A few weeks ago, I had the honor of attending a conference that is quickly becoming one of my favorites, and has earned a place on my very small must-attend list. Creatures, Crimes & Creativity (C3 Con) is one of very few writer and fan confabs that is not genre-specific. In fact, C3 is the only conference on my list that is not specific to the mystery/suspense/thriller genre. It’s nice to hang out with romancers and science fictioneers. Hey, writers are writers, and it’s hard to find a smarter, more entertaining group to hang around with.
A popular after-dinner feature of C3 is an event called Noir at the Bar, where writers sign up in advance to read a selection of their work to the assembled crowd, who then vote for the “best” story. (By way of full disclosure and bragging rights, I won the contest in 2018, but was too crushed by deadline pressure to prepare anything for this year.) There’s always a time limit to the presented pieces, usually somewhere between five and seven minutes, and at hard core Noirs at the Bar, they cut readers off at the sixtieth second of that final minute.
This year, as I sat in the audience listening and watching authors slash each other with gladiatorial prose, I realized that too many of the presenters didn’t understand the challenge they were facing. To read a story aloud is to perform a story. Pushing the competitive element aside, when a writer chooses to read to his audience, he is denying his audience the opportunity to read along. Whatever the listener gleans from the story must pass through not just the writer’s fingers, but also his vocal chords and his eyes and his body language.
The whole point of taking the stage–any stage–is to entertain the audience. Hard stop. That requires eye contact and knowledge of how to use the microphone. It means knowing your material. The year I won, I confess I cheated a little bit by reading an epic poem instead of a short story. (I was just a child, a boy of ten, when I went to the mountain where I’d never been/and I heard the old folks talk and say there’s a monster up here, still lives today/with glowing red eyes and a deathly look/I’m telling you, boy, ’bout Old Mack Cook . . .)
Our time limit was 7 minutes, and I edited the piece and rehearsed it and trimmed it some more until I had it down to 6:45. I presented from a manuscript that I’d printed out in 20-point Arial, and using the timer on my phone, I tracked my progress through handwritten notes I’d placed during rehearsals that showed me what the time should be at the beginning of key stanzas. By the time of the performance, I had the piece pretty much memorized, and the manuscript was there just as a reference.
Speaking of using a manuscript as a reference, I learned a valuable trick. First of all, I never staple or bind the papers. When I place the text of a presentation on the lectern, I begin with two piles, both face-up, with the bulk of the text on the right, and the current page I’m referencing on the left. As I get to the bottom of the left-hand page, I slide the right-hand page over to cover it. This way, if a brain fart happens, I know at a glance both where I’m supposed to be, and where I’m going. When the presentation is completed, the entire manuscript is stacked on the left, face-up, with the last page on top.
My rationale here is that I want to appear to be as prepared for a presentation as I try to be. To the degree that I can memorize the presentation, I do, but I think it looks terrible to break the flow of language for a page turn, and I hate the optics of a page flip. It looks unprofessional to me. And the flopping page turn necessitated by a staple in the corner is just flat-out awful.
When I’m on tour for a book, I avoid doing readings whenever I can because I find them boring. But when pressed, I invoke a trick I learned from an author buddy of mine, and read a scene from the book that I’ve rewritten specifically for a bookstore audience. Since my stories are largely inappropriate for children, yet children are often present at readings, I simplify the language and make it family-friendly. I’ll make the violence less violent.
While we writers are not in show business, per se, we are in the entertainment business, and we’d all be wise to treat every public presentation as if we were addressing a television audience of millions of people. Preparation is key. Obsessive preparation is even better. Every time you ask people to watch you and listen to your words, you owe them the courtesy of having something to say and being prepared to say it in the most engaging way you can.
Just as writing is about the reader, not the writer, presentations are about the audience, not the speaker. However many or few are in the audience, every one of those people came for a show, and you owe them the best you can give.
There’s really no downside to writers putting themselves out there as public speakers. For the most part, the public expectation is low because most writers hate being out in front of audiences–that’s why they sit alone in rooms making stuff up. If the speaker is boring, he’ll have met expectations and will largely be forgotten. If he nails it, though–if he makes people laugh a little or cry a little (preferably both)–he’ll be remembered for taking the audience on an unexpected journey.
What say you, TKZers? Do you have any tips to share on presentation skills?