earth, no nonsense approach. Your advice about priming a friend is a good one as sometimes no one wants to be the first to ask.

Chris Stovell said...

I can absolutely endorse (1) - I thought I'd memorized everything but, as you mentioned, as soon as I stood up, I struggled to remember my name so my 'bullet point' notes were useless. (2) & (3) show that it's fine to be human! (4), (5) and (6) are great tips for the reality of facing a live audience, but if all else fails, I can vouch for (7)! People were very kind when I stopped to collect myself before carrying on.

Thanks very much, Sarah, for a great post and some really practical tips. I'm using them if there's ever a next time for me!

Cecilia Ryan said...

I love these tips. Takes me back to high school public speaking.

Doing talks is one of the things I secretly look forward to. I imagine I will make a fantastic mess of it, but I'm okay with that. As long as you don't drop dead while you're up there, right?

Sarah Duncan said...

Pat - the friend in the audience is very handy, even if it's just to get the questions going - once someone has broken the ice, things lead on naturally.

Chris - I'm sure you'll be asked to speak loads more times. And still lots more to be said - brace yourself for more posts on the topic, I had no idea I had so much stuff to say.

Cecilia - and if you DID drop dead, you'd be incredibly memorable, and prob sell shedloads of books, so job done!