To Speak Or Not To Speak

The title of my most popular talk is “My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters.” It’s as long or as short as I need it to be, depending on how much time they allow me to speak, but the framework is the same throughout.

I do a lot of public speaking, and travel across the Lone Star State to discuss books and writing. Listeners hear about my disastrous starter agent, issues with my first novel, and the loss of a movie deal.

The presentation begins when I’m ten years old, touches on adventures and misfortune in elementary school, high school, and jumps to the first time I was published in a newspaper and finally my first novel.

Sounds dull and lifeless here, but, and I hope this doesn’t come across as conceited, it’s fun, entertaining, and informative all the way through.

When I first started this writing thing, no one ever told me I’d have to stand in front of crowds ranging from twenty people to several hundred and entertain them. I thought we were supposed to just write a novel, get it out there on the shelves, maybe do a couple of signings, and lean back to rest until it was time to write another one.

But signings, panels, and book clubs, are required for high visibility. It’s part of the job.

It comes natural to me. Maybe because I taught school for ten years and then became the spokesperson for the (then) tenth largest school district in Texas. Every time I turned around I was on the television, radio, or being interviewed by usually suspicious newspaper reporters.

Talking to folks is a barrel of fun, and almost every time I finish a presentation, at least one person comes up to tell me they enjoyed what I had to say, and that I’m “one of the best speakers they’ve ever had.”

Yeah, it sounds pompous, I don’t mean it like that.

Maybe that comes from that abovementioned 35-year career in public education, where I endured hundreds of dry, boring speakers who left me wanting to stick a log in my eye for relief. Staff once hired guy to speak for three hours in the morning and another three in the afternoon.

By ten o’clock, my boss was cleaning out her purse on the front row. She fired him by eleven that morning and we improvised for the rest of the day.

The worst presenter is the individual who stands in front of a crowd and reads to the assemblage in a long, droning voice. But, here’s that oddity in nature, it worked for one of my college professors who walked into the classroom, opened a three-ring notebook full of pages in plastic sleeves, and read some of the most fascinating American history anecdotes, facts, and information I’ve ever heard. His mix of styles kept us fascinated all the way through, and it was one of the few classes I truly enjoyed.

That may be where I learned public speaking, because it sure wasn’t in another college course where I drew a D in Speech and was glad to get it. I’ve been told I’m a natural storyteller, and it might have come in part from the old men I listened to up at our country store, but also from a high school history teacher (history again, hummmm), who again blended fact and stories.

So when it’s time to step in front of a crowd, I want to entertain first, and then bring the information they’ve requested. Audiences hear personal experiences that relate to them and I usually manage to do that with humorous stories from my childhood that tie into their memories or experiences. That mix of old recollections usually makes them smile, and I have ‘em.

More than once I’ve heard, “Your story reminded me of something that happened when I was a kid. I’d forgotten until you said something. Thanks for reminding me of those/that wonderful time(s).”

Here are a few things I’ve learned through the years, and they might be useful to those of you who are just starting out, or who don’t really like to speak in public in the first place.

  • People want to laugh, but don’t try to be funny by telling jokes. Only do that if you’re really, really good at it. Wait, never mind. Don’t tell jokes, period.
  • Don’t talk at your audience. Don’t preach. A conversational approach to storytelling and teaching is the best. Again, draw on your own experiences to make it more personal to the audience.
  • Make eye contact. Don’t forget to look front, left and right. Find that person who’s engaged and talk to him or her, then find someone who out there with a blank look on their face and speak to them, no matter how uncomfortable you feel. (Lordy, I remember a guy on one Bouchercon panel who leaned back in his chair to expound one some subject, tilted his head back, closed his eyes, and talked for a good five minutes to the ceiling. Gilstrap and I wanted to flee the scene and find a bar, and would have if I hadn’t been on that panel and sitting right beside the guy. Gilstrap got the giggles while I had to maintain at least a little composure.)
  • Which brings me to speaking on panels. Years ago I was on another five-person panel seated on chairs above a crowd of about two hundred. Our discussion went well until the moderator asked the gentlemen on my left to talk himself and thrillers. He rose and stepped to the edge of the stage leaving an empty seat between myself and Texas author David Wilkinson, cleared his throat, opened the book he was hawking, and read to excess. I mean it. He read for days. And as usual, the mischievous kid in me awoke after a while and I leaned across the empty seat and introduced myself to David. We shook as if we were sitting at a livestock auction, and talked among ourselves and to the other panelists while the author droned on to what felt like the end of his novel.
  • Be energetic. For the love of God, be energetic!
  • But don’t talk too fast. I was watching one of my favorite movies the other day, A River Runs Through It, and listened carefully to Robert Redford’s cadence. It was slow, but not plodding, and his inflections kept my attention, making it feel like he was talking to me.
  • Don’t dump volumes of information on your audience. They’ll retain little of it unless they’re born note takers. I usually get them to laughing, throw in a bit of important writing info, and then slide into another story or something they can relate to, and then back to technique before another story that usually occurs to me on the spot.
  • If you’re inexperienced, start out talking to book clubs. They’ll be forgiving, then polish your “act” in front of local civic organizations and clubs who are always looking for speakers. But remember, small groups are sometimes hard to engage. I’ve found that the larger the group, the more fun we all have.
  • I avoid power points. I don’t use technology. It defeats me. Simply visiting with the audience as if we’re sitting in a living room makes it easier and I don’t have to lug around a heavy thumb drive, hoping someone has the equipment to project the image from a laptop.

There are thousands of pages of information out there on public speaking. You can join Toastmasters or some such club or organization that teaches the steps and techniques to stand before a crowd, but it might not be for you.

If not, outline your program, then practice in front of a mirror until it comes smooth and effortless.

Sounds simple, don’t it?

Practice, practice, then practice some more. It’ll pay off in the long run.

For example, last month in front of large group of Dallas writers, I realized I’d spoken to them before. Something different was necessary to avoid picks and torches as they stormed the lectern, so I tried something different. I began my presentation near the end, but realized the whole structure was built on earlier parts that were linear in construction, so the next thing I knew, I found myself doing the entire presentation backwards, and it worked!

They all remembered I’d been there eight years earlier, but more than one attendee said they loved the presentation because it was chock full of writing advice…and I was best speaker they’ve had in years.

But it was the same talk, and I wondered as I left, if I’d just competed with myself.

Who knows, but at least they were entertained, and learned something about writing, and that’s why I was there.

Gads, how pretentious this all sounds, but it’s the only way I know to get this point across. I apologize for my perceived arrogance and hope this helps you in front of a room full of strangers who want to learn and be entertained at the same time.

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About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

13 thoughts on “To Speak Or Not To Speak

  1. I was TERRIFIED to speak in front of more than 1 person. I joined toastmasters and now I love to teach at writing conferences. I still get nervous, but once I’m in my groove, it’s so much fun. Loved your post.

  2. Rev, these tips come at a good time. I’m scheduling talks for spring and summer, including one with Mr. G. Thanks for the warning–if he gets the giggles, I’ll cut the jabber short!

  3. You bring up a lot of interesting points on a subject (public speaking) that I as a very introverted, as-yet-unpublished writer have tried to avoid thinking about. LOL!

    Curious–when speaking specifically before a group of writers, do they usually give you the topic they want you to speak on or are you relatively free to choose?

    When the time comes to do public speaking, it’s going to be a hard transition. Even in my day job I like functioning “behind the scenes”. Unlike many people, I LOVED history classes, so if people ramble about a topic I’m truly interested in, I’m totally engaged, whereas other people seem to struggle. I don’t care if the person is reading a monologue about history or whatever.

    So I think when the time comes for me to do public speaking, it will be a good idea for me to hone in on one of the things you mentioned above: “Audiences hear personal experiences that relate to them.” I’ve got to work to make it relatable.

    Thanks for the tips.

  4. I didn’t perceive a wit of arrogance, Rev, just a kindly effort to help with what can be an intimidating prospect for many writers. You provided terrific tips.

    I’ve found that eye-contact and being conversational really helps with minimizing the jitters around public speaking. I tend to be a fast-talker by nature, ever since I was a boy, and have worked to slow down, especially in public. When I’ve presented at writer’s conferences or read aloud, it can be a challenge. At least with readings, I rehearse and then have a timer so I can track my time.

    I’ve been on many panels at science fiction conventions and agree with you 100% about the panelist who holds forth. In one case, I was on a panel about Dr. Who with six others–it was too large–and the moderator talked for 90-95% of the time. I enjoy moderating, because I can make sure everyone gets a chance to talk, ask questions, while not speaking too much.

  5. Teachers are either the best or the worst speakers in the world. If they have the mindset that everyone is stuck in that room, then bore the ever-loving crap out of them, that’s the worst. Using their comfort in being in front of people, their ability to project their voice, and teach them something in an entertaining way, that’s the best.

    If you aren’t a teacher, bedtime stories, preferably ones not from a book, are a very good training ground, too.

  6. My best cure for getting over the fright of speaking in front of people was doing a Mother’s Day sermon infant of each individually at the women’s prison a few years ago. The faith based dorm is a piece of cake. The dorm for those who’ve been written up and received demerits to get them moved to from one… not so much! To say that is a touch crowd is an understatement! But seriously, great article and some well received and much needed advice. Thanks Reavis.

  7. Good stuff.
    I used to be awful gunshy about getting up in public and saying something trenchant and on point and then I met up with Professor Keith Miller who advised, “Get up, make three good points and sit down.” The other one I remember was David O’Connor, a Cook County prosecutor who said that if you can’t make a jury understand your case in twelve minutes you’ve lost them.

    Appearing in court purged the stage fright right out of me. I got so I was OK with it, but I found that the ones who will try to sandbag you are codefendant’s lawyers. I always got a straight deal from prosecutors and judges though.

    Brevity really is the soul of wit as Bill S. says. It helps to know your case better than the other fellow. Get right to the point and make what the marketing fiends call the elevator pitch.

  8. I’m at Left Coast Crime now and I wish many of the panelists (and moderators) I’ve seen had read this. And that’s all I’m going to say.

  9. I belonged to Toastmasters for several years and loved it. When my boss at a toxic waste remediation site asked me on a Friday to address an EPA conference in Atlanta on Monday, Toastmasters prepared me for this assignment, though the speech hadn’t been written nor the slides finished. I told him he owed me a favor. Total attendance was 500. I got a few compliments.
    I had two extra days off for filling in for my boss, so, after it was over, I flew to Florida to visit my aunt and uncle at Naples. That was my last chance to talk with him.

  10. I find I do my best when I’m well prepared for the talk. If I’m comfortable with what I’m saying, I tend to make eye contact and feel relaxed.

    I’m not very good at “winging” it.

  11. I talked to teenagers about sex for many years. I had to learn to think on my feet sometimes. After that, talking about writing was a piece of cake. 😉 It also helps that I’m an extrovert.

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