Public Speaking Pro Tips

In less than a month, I will be speaking at a country club about the stories behind my stories. The engagement is a benefit to support services for seriously ill women at Englewood Hospital. I’m the entertainment. In exchange for speaking for an hour, the hospital is giving everyone a copy of The Widower’s Wife.

My usual anxiety level is probably around a six out of ten. But this event has put it at an eleven. I want people to have a good time. I want them to enjoy the speech enough that they feel particularly good about opening their wallets to support a good cause. I also am hoping that maybe some people will like me enough to read my books.

So I reached out to the MissDemeanors, many of whom speak in front of classes and conferences regularly, to ask for tips. Here’s what they recommend.

Alexia Gordon: I just finished one 30 minutes ago. I’m a faculty author at Sleuthfest in Boca Raton this year. Never before have I had to lead workshops at a writers conference. Never before have I been faculty or a “featured author.” I’ve been on author panels, but only as a panel member, never a moderator. I can blend in on a panel. Not so much as a workshop leader. Did I mention I hate public speaking? And my workshop was in the first time slot this am–couldn’t sit in on someone’s to get some tips/allay my anxiety.


I didn’t suck. I actually got a few compliments, so there’s that. 
What did I do? Skipped breakfast–I was up first thing this am and food doesn’t mix well with an anxiety-laden stomach. Of course, I’m starving now and there’s 45 minutes until lunch. I skipped coffee for the same reason. I kept a glass of water on the podium to ward off dry mouth demons. The talisman worked–no dry mouth or coughing spells.
I had PowerPoint slides–a tip from Hank Phillippi Ryan and Paula Munier which I’m glad I followed. I made arrangements last night to have a laptop available to load up the PowerPoint presentation–but I printed out a hard copy of the slides just in case. More talismanic precautions. I uploaded a copy of the PowerPoint to my cloud account. I know Robin doesn’t like the cloud but the cloud allowed me to use someone else’s laptop. My tablet, which I  travel with, didn’t have the proper ports to connect it to the projector.

I had a handout–another tip from Hank and Paula. Since it was a workshop, I created writing prompts and handed them out to the audience.
I gave to audience plenty of time to ask questions. I built question breaks into my presentation to remind me. These breaks allowed my to slow down and catch my breath as well as promoted audience interaction. I had audience volunteers come up and read their writing samples for the same reasons. 

I didn’t take it personally if someone left before the workshop was over. Maybe the topic just wasn’t for them. Maybe they’d wandered into the wrong room, maybe they had to go pre. I forced myself not to think they walked out because of me.


I wore lots of notes on my PowerPoints. Didn’t need all of them in the end but it felt conforming to have them.

I’d be interested in hearing how folks deal with audience members who try to make it all about them. (Yeah, I had one. Resisted urge to say, “Sweetie, you’re in the wrong workshop. That’s not what I’m talking about.)

Susan Breen: Alexia, I used to try to be tactful, but then I came to realize that the audience was really looking to me to deal with it, and if I didn’t deal with it, then I undermined my authority. So I smile and cut them off. “You make a good point!” and off we go.

I’m getting ready for a talk that I’m giving this Tuesday at the Central Coast Writers meeting in Monterey. Because I make my living leading workshops, and because I do it a lot, I feel a certain comfort level, though I doesn’t stop me from getting nervous. But the good thing is I have a reservoir of anecdotes, so if things go south I can always go into entertainment mode. I write out a fairly comprehensive outline. I don’t write out an actual speech because I find if I’m reading from a text I run the risk of getting lost in the words. I try to be very clear about the points I want to make. I’m with Alexia that I never eat before hand. I try to make eye contact as I’m talking and smile. Most of the people that come to these things are excited and they really want to learn, so I try to connect. Humor is a big help! At the Monterey conference I’m going to use my daughter as an assistant. That will be fun.

C. Michele Dorsey: This is essentially what I’ve done in courtrooms and classrooms for the past hundred years. Susan and Alexia had great points about preparation and having things to fall back on. I just want to remind you that most of the audience wants you to succeed and will do what they can to help. Look for people who smile back at you. Throw out general questions everyone will agree with and you’ll have your audience nodding and relating to you and each other. Remember to include them in your discussion instead of making it all about you. Try to enjoy it, Cate. 

D.A. Bartley: What Alexia, Susan and Michele said! Such good suggestions. Now, to go in entirely different direction, I’d add that when the public speaking is to “say a few words” at cocktail-party type of event, I’m a firm believer that less is more. No matter what you have to say, shorter is always sweeter. 

Robin Stuart: I’ve done a lot of public speaking over the years in my day job and I’m starting to do more as a writer. Turns out people are curious about cyber crime – go figure. I’ve learned a few things along the way that help me.
1) The number 1 most common phobia is public speaking. EVERYONE gets nervous, which means everyone empathizes with speakers. Before a talk, I remind myself the audience is on my side at a subconscious level. I also keep in mind the words of that sage philosopher, Amy Poehler, who once said, “Being nervous means you care.” So I don’t try to pretend I’m not nervous, I embrace it, take a deep breath, and dive in.
2) Know my topic inside out, up, down, and sideways. The more comfortable I am with my content, the easier it is to speak about it. Sometimes it means rehearsing, if it’s a “talk,” as opposed to an interactive session. Personally, I enjoy back-and-forth with an audience so my favorite type of venue is an “ask me anything” type of talk. Even those need a kickstart, an overview or background on the topic at hand, so I’ll sometimes prepare an introduction. It depends on the audience. I just spent a day at a middle school where I spoke to multiple sessions of 8th graders about computer forensics and I honestly didn’t know what they wanted to know so I spoke off the cuff to get each session started then let the kids’ questions direct the rest of the conversation.
3) Regardless whether it’s a prepared talk or a Q&A, I always throw in questions to encourage engagement. Things like, “by a show of hands,” or “shout out if,” and the like. This also creates good opportunities for humor. 
4) If the talk is a presentation, then I rehearse with notes at least 7 times, then rehearse without notes after that. The reason is…
5) The calmer you appear, the more easily you can trick yourself into feeling calm and speaking naturally. When I first started giving talks to developers or executives, I had a tendency to speak too fast. Probably because I just wanted it to be over. What I did to slow myself down was tap out a tempo with my foot. Nothing noticeable, sometimes as subtle as tapping my toes inside my shoe. But setting a rhythm helped me keep that pace in my vocal cadence. It also calmed me down.
6) Have fun. Whatever that means in the context of the talk, don’t be afraid to play. Use memes in your slides. Or animation. PowerPoint and Keynote (the Mac presentation app) both have ways to create visual effects. Move around, if you can, to make eye contact and speak to different parts of the room. If you have to sit, turn your attention to different parts of the room to bring everyone into the conversation. If you have fun, so will your audience.

Paula Munier: I do a powerpoint for each presentation, my cheat sheet of talking points that keeps me on track and gives the audience something to look at besides me. I also provide handouts. The marvelous author, speaker, and professor Jane Cleland watched one of my presentations and told me to go off-script more often. So I try to keep that in mind. More storytelling, less lecturing.

Tracee de Hahn:Love all of these tips! I’ll add that public speaking is like hosting a party. Plan, prepare, organize, then enjoy. If the hosts have a good time, the guests are likely to as well. Same goes for public speaking. Content is critical, then relax and it will all come together. After all, everyone wants the event to be successful or they wouldn’t have shown up. And while there is no way to predict or control all eventualities, good intentions and humor with a bit of confidence will usually triumph! 

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