Friday, 19 November 2010

Talking the talk - five key tips for public speaking as a writer

Ok, it aint pretty, but the boy has passion. And a play button.
I do a fair number of talks based on my books - and I have to (modestly) admit they're usually well received. I'd like to share some top tips on making talks work. My experience is with non-fiction, but I hope some of this will have a wider relevence.

#1 - Prepare!
The exclamation mark is justified. When I see talks that don't go very well, it's often down to lack of preparation. If it's a talk I haven't done before I will run it through around four times before giving it. And by running through, I don't mean flipping through the notes on the train, I mean acting it out as realistically as possible, which means standing up and speaking aloud. It can be embarrassing (especially if you do it on the train), but it makes so much difference.

#2 - Get your notes right
This isn't one where I can be prescriptive, but it is essential to get your talk into a form that works well for you when you present. I personally totally script a talk in written form. But by the time I get to the real thing, after those run throughs, I'm not really reading the script, I just use it as a prompt. (Whatever you do, don't just read your talk from a script. This is dire.) You may find key points work better for you, but make sure you have a mechanism that will give you the right prompts. There was a period when there was a craze for having notes on cards that the speaker held while talking. I really don't recommend this. Find some way to leave your hands free, otherwise you are immediately cramping your style. Insist on a lectern and print your notes big enough so you can see them at a distance.

I was speaking to someone the other day who said the great thing about Powerpoint is that he used the bullet points on his Powerpoint slides as his notes. They prompted him on what he was going to say. The trouble with this approach is that you are always lagging behind the visuals, always having a slight hesitation in your talk (and it means you have to have a Powerpoint). I do have a couple of business-based talks that are fairly traditionally Powerpoint based without detailed scripts - with those I always print a copy of the slides (even if I don't necessarily look at them) so I can look ahead, not at the text as it comes up.

#3 - Think twice about Powerpoint
I use Powerpoint quite a lot. But most of my slides in science talks have negligible text. I use Powerpoints for graphics (preferably animated), but not for bullet points. Generally speaking, an author talk isn't like a university lecture (and this is where academics doing author talks often fall down). You don't need people to take detailed notes, and there's rarely a need for bullet points. If you do have Powerpoint with text on, whatever you do DON'T read the slide. They can read the slide. That's why it's there. Say something else.

I'd also encourage you not to use laser pointers. Generally speaking, if you have a slide that needs a laser pointer, there's too much on it. I've been to so many academic presentations where they put up a vast, complex diagram, much too detailed to see properly and say 'You can't read this, but it says (blah blah)' while pointing with the laser pointer. If we can't read it, why have you put it up? Go to the bottom of the class.

I do now do several talks without any visual aids. Coming from a business background this was hard, but I almost always get people coming up afterwards saying how refreshing it was. But you have to choose your audience for this. Children, for instance, particularly appreciate more visual content.

#4 Pitch it at your audience
Know what your audience is going to be like and pitch the talk appropriately. I have several versions of some of my talks so I can fit them to the audience age. All sorts of things go into this, even the way you speak. I'm not talking about gettin down wif the yoof speak, like. But I do tend to be more informal in the way I speak when there's a younger audience.

Think about using props - this is particularly good with a young audience. When talking about light, I use a toy light sabre as one of my props. Okay, it's a bit silly, a 55-year-old guy waving around a light sabre that keeps making comments like 'May the force be with you' and producing realistic sound effects - but here's a bit of news you knew already. Children like silly. It's amazing how much simple props can lift a talk.

#5 Perform
This is the one that comes hardest to many writers. In a very intimate setting you can turn a writer talk into a conversation, and that's fine. But generally it is a performance. Now, as it happens, I'm lucky here. I love performing. Though pretty hopeless at one-to-one verbal communication, I'm a big show-off and get a huge buzz out of performing. But it doesn't matter how you feel about it. Perhaps the most important difference between a dull talk and a great one is making it a performance.

So this means don't drone on in standard lecturer style. Be a bit dramatic. Put lots of energy into it. If you aren't drained after an hour, you really aren't doing it right. Look at your audience as much as you can while you speak - yes you will have to glance at your notes and the computer screen if using Powerpoint (don't look at the big screen behind you more than you can help, as you are turning your back on the audience). Sweep the audience with your eyes, so they all feel they are getting eye contact. Show emotion in your face. Does this sound like acting? It is. You have to be larger than life. I don't mean go over the top and ham it up. But project yourself and your message.

It seems like a lot of effort - and it is. But it entirely worth it to get the right reaction from an audience. They will get much more out of your event (which means they are more likely to buy your books), and so will you. What's not to like?

If you'd like to see me in action, most of my talks are for schools and colleges, but my public talks are listed here.


  1. This is all really useful stuff, and I so agree about making it a performance.

    I agree with you about powerpoint - on the other hand I've sometimes been the only person not using it in a series of presentations, and it does feel a bit naked. Rather like being the only person who hasn't used a mike. You may be quite capable of being heard in the furthest corner, but you still don't come voer as strongly.

    I don't think it is very different from giving a reading or festival session, say, as a fiction-writer. You still need to break it up, animate it, make some points, change gear... The worst fiction readings are the ones where the author has a 20-minute slot, and reads a single extract for 20 minutes. Much better to read 3 5-minute extracts centred on a particular theme, with some talk between linking them together. That way it's not just a reading, it actually has some content to it - a point it makes. Sells the book better, too, in my experience.

  2. Great stuff, Brian. Very useful.

    I don't write out a script as I know I'd find it hard to not read it and also to find where I am if I look away for a long time.

    Bullet points (often colour coded) do it for me and ensure I stay connected with the audience at all times.

    And you're so right to include that exclamation mark after practice! (See what I did there?)

  3. Very smooth, Debi. I want to emphasize that full scripts don't work for everyone, but it works for me.

    What I do is have bold headings every couple of paragraphs - once I've run it through a few times, I tend only to look at the headings, which are in essence my bullet points. If you can go straight to the bullet points, so much the better, but for me it helps to start with the script.