12 Tips for New Public Speakers

By Debbie Burke

Just before the holiday break, TKZ regular Steve Hooley posed a question about public speaking for new authors. He asked:

“I would love to see some discussions here, by TKZ’ers, on the ins and outs, strategies, fine points, etc. etc. of public speaking as part of the marketing of books.”

Photo credit: Visual Hunt

Glossophobia or the fear of public speaking affects an estimated 75% of people…the other 25% just won’t admit to it!

TKZ’s James Scott Bell and John Gilstrap are seasoned public speaking pros and John discussed the subject in this excellent 2017 post.

I’m writing from a slightly different slant as a relative novice, dealing with newbie problems. I’m fortunate to have a mentor in Susan Purvis, who’s been an educator for decades, speaking on different continents under sometimes primitive circumstances.

Here are a dozen tips I’ve stolen from Susan, mashed up with a few hard lessons I learned myself.

The first six are psychological tricks to ease the anxiety. The rest are practical suggestions to keep presentations running smoothly.

Photo credit: Visual Hunt

1. Start small with audiences that aren’t intimidating.

For years, I’ve taught workshops to other writers. Because I share their concerns and curiosity, I’m comfortable around them. Those talks feel less like public speaking and more like yakking with colleagues, even if they are strangers. That made the transition easier to larger groups.

Ask a group of friends, coworkers, or family to help you hone your presentation. Once you gain confidence, speaking to strangers feels less awkward.

2. Use low attendance to your advantage.

New authors are usually discouraged when they don’t draw crowds. Instead of feeling disappointed, take that opportunity to get to know your readers on a more intimate basis. Ask questions. What are their interests? What are their favorite books? Why do they love them? Listen and learn. Their likes and dislikes will help you slant future talks to engage your audience.

3. Determine who your audience is.

Steve mentioned his books are middle-grade fantasy. He might offer to talk at his grandchildren’s schools. He can discuss the writing process, where the inspiration comes from, how to world-build, etc. Teaching is not only fulfilling but offers students a different experience that opens new doors in their education. Last fall, Susan and I had a blast talking with junior high students about Nanowrimo.

4. Seek out book clubs and offer to speak to them.

Many are eager to meet the author. The book club atmosphere is less intimidating than an auditorium setting, offering a painless way to ease into public speaking, especially if wine is involved!

5. Use the buddy system.

Bring a pal. A friendly face in the audience is a big confidence helper. Start out addressing that friend as if the two of you are having a conversation. Once you overcome initial jitters then expand to eye contact with more people.

6. Tag team.

Do a joint presentation with another author. If you share a good rapport with your co-presenter, the audience picks up on that. Play off each other. Make the time fun and entertaining.

Photo credit: Visual Hunt

Here are the nuts-and-bolts practical tips:

7. Learn Power Point.

It’s an easy program that even non-geeks can figure out. Use lots of photos in the presentation. Audiences enjoy seeing locations of the story, maps of the protagonist’s journey, pictures of models who inspired the physical appearances of characters, etc. Even tables of information or fun facts are interesting.

Pictures serve two purposes: first, they provide visual stimulation to the audience; second, they take some of the pressure off you as the speaker since you’re not the entire focus of their attention.

8. Practice, practice, practice.

Time your presentation with a stopwatch.

While you’re speaking, advance the slides so the mechanics of talking and clicking at the same time become automatic. During the live presentation, you may need to return to earlier slides to make points or answer questions. Know the slide order so you don’t waste time madly clicking to find the right place.

9. Don’t wear pearls.

In my first presentation before a large group, I wanted to make a good appearance and dressed up with jewelry I didn’t normally wear. To my horror, every time I gestured, my pearl necklace clacked against the lapel mic. Lesson learned. Avoid dangling or noisy jewelry that interferes with the mic.

Wear comfortable, non-binding clothes. Practice in front of a mirror. Make sure you’re not flashing underwear as you gesture.

10. Dress rehearsal. Testing, testing, one, two, three.

We’ve all attended presentations where the display screen remains black as the speaker fiddles with slides. Next, he or she keeps asking, “Can you hear me?” The mic either stays silent or lets out an eardrum-splitting screech.

To avoid being that embarrassed speaker, visit the venue prior to the presentation. If possible, I go the day before. At a minimum, arrive 30 minutes early to work out the kinks. Don’t show up three minutes before your scheduled start and trust all will be well. It won’t be…guaranteed. 

Bring a muffin or latte for the tech person. He or she is your new best friend.

If you use your own computer, make sure the cords have the proper connections to hook up to the venue’s system.

If available, a better option is to put your Power Point on a thumb drive. That way you can test its compatibility with the venue’s computer.

Check out the audio options—podium mic, handheld, or lavaliere. Many devices are wireless but not all. Hook up the mic and figure out if you are tethered by wire or if you can walk around.

11. Tie your book talk into a topic of current news interest.

My recent thriller, Stalking Midas, deals with elder fraud–a charming but ruthless con artist preys on seniors and she’s not afraid to kill to get what she wants.

Elder fraud is a growing problem, affecting not only the victim but families trying to protect them. I created a public service talk based on the fraudster who bilked my adopted mother. The presentation included warning signs and tips to protect oneself and loved ones, connecting the subject to parallels in the novel.

The talk has been well-received by senior communities and I plan to branch out to service organizations.

Relating your book to a timely news event accomplishes two goals—you reach audiences beyond the narrow group of your target readers. It also takes the selling pressure off.

I have trouble asking people to buy my books. But if my talk gives them value because they learned something, it’s easier to say, “Oh, by the way, my books are for sale at the table in the back.”

12. Giveaway bonuses.

People love freebies. The prize doesn’t need to be large. Susan brings a bag of wrapped candies to her talks. When she asks questions, she tosses a treat to the person who gives the correct answer. That promotes fun interaction with the audience and loosens them up.

Incorporate a contest into your talk. The winner can be random (“Who has a birthday today?”) or it can be a reward for an audience member who asks a great question or shares a fascinating anecdote.

A signed paperback copy or a gift code for a free download of your book makes a memorable prize.

Generally, the more interaction a speaker has with the audience, the better received the presentation is.

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How about you, TKZers?

What scares you the most about public speaking?

Do you have a favorite tip to ease anxiety?

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M.C. Beaton and Debbie Burke

A memorial shout-out to Scottish-born author M.C. Beaton who passed away on December 30, 2019. She wrote hundreds of novels, from Regency romances to detective series. Her books have sold more than 21 million copies worldwide. Two of her characters, Hamish MacBeth and Agatha Raisin, inspired popular TV series.

I had the good fortune to meet this delightful lady in New York City in 2018. She is an inspiration to us late-blooming authors, proving age is no barrier and can, in fact, be an asset to successful writing.

Per a statement from her publisher Little, Brown: “She hated being referred to as a ‘cosy’ writer, saying that if anyone called her books cosy she’d give them a Glasgow Kiss.

Gotta love that spirit!

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Eyes in the Sky, book #3 in the series Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with a Heart by Debbie Burke, is now available for pre-order (publication date January 23, 2020) at this link.

 

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Book Expo America 2018

MONTANA AUTHOR TAKES A SMALL BITE OUT OF THE BIG APPLE

The population of my Montana home town is around 25,000—about the same number of people I encountered during six days at Book Expo America (BEA) and BookCon in New York City.

BEA is the biggest annual convention of book publishers, booksellers, distributors, librarians, and authors in North America. With 840,000 square feet of exhibit space at the Javits Center and nearly 500 exhibitors, the show is so big that Publishers Weekly covers it with daily tabloid reports of 70-100 pages each.

The event is open to industry professionals, not the public. I was fortunate to be invited to check out the inner workings of the business. What a learning experience it was!

Big names draw big crowds. Celebrities launching new books stayed busy autographing advance reading copies (ARCs). Some wait lines rivaled Splash Mountain at Disney World. This year’s stars included a couple of guys named Patterson and Clinton who co-wrote a thriller, along with Nicholas Sparks, Sally Field, Barbara Kingsolver, Trevor Noah, and more.

Debbie Burke and Hank Phillippi Ryan

 

I was delighted to meet the charming Hank Phillippi Ryan at the signing of her new book Trust Me. A few weeks before, I’d watched Hank teach a great online class sponsored by International Thriller Writers (TKZ’s own James Scott Bell also taught a segment of the webinar).

One Librarian’s Bounty

 

 

Librarians from all over the country flock to BEA to pick up bagfuls of free ARCs to help them decide what to order for the coming year. Their biggest expense must be the charge for overweight checked baggage!

Important lesson to authors: librarians are your best friends. If librarians get behind your book, their efficient network can put millions of eyes on your work. See, not all librarians are there to ruin your mood! I guess we all had that one librarian who thought they owned the place, but thinking about it now, knowing that they have way more to do than just sitting behind a desk, maybe it’s time to cut them some slack. You may want to do some research into schools like USC Marshall to get a better understanding of what the essential roles are these days of a librarian.

 

 

Not surprisingly, Amazon isn’t exactly the most popular kid on the BEA playground. The headline of one daily report read: “Amazon’s Actions Remain a Problem,” a quote by the CEO of the American Booksellers Association. The article talked about the impact of “lost jobs, stores, and uncollected taxes” due to the online giant.

The Big Five (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster) had large showy booths on main aisles. In contrast, Amazon’s booth was in a distant corner, far from the entrance.

Since Amazon’s Kindle Press had published my thriller Instrument of the Devil, I trekked all the way to the rear of the exhibit hall to visit them. But when I got there…..

Black curtains surrounded all four sides of the booth. Through the gauzy fabric, I could see people moving inside. But there was no entrance.

Hmmm.

Upon further investigation, I was told Amazon specifically requests a private booth for book publicists to meet with major media to pitch upcoming titles.

Oh.

In addition to the Big Five, scores of indie publishers had booths, representing niche markets for religious, ethnic, political and social issues, health and fitness, food and cooking, short fiction collections. No matter what off-the-wall subject you imagine, chances are someone has published a book about it that shows up at BEA.

Children’s and YA book publishers were out in force, introducing thousands of new products: print books, graphic novels, puzzles, interactive 3D devices, plus tie-in merchandising like costumes, cuddly stuffed characters, sports equipment, etc. There were even quaint retro items like pens and stationary. Could writing actual letters be making a comeback?

Waiting for autographs from their favorite authors

 

BEA runs from Wednesday through Friday for industry pros. BookCon follows on the weekend and is open to the public. Thousands of readers crowded the Javits Center on Saturday and Sunday. They pored over new releases, waited in line for autographs from favorite authors…

BookCon 2018

 

…and posed for photos dressed up as popular book characters.

Older folks (like myself) often complain about young people zombie-walking through life with bent necks, mesmerized by their smartphones. Yet at BookCon, I didn’t notice a single example of that disconnection. Kids engaged with each other and were excited about new adventures in reading. Witnessing that gave me hope.

 

 

Audio book sales continue to grow by double digits, 30+% increase in the last year alone.

A major BEA sponsor for 2018 was Blackstone Publishing. In 1987, the family-owned independent audio publisher started producing cassettes in a garage in Ashland, Oregon. They tapped into the town’s renowned Shakespeare Festival for narrating talent.

Three decades later, Blackstone has expanded into a full-service publisher of print and e-books in addition to audio, employing more than 200 people. Still headquartered in Ashland, they’ve increased their presence in NYC with acquisitions editors, audio narrators, and a sound studio that’s second to none.

Blackstone also showed me firsthand what a debut author’s dream launch should look like.

Excited debut author Susan Purvis with the banner of her new book

Last April, I wrote about cadaver dogs and mentioned Susan Purvis’s upcoming memoir, Go Find, which Blackstone is publishing. At BEA, they rolled out the red carpet for Susan, including a 10-foot-tall banner at the entrance of the Javits Center.

At their booth, lighted signs showcased new releases. Book covers were displayed on video screens. During signings, representatives guided people through the waiting line, graciously giving out swag including postcards, book bags, and ARCs.

This contrasted sharply with some author signings sponsored by bigger houses where I wondered if cattle prods might be in use!

 

Blackstone’s good treatment of authors has resulted in them picking up bestsellers like Orson Scott Card, cozy queen M.C. Beaton, and mother-daughter fantasy writers P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast.

Despite BEA’s gargantuan scope, it offered opportunities to make personal contacts.

A couple of hours into the first morning, I sank down at a vacant table, already exhausted, eyes glazing over. A woman with a similar dazed expression sat across from me and we commiserated about feeling overwhelmed. Her name was Bee Kapitan, a designer from Vancouver. She had just received an Independent Publisher Award for her interactive e-book How To Say Cheese. I showed her the proposed cover for my new book, Stalking Midas, and she graciously made suggestions. She introduced me to the burgeoning world of interactive book design. We’ll be keeping in touch.

I’m learning from Umair Kazi (l) and Francesco Grisanzio (r)

Another valuable connection occurred with the Authors Guild. I knew of their excellent advocacy for writers but hadn’t gotten around to joining. At their booth, I talked with staff attorney Umair Kazi and digital services coordinator Francesco Grisanzio about rights reversion. Their guidance helped me make a career decision I’d been putting off. Needless to say, after their assistance, I signed up to become a member.

Another service they offer to authors is contract review. Before you sign a publishing contract, AG attorneys will review it and clarify the Byzantine maze of legalese. That alone is worth the $125 annual dues.

Authors Guild has also forged a communication channel into Amazon to register author complaints. Hopefully AG’s advocacy will temper Amazon’s review policies that, to authors, often appear capricious and arbitrary.

BEA gave me amazing insight into the publishing business. If I included all the adventures and interesting people I met in the Big Apple, this post would run into next week!

I’ll stop now and turn it over to TKZers for questions and comments.

A final post script: on the trip home I was privileged to meet a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor. That story is too long to add here but it can be found on my blog.

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Audiobooks: Is Listening the Same as Reading?

“You cannot borrow any more titles this month” has become the saddest phrase of my small existence.

I may be an audiobook addict.

My gateway drug was the bargain-bin cd novel. Years ago I discovered many in odd places like Tuesday Morning stores, Big Lots, and very occasionally at Barnes and Noble. It took a lot of digging to find unabridged versions–I will not read or listen to abridged versions of books because they incite moral outrage in me. WHY are there such things? I can see perhaps that once upon a time people read Reader’s Digest abridged versions of classics so they could boast they’d read them with some measure of authority, or in case someone might burst into their house and made them take a pop quiz on Great Expectations or Anna Karenina. But, really, if that happens, you’ve got worse problems than being a slacker reader.

After CDs I moved on to iTunes books. I logged on frequently to look for specials, and rarely paid more than $5.99. They were much more portable than bulky CDs. But I got greedy and started buying pricey bestsellers and had to cut myself off. My husband subscribes to Audible. Several of my own books are available on there, but I bristle under the program: limits and specials and points. Mostly, I don’t like to belong to clubs that will have me–especially if I have to pay.

For a while, I listened exclusively to free podcast books. One of my favorite sites is the Classic Tales Podcast with B.J. Harrison. I believe all of the audiobooks he reads are in the public domain, making them truly classic. You can subscribe and get the free podcast, but he also has a great library of inexpensive classics.

I know the rest of the world began streaming library books years ago, but I only started last winter, when I re-joined a nearby library (we are in an unincorporated area) for $80. Now HOOPLA is my new best friend. I have yet to figure out the metrics for which books are available on HOOPLA and which aren’t. The pickings are occasionally spotty. For example, nearly all of  M.C. Beaton’s backlist Agatha Raisin books are available, but there are few books by Robert Stone. If anyone knows how the selections work, please do enlighten us…

As you can see from the photo above, my audiobook listening is fairly light. I’ve been bingeing on traditional and procedural mysteries. (Ignore the “resume” on the two Beaton books–I suspect I moved on to the next one before the last few seconds played.) HILLBILLY ELEGY has been a kind of in-between book. The first 90 minutes or so made me uncomfortable because 1) I found Vance’s broad statements about history and class attributes random and defensive, 2) he pronounces “Appalachia” with a long, Midwestern 3rd “A”, and it drives me nuts as someone who lived for years in WV and western VA, and 3) I have deep, recent roots in eastern Kentucky, and it felt achingly personal and aggravating at the same time–which is to be expected, of course, because my hillbilly ancestry makes me ornery and skeptical anyway. But somewhere around the 90 minute mark, Vance gets deep into his personal history and it becomes a compelling story.

Sorry, I digress.

I nearly always have an audiobook on in the car, whether I’m going on a long trip or to the post office. I have one on while I cook or garden or clean. In fact, I’ve been known to engineer solo driving errands just so I can listen to a book in peace.

Sometimes I wonder if listening to a book isn’t cheating. Is listening to a book too passive an act to be considered useful to a writer? I’m torn. It occasionally feels like that. I’ve let the first 4 Hamish MacBeth books pour into my ears like mineral oil used to float a bug out. (That’s a thing.) I started my heavy listening of traditional mysteries last spring, in preparation for writing my first cozy novel, and now can’t stop. Thank goodness there are a ridiculous number of mysteries out there. Unfortunately I’ve listened to so many that I’ve found there are some books that are marvelous in audio, but are barely readable on the page. (Not telling. Let’s just say I never tried paper with that author again.) It’s as though my listening brain is so focused on the story that it can ignore the weak writing–something I seriously have a hard time doing when I’m looking at a page.

Although magazine and Buzzfeed-type quiz testing tells me that I’m an equally visual and audio learner, I retain stories I hear in much more detail than I do when I read words on a page. Yet the story plays out in my head in much the same way for both–I get to visualize the characters, I get to make educated guesses, I get to participate in ways I don’t when watching a film.

And yet. One of the reasons I still read more paper books than I do ebooks is that I am better able to create a mental map of both the book and the story when I can actually touch and turn pages. It feels participatory in a way that swiping never does. Ebook pages are too uniform. They aren’t alive. Now, that’s just my mental eccentricity–I do read and publish ebooks. It’s just that the experience is different. Stories have a shape, and I like to feel the shape so I can create story shapes for myself. If that all sounds a little Montessori Method to you, sorry. It’s the only way I can think to describe it.

I do, to some extent, also see the shape of stories when I listen to them.

I know. This is starting to sound a little too theoretical. A little too woo-woo. But I can’t shake the feeling that I’m betraying my writer self if I’m not reading words on a page. There are times when I realize I’ve been thinking about something else for a minute or two and have to click back to hear what I’ve missed. That’s not to say there haven’t been many times that’s happened as I looked at a paper book.

What say you, dear Zoners? Am I splitting hairs? As writers, do you think there’s a best way to experience a story?

 

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