Public Speaking for Writers

by James Scott Bell

Mark Twain

On occasion here at TKZ we’ve posted on the topic of public speaking for writers. Examples are here (Gilstrap) and here (Burke). Today I’ll add a few of my own tips for the scribe who gets a yakking gig. The first comes by way of Mr. Mark Twain.

Before his books and stories began to appear, Twain gained celebrity as a lecturer. Working as a correspondent for the Sacramento Union newspaper, he’d sent in dispatches on what were then called The Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). These proved wildly popular. When he returned stateside in 1866, he pondered how he might use this bit of renown to expand his wallet.

One possibility was delivering a lecture based on his columns. Encouraged by a friend, Twain rented a San Francisco opera house and charged $1 a ticket. He wrote up an advertisement for the newspapers:





In which passing mention will be made of Harris, Bishop Staley, the
American missionaries, etc., and the customs and characteristics
of the natives duly discussed and described. The great volcano of
Kilauea will also receive proper attention.

is in town, but has not been engaged

were in contemplation for this occasion, but the idea has been abandoned

may be expected; in fact, the public are privileged to expect whatever they please

Dress Circle, $1.00 Family Circle, 50c
Doors open at 7 o’clock The Trouble to begin at 8 o’clock

Twain was nervous that evening, sure he’d be facing a mostly empty house. In fact, the place was packed. But when he first stepped out into the lights he was sandbagged by stage fright. He was, as one biographer put it, “wobbly-kneed and dry of tongue.” As the introductory applause died down, he told himself, “These are my friends.” His nerves began to calm. He spoke to the audience as if he were seated with pals around a cracker barrel in some old mining town.

The lecture was a hit.

Afterward, and older man found his way to Twain and asked, “Be them your natural tones of eloquence?”

Which is my first bit of advice for a speaker: Be yourself. Use your natural tones of eloquence. Don’t sound like a speechifier. Speak as you would to a group of friends.

Second bit of advice: Your address should have one main point. I wrote some time ago about my ride with Justice Thurgood Marshall, who told me the best oral arguments in the Supreme Court were designed around winning one, primary point.

Knowing the single point you want to make will take care of 50% of your nervousness. Write down that point in a sentence. For example: Anyone can improve as a public speaker if they will follow a few fundamentals.

Then design your speech to “prove” that point and inspire your audience to take action.

How do you prove a point? With evidence. In a speech, anecdotal evidence is best, because it’s a story, and stories make lectures come alive. In a speech about the above point, I might bring Mark Twain in again as “evidence” for the fundamental “Always leave them wanting more.”

In a 1901 lecture Twain reported:

“Some years ago in Hartford we all went to the church on a hot, sweltering night, to hear the annual report of Mr. Hawley, a city missionary, who went around finding the people who needed help and didn’t want to ask for it. He told of the life in the cellars where poverty resided, he gave instances of the heroism and devotion of the poor … Well, Hawley worked me up to a great state. I couldn’t wait for him to get through. I had four hundred dollars in my pocket. I wanted to give that and borrow more to give. You could see greenbacks in every eye. But he didn’t pass the plate, and it grew hotter and we grew sleepier. My enthusiasm went down, down, down – $100 at a time, till finally when the plate came round I stole ten cents out of it.”

Third tip: If you can get a laugh, it always helps. The easiest way to get a laugh is with a good anecdote, like the above. That way it doesn’t seem like you are trying to tell a joke, which can sometimes fail. Pepper your speech with a few choice quotes, too.

Fourth tip: Take off your name badge when you speak. It’s distracting.

Fifth tip: Don’t mangle the opening. The audience sizes you up within the first seven seconds. So don’t waste time with impromptu thanks (“Thanks, Fiona, for that lovely introduction”) or currying favor (“It’s so nice to be here tonight”) or, egad, confession (“I’m a little nervous, so I hope you’ll forgive me.”)

Instead, when you get to the podium, pause for three seconds. Then launch with one of the following:


“It was Mark Twain who said, ‘It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.’ ”


“Eighty-three percent of Americans fear public speaking more than they do death. According to Jerry Seinfeld, that means if they go to a funeral they’re better off in the casket than giving the eulogy.”


Arriving at a small town to give a lecture, Mark Twain went to a local barber for a shave. When Twain mentioned it was his first visit to the town, the barber said it was a good time to be there, because Mark Twain was going to give a lecture that night.

“You’ll want to go, I suppose,” the barber said.

“I guess so,” said Twain.

“Well, it’s sold out,” the barber said. “You’ll have to stand.”

“Just my luck,” Twain said. “I always have to stand when that fellow lectures.”

Where do you find such material? Research, of course, which is rather easy these days via the internet. But I’ll mention one favorite resource I’ve used for years—The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes.

And now, lest you be tempted to remove a dime from the collection plate, I’ll stop.

You’ve all heard some great speeches. What have you noticed about them, and the speaker?

39 thoughts on “Public Speaking for Writers

  1. I feel comfortable with impromptu speaking with sketchy notes, but giving an actual speech would scare me. Should the need ever arise, I shall refer to this very helpful post.

  2. Thanks for this post. It is very helpful.

    The speeches that have made the most impression on me were delivered by speakers who talked with the audience, not down to the audience. (Your first point.) They made their point by telling a story. (Your second point – having one main point). The speaker poked fun at himself with humor and humility. (Your third point.) And the speaker used description and emotion to make his story/stories come alive and keep the audience listening for every word.

    Thanks for the link to The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes

    • One of the best speakers I ever heard was the 82-year-old Norman Vincent Peale at Marble Collegiate Church in NYC. What I noticed right off was that he used simple, everyday stories throughout to “prove” his points. I got to meet him afterward, and he had the energy of a 40 year old as he pumped my hand and said how glad he was I had visited.

  3. Wow. I actually have trouble imagining the satirical force of Twain, “knobbly-kneed and dry of tongue.”
    Thinking of the audience as friends is extremely sound advice.
    As is your fifth tip. Now I inderstand why I’ve never cared for those weak disarming tactics.

    • Cyn, there was a famous book on public speaking years ago that advised thinking of the audience as naked. Ack! That would either make me turn away in horror or break out in hysterics. “Friends” is the better option!

  4. I am one of the 83%, though I do enjoy intimate gatherings like book signings. While researching a female serial killer up north, the local community center invited me to give a speech on stage to a packed auditorium as part of my book launch in the Fall. Of course I said yes. It’s too good of an opportunity to turn down. The pandemic has pushed those plans back a year. Fine with me! I’d rather be in the audience than on stage. 🙂 Bookmarking this post for future reference. Thanks, Jim!

    • Hey, plenty of time to prepare that speech, Sue! Glad to help.

      Here’s another tip. When you look out at the audience, find a friendly face on both sides, and make eye contact with them as you turn your head. Makes it feel more intimate.

      • I can’t say I’ve given a “speech”, but I’ve done plenty of public speaking in various venues. I hate the word “speech”-sounds so uppity. 🙂

        JSB, your comment above about picking 2 people to “talk with” is spot on. It reduces the so-called speech to a casual conversation.

        It also works in the world of vocal music (which I had to give up because of two severe cases of strep and ear infections, which destroyed my ability to hear and distinguish musical notes). I would pick the people who locked eyes with me. Much easier than trying to sing to 500 or so.

        Some of the most memorable “speeches” I remember hearing (aside from my dad’s, prior to a trip to the woodshed) were from Ronald Reagan. The timbre of his voice, and his mannerisms made me feel I was the only one in the audience.

        • Good addition about vocal music, Deb. This works for any even where you are in front of a crowd.

          Ronald Reagan was, of course, an actor, but then spent years honing his craft giving speeches for GE. When he got into politics, he was quite ready to become “the Great Communicator.”

  5. When we lived in Chapel Hill, NC, we attended a church where the minister used the latest technology at the time: an overhead projector. The minister was a talented speaker and used the projector to his advantage. He ended each sermon with a slide that was titled “THE POINT.”

    I’ve attended a lot of talks in my life. Some have inspired me, some have bored or confused me, and I’ve daydreamed through others. But I often wonder why all speakers don’t end their talks with the simple summation that our friend in NC did.

  6. Thanks, Jim, I loved the anecdotes. I live in California Twain country (Twain-Harte is just up the road). Our annual Calaveras County jumping frog event next door will be missed this year. So a few witticisms from the master make a fine substitute.

    My college public speaking teacher gave us this three-step maxim: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them. Always worked for me in my oratory career *cough*.

    The most fun was being invited to 5th Grade classrooms to talk about my Middle Grade mysteries and field questions regarding the writing life. Those fresh, eager minds are leaving childhood, poised on the threshold of adulthood, and their questions are just a load of enjoyment.

    • 5th graders are a great audience, Dan. Not yet junior high snarky. They do ask sincere and cute questions. They’re good for magic shows, too. A little older and they start yelling, “I know how you did that! It’s up your sleeve!”

  7. Jim, I love this advice, especially the part about speaking with friends. I also take the heat off myself when speaking by talking not so much about me and my writing and how “wonderful” I am, but about other writers and what I love about their writing. I often have influencer copies of other books, and give them out during the speech, which really holds attention. Because the point of writers speaking, for many of us, is to encourage more reading. Different readers have different tastes, and if I can encourage a few in the audience to read more, I feel I’ve done a good thing. After all, most people who are listening to me speak probably already know my books.

    • That’s a good point, Hannah, about being openly generous to others when giving a speech. And one should never give the impression that your speech contains the following: “Well, enough about me. What do you all think of my books?”

    is in town, but has not been engaged

    were in contemplation for this occasion, but the idea has been abandoned

    may be expected; in fact, the public are privileged to expect whatever they please”

    Going to borrow Twain’s funny technique above to drum up interest for upcoming events.

    Thanks, Jim, for the examples from great classic raconteurs. Really helpful.

  9. Happy Sunday, Jim

    The first thing I notice about a great speaker is their poise and ease with which they speak, often to very large groups. They stir your emotions–the best ones take you through a gambit of emotion, uplifting, serious, poignant, nostalgic, etc. but always with a touch of contrasting humor, leavened throughout. The contrast makes for a moving experience every time.

    The first time I had to speak in public was at church, when I was 18, representing the youth group. I stumbled over my words, rambled, and went on too long, hitting that moment when it was obvious the audience just wanted to me to finish already. I survived that, but it was years before I spoke in public again. Eventually, I became involved in both teaching classes and in introducing performers, authors and others at library sponsored events.

    Practice gave me a little poise and ease and allowed me to relax, and relate to the crowd.

    What really helped was giving library storytimes for many years. If you can hold the attention of toddlers and preschoolers, you can do likewise with an older audience 🙂

  10. I once held a position–“Hold that position” the officer in charge of mugshots that evening yelled–that required me to speak frequently at large and small gatherings, in both official and local community audiences, sometimes four or five times a month. There was no way to dress the material in anything that sounded like entertainment for the official audiences, and the community audiences were there because they wanted to argue and yell at me during the Q&A times.

    Yet I enjoyed the speaking because of what you said–I employed whatever humor and storytelling opportunities I could find. There was no greater challenge than to raise the angry audience from their desire to slaughter to a group who could or would laugh at some things I said. It was much easier to get my information across to an audience that became semi-friendly than it was to try to spar authoritarianism and intellectualism with them: “I’m in charge and you’d better listen to me because I have the information you’re seeking.”

    I only wish now that I had known to consult Mark Twain.

    • Jim, what a great tale of trial by fire. Tremendous leadership skills, too. Disarming a hostile audience with humor may be the high water mark of public speaking. Ronald Reagan did that all the time.

  11. I was lucky enough to see Hal Holbrooks’s traveling performance of Mark Twain. He was riveting because of the stories, and I thank you for reminding me of that.

    I enjoy studying Ted Talk techniques. I’ve never seen a boring Talk.

    I love public speaking—because you can prepare. Whereas I dread cocktail parties because the only way to prepare is by reading the newspaper, and these days, if your news and my news don’t see eye-to-eye, we’re left in dead silence, looking for an escape to the hors d’oeuvres table. I overeat at those functions.

  12. Saving this to a OneNote page for reference. Loved the standing room only story.

  13. My public speaking tip is this: your audience wants you to succeed. Don’t be nervous about making a little “mistake” like a stutter, pause, or repetition. This happens. Just keep going. They’ll forget the small stuff.

    Eons ago I had a job where I had to give the new employee orientation to groups multiple times a week. These weren’t auditorium sized audiences, but it was still public speaking. The first couple of times I did it I was really nervous. But then I noticed their eyes. They wanted to hear what I had to say, they wanted to listen, to learn. A flaw here or there didn’t matter. As long as I could communicate what needed to be communicated they were happy, appreciative even.

    Once I figured this out public speaking became a breeze. Not just for that job, but for classes I taught later, for lectures I have given, even in job interviews. That one realization completely tamed my nerves.

    • Fantastic tip, Cat. You are so right. And if you do make a little mistake, or stumble, do not bother with saying you’re sorry, you’re lost, just give me a moment, etc. Simply gather yourself and move on.

  14. Excellent topic, Jim, and one that’s well-suited to writers who’ll inevitably have to do some sort of public speaking as their career progresses. It’s going to happen, whether in person or on a virtual platform. Glad to see Nancy bring up TED Talks – she beat me to it. These are ‘speeches” at their best. Most of them, as I understand, open with the speaker telling a story which hooks the audience.

    Can I pass on a little tip about dealing with nerves – the butterflies all the way down to the knee shakes? I got this one as a young police officer who was $#@T-scared of giving evidence in court. I equate the experience to the same as being locked in the town square stocks, having your pants pulled down around your ankles and letting the lawyers have their way with you.

    If you put varying pressure on your solar plexus, it relieves diaphragm stress and relaxes the central nervous system. It also looks natural for a speaker to clasp their hands around their midsection – dealing with hand position is one of the toughest side-shows in speaking. It just a matter of putting a bit of force inward, and it’ll quickly settle the nerves and let you get on with it. And, no one even realizes it’s happening.

    • That’s a great tip, Garry. No doubt it works. I recall Yul Brynner talking about a technique where you put your hands together in front of you and press hard at the same time you take a deep breath and let it out. He would do that right before he went on stage. I’ve done that. It works!

  15. Great tips, JSB! I spent eight years talking to adults and kids in groups of 5 to 50 and sometimes 500 about abstinence. That will prepare you for just about anything. 🙂 And it really does help to connect with one or two of people in the audience–helps to read the room, too. If their eyes start to glaze over, it’s time to tell a story.

  16. I have always had a public speaking phobia. I have never had problems asking questions or answering them as a student, but to stand up in front of an audience, I think I’d rather clean the toilet or have a tooth pulled! The only exception was when I was on a debate team for a political science class in college. I got in such a debate with the opposing team I totally forgot the audience. That was amazing and since the entire class knew of my fear, I got a round of applause and a very good grade from the professor. 🙂

    • You’re of course not alone in that “phobia,” Rebecca. But you’ve obviously got the capacity to overcome. Use a debating method. First, believe strongly in your proposition (my tip #2) and find a couple of faces in the audience to “debate” with by proving your point!

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