The Performance Side of Writing

By John Gilstrap

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were among the hundreds in attendance when Stephen King addressed an audience at George mason University as part of Fairfax, Virginia’s Fall for the Book Festival.

By way of full disclosure, seeing Stephen King live is to me analogous to what I imagine it would be for a classical actor to see Kenneth Branaugh.  Or Laurence Olivier.  While many of King’s stories don’s appeal to me anymore (I read Pet Sematary when Joy was pregnant–‘Nuff said?), he works the English language exactly the way I wish that I could.

He also worked the audience with supreme grace and skill.  The fact that he was entirely at ease on the stage confirmed for me that his spontaneity was well-rehearsed.  If that read as snarky, please re-read. I meant it as a statement of supreme admiration.  As one whose Big Boy Job requires dozens of speeches a year–a few to standing O’s, I hasten to add–I can attest to the importance of hard work to making things easy.

Sooner or later, we all find ourselves alone on stage–or something like a stage–and I thought I’d share some of the tricks of the trade when it comes time to entertain an audience.

First, notice the E-word.  Embrace the fact that successful speakers are first and foremost entertainers.  I don’t care if you’re delivering a eulogy or a paper on astrophysics.  People will remember you if you’re entertaining.  And they will forget you if you are not.

We all work too hard to be forgotten.  So, how can we be memorable?

Step One:  If you truly hate public speaking and are not willing to work for it, turn down the public speaking gigs.  Your audience and your replacements will both be grateful.

Step Two:  Remember that ain’t none of this about you–iy’s about the audience.  Give thme a good ride, and they’ll love you forever.  Turn to navel-gazing bullshit about your muse and your struggles, and you’ll turn everybody off.

Step Three:  Have something to say.  This is where preparation and rehearsal pay dividends.  And remember that making feel good is better than making them feel bad.  Know where your laugh lines are and wait for them.  If you don’t know how to do this part, sign up with your local chapter of Toast Masters and learn how to structure and deliver a decent speech.  (See Step Two above.)  Every person in your audience gave up the sure thing entertainment option of watching a Seinfeld rerun for the ninth time.  You owe them at least as good a ride as that.

Step Four:  Talk to your audience, not at them.  Make eye contact.  Smile.  Invite input.  The fact that this is the 4,784th time you’ve delivered this speech doesnt change the reality that it’s the first time for each of your audience members.

Step Five (and this one’s a personal bugaboo):  Yes, you need a microphone.  I don’t care if you’re James Earl Jones on crack; you’re easier to hear in the back of the room if you’re amplified.  (See Step Two–again.)

Step Six (actually, it’s 5-A):  The microphone is a voice amplification device.  It is not a pointer, a magic wand, or an extension of your Italian gesticulation hand.  To work, it needs to be pointed at your mouth.  We’re talking straight-on.  Ninety degrees.  If you’re speaking from a podium, think in arcs as you look from one side of the audience to the other.  As your head moves, the mouth-to-mike distance should remain constant.

When using a lavalier microphone (always my preference), take time to hide the cord and the transmitter.  Having that black cord swinging around gets in the way and looks ugly.  Neatness matters to the audience.  If you have an audio technician working with you, trust his advice.  If you don’t, put the microphone a fist’s width from the underside of your jaw.  For guys, that will be between the second and third buttons on your shirt.  For ladies, that means that you have to dress in anticipation of a microphone.

There’s more, of course, but I think these are the basics.  What do y’all think?  What are your tricks or cardinal rules for presentations?

20 thoughts on “The Performance Side of Writing

  1. Be like a duck…paddling like mad underneath, but all anyone sees is your graceful line through the water. It doesn’t matter what you feel inside, but how you appear to those who are watching.

    Also – prepare, prepare, prepare.

    Present your speech to your reflection in your bathroom mirror, and really pay attention to your facial expressions. Better yet – video record yourself and then watch. I’ve done it (on the advice of a master speaker) and It was one of the most humble experiences I’ve ever had – I thought I was doing a decent job until I saw myself. E-gawd!

  2. Eye Contact…EYE CONTACT!!

    The other night I was moderating a panel on self-publishing at the local library and really had a hard time getting the panelists to look at the audience instead of me when talking.

    Having spent most of my life on stage in one form or another (teaching, presenting, acting, singing, etc) I cannot stress enough the qualities that John mentions. Pretty much covers it all.

    My favorite place on stage is doing one man storytelling. Over the years I have learned that with the right words & physical gesture, one can make an audience see things that are not even there. One of my favorite plays was the one I did enacting Deitrich Bonhoeffer, an underground church Christian Minister in Nazi Germany sentenced to a concentration camp and eventual death for having taken part in a plot to kill Hitler. The only prop I had was a chair and the clothing I wore. Half the audience was in tears by the end of the 45 minute show. Not because I’m a great actor, but because with the tactics John mentioned I pulled the audience into story. They were there. Standing in the Berlin streets, in the snowy field of the camp, watching the piano wire stretch around my neck.

    Whether you’re in a play or giving a general talk, play the audience like an instrument, and they will sing the song you lead.

  3. Being entertained was one thing. Being the entertainment was something entirely different. I felt concerned.
    — The Dragon Universe

    I promote my Toastmasters club to local writers for the reasons you mention. One needs the skill to speak before a group if one wants to be successful. One needs the skill to speak one-on-one if one wants to be successful. Speaking is a super power, a power that requires practice to perfect.

  4. Try to be prepared enough to work without notes. Our former pastor read from full manuscripts in a three ring binder. Our new pastor has never used a note that I can tell – so refreshing, so intimate and genuine.

    Best writers I’ve ever heard were Lawrence Block and the late Harold King. They talked to us rather than made speeches to us.

  5. Videotape yourself. Rinse, and repeat.

    In Grad school, I won the coveted MSN Student of the Year award at Georgia Southern University in 2004.

    With the award came the duty of the speech.

    John, what you wrote about entertaining is key.

    I felt so grateful for everything my professors taught me what I did was reflect the speech back on them, and my peers. I took the audience, family and friends of everyone who made it through the program with me, on a mini-journey of what we all went through.

    I wrote the speech with everyone’s talent in mind, and made it a verse of praise, with some humor thrown in.

    I practiced in front of anyone who would give me five minutes.

    I watched the video over-and-over, re-taped it. Even changed outfits to make sure I had the right one.

    In front of a crowd of 300 I gave back to those teachers some of the precious blood and sweat they’d shared with me, with all of us.

    Well-rehearsed spontaneity. Well said, John.

  6. I have a reputation as a good public speaker, and I’m very lucky, as it comes more or less naturally to me. A couple of the things you said stand out to me.

    I never give speeches. I talk to people. We all talk to people every day. Maybe not a few hundred at a time, but the principle is the same: you want them to like you, and you want them to pay attention. They’re more likely to pay attention if they’re being entertained, as they’ll be afraid of missing something.

    The value of just talking to your audience was made clear to me during a talk I gave ten years ago. It was a breakfast meeting, so I was on a low platform (maybe a foot off the floor) and everyone else were at tables around me. I was walking back and forth on stage–I hate to stay behind a podium–and someone sneezed. I looked her way and inserted “Bless you” into my sentence, and kept on going. Half the crowd laughed, which surprised me.

    I asked a friend who was there about that, and she told me she’d never seen a better way to build a bond with the audience, to show them I was paying attention to them, too, because they were important to me. It was an accident–I said it without thinking–but it taught me a valuable lesson. When speaking, don’t set yourself apart from your audience. You’re already apart from them, by definition. Do what you can to minimize that gap. Everyone will be more comfortable, including you.

  7. Always remember that a speech is meant to be delivered. You may have written something great on the page, but the rhythms and pauses and tropes of the written and spoken word are entirely different. Go over it again and again — out loud — tweaking it all the time with an awareness of the particular audience you’re addressing, until you’re *talking* it to them.

  8. Also identify your nervous tics and get rid of them, whether it’s shifting weight from foot to foot, fiddling with change in a pocket or a necklace. Polish your personal appearance as much as you polish the words you’ll say.

    Practice, that’s the bottom line. Good stuff, John, thanks!

  9. Sandra, that duck analogy works for anything where image matters. I’m not sure that agree with the mirror-practice, however, because when practising to a mirror, your eyes never move. The video training is spot-on, however.

    Basil: Sounds like a great night at the theater. I’m frequently amazed by how many great actors–film actors in particular–make lousy public speakers. I wonder if the key component is to be creative with words one’s own right, as opposed to convincingly conveying the words of others.

    Lester, I agree about the importance of being able to speak to people. Truly, that is the key to success. From his very earliest years, we stressed with our son that he look people directly in the eye when he meets them. Once it becomes habit, it becomes easy. He’s a hell of a communicator, too.

  10. Dave, I never use notes. I often have them withg me as an emotional crutch, but then I never refer to them. It’s that eye-contact thing. I want the audience to be with me. When I drift back to notes, that spell is broken.

    As Paula says, the only way to get that level of comfort with your material is to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. This afternoon, I’ll be giving the keynote at the Backspace Writers Conference in New York. It’s a speech I’ve given at least a dozen times, yet in the thirty minutes before curtain time, I’ll be in a corner someplace working through the high points.

    Dana, you make a fabulous point: Presenting is half about listening, and not just for sneezes. Did you make a point that elicited an unexpected response? Are people in the back of the room sneaking out? Do you have that rapt silence that is always the goal? If you listen, the audience will give you real-time evaluations of your work. Then the question becomes, can you adapt? Yet another reason not to use notes. If you’re tied to a script that’s not working, it makes for a long hour for everyone.

  11. Neil, you’re absolutely correct. It’s entirely possible for a message that’s briliant onn the page to fall flat when presented aloud. That’s a lesson I keep in mind when I do readings from my work. It’s not unusual at all for me to heaviliy edit the section of book I’m reading to be more audience-friendly.

    Alas, Tammy, I know that I am full of tics when I speak. First of all, I’m a pacer. Part of that is intentional–to use the entire stage and get as close as I can to as much of the audience as I can–but some of it is nervous energy. I drive fellow panelists crazy with my bouncing knee when I’m sitting still. Truth be told, sitting still is a challege for me in general. I also use my hands too much.

    I don’t think I make annoying noises, though–no key rattling or change-jingling. In fact, I typically have nothing in my pockets at all. My body has enough unwanted bulges and lumps as it is; I don’t need inanimate objects making things worse.

  12. I think this is a really interesting sentence: We all work too hard to be forgotten.

    I say that with tongue in cheek because my initial reaction was, some of us work at being forgotten so hard that we succeed.


    For The Love Of All That Is Holy!, don’t bury your head in your prepared speech and read it to us.

  13. Great point about the microphone, John. Keep hammering away at it.

    Not only does every speaker need one, but they need to hold it CLOSE TO THEIR LIPS!!! The microphone is not some magical device that will automatically pick up your voice and broadcast it over a wide area simply because it’s pointed at you from three feet away.

    Far too many speakers fail to understand this. You can see their apprehension with the microphone. If they suddenly lean close to it and can hear themselves through the speakers, they think they’re “too loud” and they pull away from it. This kind of thing goes on all the time during panels at writers conferences.

  14. Nicely said, John. I went to an event last night where five top scientists in their various fields each spoke for seven minutes about a specific subject, and the difference between them was startling. Some had little to say, but said it so well you hardly noticed. Others were presenting fascinating information, but it was so mumbled and incoherent that I was embarrassed for them.
    I’ve always enjoyed public speaking, and yet had my personal worst event last month. I fainted for the first time in my life, halfway through my reading, in front of roughly two hundred people. Facing them, mind you, in a skirt. I managed to get back to my feet and finish after the last reader had gone on, but still- utterly mortifying.

  15. Two things I try to remember is not to drink a carbonated beverage just before going on or you’ll be burping the whole time.

    And, if wearing a cordless mic, don’t forget to turn it off when you’re done. No one wants to hear the toilet flush.

  16. As part of my lawyering, I am on my feet a lot and I do a pretty job of it. I’ve had judges complement me even when they lowered the boom on my client.

    My moment of truth came many years ago as a noob and I had to read one of my transcripts. It was horrifying. I worked on eliminating my tics (the uhs, for example).

    I’ll add only one additional tip. If you need a moment to gather your thoughts, take it. The audience will wait. Filling it with “ums” or lame jokes just makes you look amateur. A dramatic beat is invisible, like a well-placed “said.”

    I’ve only seen King on tape. How freaking cool to see the master live. He used to only be able to appear in public drunk. It was a long road before he was the polished pro he is now. As always, first you make it look good. Then you make it look easy.

  17. I have to say that I can speak before a multitude as long as I am adequately lubricated.

    I know everybody has their own method. Mine is a couple of hard hits from a flask (not a pipe), no preparation at all, and I am wearing my sunglasses that have the lenses painted black.

    I went to see Hunter Thompson speak many years ago. After a great, and overly fulsome introduction by the head of the Journalism department, it became evident that Mr. Gonzo had passed out cold. His eyes, behind the sunshades were quite closed. Efforts failed to rouse him so I never heard him speak. Just as well, watching him not speak was priceless and a much better story.

  18. Great points! Thanks!

    There are two things I tend to keep in mind when speaking in public. The first is that people will likely forget what you say, but they’ll remember if they had a good time. My goal is to make them smile and laugh so that even if they forget everything else, they leave with a positive feeling toward me.

    Second, to avoid the awkward moments of embarrassment I try to own whatever it is that would otherwise make me embarrassed. For example, I hate that moment at the end of a talk when it’s time for questions because I worry there will be ringing silence. Since I give a lot of speeches in schools, there’s a certain amount of class time I *have* to fill. So when that moment comes and there’s silence I just say, “This is the awkward part where I stare at you and you stare at me and I stare at you and well all wait for someone to say something.” That gets a laugh and usually a raised hand with a question.

    Another time the mic had a very long cord and I started the speech with “There’s a high likelihood that at some point in the next hour I may trip over this cord. If that happens, you have to promise me you’ll laugh.” That diffused my fear of tripping and ensured that if I did trip, it (hopefully) wouldn’t be awkward. I’ve just found owning the awkward moments diffuses them.

  19. Really enjoyed this post and the comments. And John’s speech at the Backspace Seminar the night of this blog post got a standing ovation! THANKS, John – you were terrific and we loved having you!

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