Public Speaking Tips

By John Gilstrap

Before I get to the real business of this post, allow me a moment to update you on the aftermath of a previous post. Back on February 1, I posted an entry here recapping advice I’d received to work more with my Facebook page to post videos and other media that would potentially draw more eyes to my page. Taking y’all’s advice to heart, I have now established my own YouTube Channel, on which I have posted and will continue to post short videos that offer an insider’s look into the publishing business. So far, I’ve talked about the various steps in the editing process, advance reader’s copies and the role of a literary agent. My intent is to post one video per week, with a maximum length of 4-5 minutes. If you’re inclined to subscribe and tell your friends, I’d be most grateful.

Thus endeth the sales pitch. (Endith?)

Public speaking is a major part of a successful writer’s life. Whether sitting on panels or asking questions from the audience, conducting a seminar or delivering a keynote speech, it’s helpful to master the techniques of delivering interesting information in an entertaining way. I know a number of people who have made major improvements in their speech construction and delivery techniques through Toastmasters International. At the very least, Toastmasters helps those who are fearful of public speaking to wrangle their fears. It can be nerve-wracking to speak in front of others if you suffer from anxiety and tend to get stressed when surrounded by others, you can improve your presentation skills here by attending a public speaking course, enabling you to practice your skills and converse with like-minded people who can offer you tips to get better at public speaking.

While there are countless moving parts in constructing and delivering any kind of speech, there are some inherently destructive practices and habits that can distract from or totally destroy an otherwise viable presentation, and yet are relatively easy to prevent.

Let’s talk about microphones.

Yes, you need one. Check out the best usb microphone if you’re unsure which to get. I don’t understand the common refusal to use a mic when one is available and offered. It seems to be a point of pride among some to declare, “people can hear me without a microphone.” Even when that’s true, a microphone makes you more easily heard. Remember, you’re competing with the air handler, the whispers and cellophane crinkles of everyone in the room. Then, there are the physics of it all. If the room is carpeted and the ceilings are high, the sound pressure just gets lost or absorbed. If the floors are wooden and the walls concrete, the echo muddles your words. That’s why they offered you the mic in the first place.

Lavaliere, stand or handheld? If I am the primary speaker, I vastly prefer a lavaliere mic over the other options, simply because I like to move around while I speak. My second choice is a handheld, for the same reason. If the other options are not available, I’ll make due with a stand or lectern microphone. But even with a microphone, there are significant limitations.

  1. Positioning. With a lav, I find the best position to clip the microphone is between the 3rd and 4th buttons of my shirt. That’s where they’re designed to be placed, so you don’t have to look down and speak into it. Just project out to the audience as you would if you had no amplification.
    1. Neatness counts. Okay, this is my personal bugaboo, but I hate the look of the microphone cord trailing from the mic to the battery pack. Tuck that bad boy away so you don’t distract your audience. Here’s a good short video that shows how to do that.
    2. If you’re doing an interview from a stage in front of a live audience and you have lapels to work with, be sure to mount the lav on the lapel that is closest to the other person.
    3. Remember that jewelry, name tags or any other objects that might hit against the microphone need to be secured.
    4. Important safety tip: If you’re miked up with a lav radio mike, be sure it’s turned off until you want it to be turned on. It’s always worth a second check before you go to the bathroom.
  2. With a handheld mic, remember that you have lost one half of your gesticulating ability. If you’re pointing with it, it can’t do its job.
  3. Most podium microphones are aggressively directional. When you look left or right–as you should, to keep everyone’s interest and attention–think of the microphone as the center of a ball and socket joint, always remaining the same distance from your mouth, regardless of the direction you’re looking.
  4. You still have to project and enunciate clearly. Amplified or not, mumbling never works.

About the delivery . . .

Lose the PowerPoint. I see too many presenters of all ilks using PowerPoint more or less as a script. No matter how interesting your topic might be, your audience will stay with you only if your performance is at least as interesting. If I’m ever elected king, an edict shall be passed that limits any PowerPoint slide to a maximum of ten words. But if you must use it, keep a few things in mind:

  1. Make the slides an active part of the presentation. Make them worth reading. For example, when I give my standard How-to-write seminar, immediately after I emphasize the point that there are no rules in writing, I cue the slide that reads, “But there are some very good suggestions.” I let the audience get the joke, and then we move along.
  2. Videos work very well as PowerPoints, but it can be tricky getting them to run.
    1. No matter how many bajillions of times you have done a presentation, always take time to rehearse the slides and the transitions on the actual equipment you will be using.
  3. Talk to the audience, not to the screen. The image is there, I promise. If you need a cue on where you are, use your computer screen as a TelePrompTer of sorts.
  4. Buy your own remote clicker and use it to advance your slides, and practice the transitions so you can keep talking even as the slides move.
  5. Assume catastrophic equipment failure, and have a backup plan to make your presentation without visual aids. It happens more than you’d think, and every time is a character-building experience.

Remember that it’s about the audience. Even if people have not paid to attend your speech or the conference at which your speech is delivered, they are at a minimum paying with their time, and you accordingly owe them a show.

  1. Don’t poison the well before you begin. This is more prominent among writers who speak than other groups I’ve dealt with. It usually begins with something like, “I don’t do a lot of public speaking, so if I screw up . . .” My thought at this point is always, “Then sit the hell down and don’t waste my time.” If you know ahead of time that you’re going to suck, then do us all a favor and don’t start. Cede your time to someone who’s prepared.
    1. If the apology falls better into the category of the humble brag, keep that to yourself, as well. If you kill up there, everyone will know and applaud, and if you die up there, they will likewise know yet still applaud.
  2. Know your subject and be well-rehearsed. Back when I was working my Big Boy Job, I delivered a lot of speeches, most of which were designed to be motivational. Think hundreds of times. And before each one, I always rehearsed the first five minutes and the last five minutes of the speech, usually out loud in the hotel room. Once I got a presentation going, I could maneuver my way through the middle of the speech by feel, but I obsessed about getting the beginning and the end just right.

We writers are communicators, after all. The only difference between writing and speaking is that with the latter, there’s only one draft.

Many of you do more public speaking than I. What have I missed?


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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

14 thoughts on “Public Speaking Tips

  1. Hi John: Good points here, especially to be well rehearsed. But your “Then sit the hell down and don’t waste my time” seems harsh for authors new to public speaking and having the courage to be straight about it with the audience. Public speaking experts tell me that you get to be good at public speaking by doing it, by gaining skills and confidence with each experience. Most people aren’t great at it first time out so why discourage them by your angry remark? When an author opens with ‘I’m new to public speaking,’ I immediately warm up to their honesty. That’s real. Authors are not always highly trained slick presenters. No crime in that.

    • Paula, Harpo Marx, the silent brother, was asked to speak a some function. He went to the podium and said, “Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking …” and the audience roared. Then he sat down.

    • The point is to not poison your own well. That apology up front makes the speaker look weak, and primes the audience for a bad presentation–not what they signed up for. You’re up there one the stage, so you should own your own performance. The audience will draw its own conclusion whether the presentation was good, bad or just okay.

      Imagine picking up a book by a first time author, and in the preface, the author says, “Sorry if the plot’s no good or if the characters are flat. This is my first time.” I wager few people would be inclined to buy that book.

      • John, I don’t think your analogy is at all the same thing. Joanne’s point below is a good one about which venue we’re talking about. Yes, expectations prevail from a best-selling author’s status and reputation. I just think that being a newbie to public speaking is not reason to give up. What authors need is productive advice, encouragement, and maybe some training. Your tips are quite good.

        Love the Harpo Marx bit, James!

  2. All good tips, John. A little thing I learned from Liz Curtis Higgs is to make sure you’re not wearing your name tag or badge. It’s a distraction. You don’t need it when you speak.

    Also, humor is tremendously helpful in a speech … but unless you’re really good at it, don’t tell jokes. The best humor is something that’s actually happened to you, delivered like a story. You can also use a humorous quote, with attribution, as in, “As Mark Twain once said …” Then, if the line doesn’t get a laugh, it’s not on you, but the quote can still serve as the basis of the point you’re making.

  3. John,

    Thanks for the great practical down-to-earth tips. That ball and socket analogy for a podium mic really helps.

    Ah, yes, jewelry…I’d taught many classroom workshops, so how different could it be to clip on a mic to address a larger group, right? Wanting to make a good impression for my first big audience, I dressed up and wore pearls. You can see where this is going. The entire time, with every move, the pearls clicked, clacked, and clunked against the mic. Might as well have used castanets.

    Lesson learned.

  4. Paula, I think the venue is important. If someone holds himself out as an “expert” in some area and charges hundreds of dollars to give a class, then I think that person owes it to the participants to come prepared to teach. There are plenty of videos of well-known authors on YouTube that are of excellent quality and don’t cost a dime to watch. So if participants fork out hard-earned cash, they (rightfully) expect the speaker to deliver on what was promised. This is especially true if the participants have to travel a long way and pay for lodging costs to receive the instruction.

    On the other hand, if a writer gives a free talk to a group of fans in an informal setting, I think fans will be understanding if they see that a writer has “human” qualities. Not all writers are public speakers. In fact, some writers are introverts, and that’s fine.

  5. I recently attended an author talk by Christina Baker Kline and she had an excellent way of structuring her talk about her latest book (story of the woman behind Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World painting) She presented a whole host of slides that not only showed the woman but also the setting, the history of the farmhouse, a bit about Wyeth himself and their relationship and even parallels to her own life when she’d visited the same farm as a girl with her family. Engaging, fairly low-tech and quite personal. Audiences could be intrigued by a presentation that presents images you as an author used to stimulate your initial character development (did you see that detective as Hugh Jackson or Nick Nolte when you first imagined him?)

  6. I by no means encourage giving up. In fact, quite the opposite. But starting off with an apology has a lot of downside with zero upside. Once the attention is on the speaker, it’s show time. You’ve got to own the moment.

    • I think speakers should always be prepared, but emerging writers have to start somewhere. Perhaps writers with little speaking experience should take on smaller gigs at first (i.e. local book clubs, library chats, bookstore events). Low pressure situations are best in the beginning. Certainly, if one is going to lecture to hundreds of people at a university or a big writing conference, prior experience at smaller venues is a wise idea. Hopefully, as a writer’s popularity grows, she will acquire training as her level of success demands.

      I enjoyed reading all of the tips here, including Debbie’s cautionary tale about wearing pearls.

  7. John, I did a lot of speaking (and teaching) when I practiced medicine. I had no idea that experience was going to carry over into my “new” career as a writer…until the first time I was asked to address a group. Thanks for a myriad of good suggestions.

  8. Nice article, John, but here’s one rule that you missed:

    In spite of what some public speaking instructors may tell you, do not picture audience members naked.

  9. Ifbi may, don’t let your nerves lead you to “unconscious” actions, like putting a hand in a pocket and playing with your keys… right at ear-level with a sitting co-presenter…
    Not that I’ve ever done that – more than once~

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