Monday, December 6, 2010

The Writer as Speaker — Get Prepared

 Today's post is an article that I wrote for the ASJA (American Society for Journalists and Authors) monthly magazine for writers, November 2010. It demonstrates the applicability of routinely eliminating negative self-talk — this time in a very specific situation.

The Writer as Speaker

Oxygen, Carol Cassella’s debut novel, was published by Simon and Schuster six months before our third interview. Although the book had been received well, Carol seemed tense when we met for coffee. She explained that the sudden shift from private writer to public speaker was stressful. “This is not me,” she said. “I’m shy. I’m private. I can’t sell myself.”

A July 11, 2010 NY Times article, “The Author Takes a Star Turn”, confirms what Cassella and many authors have recognized over the last few years. The publishing industry has dramatically escalated expectations of writers as public performers. Even as they recognize the benefit of speaking at signings and book discussion groups, many authors find themselves anxious in the limelight.
Jane Bowman meets a spectrum of speaker/authors in her job as event planner at Eagle Harbor bookstore on Bainbridge Island, WA.  Not surprisingly, she finds that authors who are comfortable rather than anxious generally create a successful speaking/signing event.

According to Bowman, over preparation is key to the author’s ability to relax in the presenter role.
• Visit the event site or arrive 45 minutes early. Meet the person who will be introducing you. See the physical set up for the event. Will you have a table, a lectern, or be up on a podium? Where can you plant some index cards with notes? What space is available to interact with the audience, to breathe and recharge, to pace a bit?
• Plan to use a microphone. Practice how to use and move with it.
• Bring a short, written introduction for the event planner to use. Include current insider information about you to raise interest and increase connections. E.g. You’re a zero waste zealot and you write limericks. Audience members’ attraction to you and your work increases as they find commonalities.
• Converse with bookstore staff. You’ll feel part of a team rather than a solo act when you step up to speak.

You can also over prepare your mind, style, and the content of your presentation. The goal of mind preparation is increasing comfort by eliminating negative self-talk, that nasty inner voice that can generate stress.
• Block out negative thoughts with a repetitive mantra,  “One step at a time. I can do this.” Or to borrow from Anne Lamott, “Bird by bird, I’ll do OK.”
• Substitute a different perspective for an old, negative frame; from, “This is not me. I can’t do this,” to “This is me. I write and tell stories.”
• Breathe deeply and slowly, saying “re” on inhale and “lax” on exhale with your inner voice.
Your style as a speaker will develop uniquely over time. For starters, keep it simple, informal, conversational. You can even mention up front that you’re nervous. Audience members will empathize.
• Greet people individually as they arrive. Then, when you speak and read, audience members will not be strangers.
• Make eye contact with individuals as you speak, signaling sincerity and confidence.
• Decide whether you want audience members to ask questions during your presentation or to wait until the end. Taking questions as you go increases everyone’s energy and gives you a break from the spotlight. A potential disadvantage is losing track of topic and time — not a catastrophe.
•  Hand out press releases, reviews, and information about your web site or blog. It’s easy, informal selling.

The content of your talk will also vary as your experience produces knowledge about audience interests and your strengths as a presenter.
• Think of yourself as a storyteller rather than a speaker. You’re telling very short stories, with a beginning, middle, and a close. “How I started writing.” “What was the catalyst for this particular book?” “Who was the inspiration for the main character?” “How I manage the writing life.”
•  Use your writing skills to describe your book in one sentence, one paragraph, one page. Write out questions that people might ask and your answers. Bowman commented that most authors stumbled with the question, “What are you working on now?” Be prepared. If you don’t have any idea, you can say, “I’m not ready to talk about that yet.”
• Practice in front of a mirror, in front of friends, in front of your writers’ group. Martin and Flacco, authors of Publishing Your Nonfiction Book emphasize that training yourself to speak is of top importance in building a platform.
•  Read parts of the book that arouse emotion or elicit curiosity.  Charles Harmon suggests in The Toastmaster article, “The Glory of the Story” asking yourself, “What will best help participants become completely invested in the book?”
• Join a local Toastmasters Club before you need the speaking skills. You’ll gain confidence and have fun.
Following some of these tips for over preparation can help you arrive at a relaxed and confident destination as a storyteller, whether you’re new to or experienced in the public persona role.

 Eighteen up and down months after her high stress introduction to public speaking, and before the publication of her second book, Healer, Carol Cassella’s previous angst has turned to gratification. Her comfort with the public eye has increased. She now views speaking as an enjoyable part of the writer’s life. Maybe you can make the transition even faster!
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