08 December 2015

Public-Speaking Tips for Authors

Every autumn the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime runs two programs we label Mystery Author Extravaganzas. Chapter authors who've had something new published that year can stand up and tell the audience about their new works, and a local bookseller (usually Mystery Loves Company from Oxford, Maryland) is on hand to sell the authors' works. The first Saturday of each November, we appear at a library in Columbia, Maryland. The first Saturday of each December, we appear at a library in Reston, Virginia. In our promotion, we remind people that this is a good time to do your holiday book shopping, and it's also a way to support local mystery authors and a local indie bookstore.
Our events are open to the public, and the libraries promote the heck out of them. We usually get fifty people at our Columbia event. At our event this past Saturday in Reston, more than ninety people showed up--standing room only--including the twenty authors who spoke. We started having these events annually when I was chapter president nearly ten years ago. And I've had the pleasure of organizing them nearly every year since. My experience has taught me a few things about how to succeed as a speaker, and I thought I'd share them here:

  • Keep it snappy, i.e., don't feel the need to use all the time allotted to you. Short story writers have long known to get in and out of a story as fast as you can. Don't meander and go into unnecessary detail. This is good advice for public speaking, too. The authors who keep the
    A different kind of high point
    audience's attention best are the ones who don't describe all their characters and drill down into a lot of the plot. They hit the high points, the exciting stuff, the information you'd find on the back of a book, and they leave the audience wanting more. If you're a person prone to meandering, consider bringing a cheat sheet with you with bullet points so you can occasionally look down and see the high points you want to address. (More on bullet points below.)
  • Consider if you have something particularly interesting to share--not just about your story, but perhaps an interesting research tidbit or what prompted you to write the story. A good tale can entice an audience. For instance, on Saturday, when speaking about my story "The Wrong Girl," I shared how my fifth-grade teacher tried to get me to stop speaking quickly, and how that humiliating experience finally became useful when I wrote this story about a girl who went through the same thing I did, but unlike me, my character doesn't plan to let her teacher get away with it. I heard from audience members who enjoyed learning the story behind the story.
  • Don't write a speech and read it. I know public speaking can be scary, and writing down
    My story made the cover!
    what you want to say can help you feel more comfortable. But I've seen too many authors read their speeches with their heads down, barely making eye contact. Don't do that. You want to connect with the audience. So practice at home. Get a feel for what you want to say. And if you'd still feel more confident with notes, bring them, but have them address only the high points, so when you look down, you'll be reminded of what to talk about, and then you can look up and do it. For instance, if I were talking about my short story "A Year Without Santa Claus?" my bullet-point notes might say:
    • Title and publication
    • Main character
    • What's her problem?
    • What's her solution?
  • If you're considering reading aloud from your book or story, practice first. And have someone you trust--someone not afraid to tell you the truth--listen to you read so they can tell you if you are a good reader or a bad one. If you read in an animated fashion, looking up regularly and making eye contact with the audience (see the prior bullet point), great. If you read in a monotone voice without looking up at all, then don't read. The last thing you want to do is put your potential readers to sleep.
  • Briefly (for a few seconds) hold up a copy of your book as a focal point. But don't leave it
    propped up there while you talk. That's distracting, and it might block someone's view of your face. (This applies to panels at conventions, too.)
  • If you're a funny person, don't be afraid to be funny while you're speaking. But if you're not funny, don't force it. There's nothing worse than someone bombing because he felt the need to come up with a joke. You're there to sell your books and yourself. Do it in the way best suited to your personality.
  • Keep in mind how much time you have. If you think you'll fill your entire allotted time, practice at home so you can be ready to wrap up when the timer dings. You don't want to hear that ding and know you never got to talk about the third story you had published this year because you meandered talking about story number one.
And since I have your attention, I'll tell you briefly about my new stories from this year. There's "The Wrong Girl" mentioned above. It's in the anthology Flash and Bang, which is the first anthology featuring stories from the Short Mystery Fiction Society. It's available in trade paperback, large print, and e-book format from Untreed Reads Publishing. In "The Wrong Girl," a fifth-grader humiliated by her teacher plans revenge.

My second story is the aforementioned "A Year Without Santa Claus?" from the January/February 2015 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. In this story, my main character is the head of everything magical that happens in New Jersey. It's two weeks until Christmas, and Santa says he's skipping Jersey this year because a murderer is on the loose. So my main character sets out to find the murderer and save Christmas. Can she do it? You can find out by reading the story--it's available on my website: http://www.barbgoffman.com/A_Year_Without_Santa_.html

Do you have any public-speaking tips for authors? Feel free to share in the comments.


  1. Good tips.
    I'd only add, begin listening to other readers with a critical ear to learn how they put their stories across. Steal from the best, is always a good practice.

  2. Good tips, Barb, thanks for posting them. Another thing that can help is going to favorite authors' websites to see if they've put up videos of themselves speaking. Listen to these, decide what worked what didn't. Watch their posture and stance. How do they move their hands, do they leave the podium and walk around? Again, what appeals and what doesn't. The best thing I ever did was to get a cheap video camera and film myself speaking, then play it back. Yes, it's brutal, but practice makes perfect!
    Sasscer Hill

  3. Forge head! I was desperate for a job many years ago and there were few available at the time and place where I lived temporarily.I took one where they told me I had to make announcements or I didn't get the job.I had been very shy, but I had to improvise and write to get people to listen. When I left the job, one of the big bosses told me I was the best EVER! However, that was not face-to-face and it wasn't ME I was selling. but it helped.
    Adding interesting information and personal anecdotes help,any related to doing the book or a related subject, but don't over-do it; you want to focus on the work.
    If they like YOU, they'll try the book; if they don't, they won't.It is that simple.

  4. Very good advice, Barb. I think we all get a bit more comfortable speaking over time. And by the way, wish I could have attended the events. I remember them fondly.

  5. Great points! At Crime Writers of Canada, we also suggest that people only read for 3-5 minutes (and only 5, if you are a very good reader.) You should be able to get your book voice across in that amount of time.
    Interesting to note though: I was trained for stage, so I do have an advantage in reading. And I find that if I read from my book, I sell books. If I'm at a venue where reading is not the thing, then I don't sell many books.

  6. Hi, Barb! I speak occasionally at a library event and do write what I want to say. I've seen too many authors get off point and ramble. The guests's eyes glaze over and look like they are snoozing. I would be so embarrassed if that happened to me. Great tips!

  7. I really needed this post right now. As a newbie author who is just starting to participate in readings and panel discussions, I need to know what works. Many thanks to Barb and those who took the time to comment with such valuable tips! :)

  8. Janice and Sasscer, you both hit on a good point: learning from others is an excellent way to proceed, both for what works and what doesn't. Though what works for someone else (or what doesn't) may work differently for you. Sasscer, I like your video camera idea, though I don't think I could bear to do it myself.

    Tonette, yes, it's so important to be personable. I'm sure that wasn't hard for you.

    Ellen, we all miss you.

    Melodie, yes, if you're going to read, keep it short. I've found that even with something interesting, my chair can start to get pretty uncomfortable during a reading. Of course, keeping things short wouldn't be a problem at our events. Most years, we have so many participating authors, they only have 3.5 or 4.5 minutes to speak.

    Vicki, yes, rambling can be the kiss of death. Thanks for stopping by.

    And thanks, Lida, for stopping by, too. Good luck with your upcoming events!

  9. Good points. It occurs to me a recording app on your iPhone or Android can be used to record your talk for self-critiquing.

    Good stories, too. I've enjoyed yours.

  10. It probably could at that, Leigh. Some conventions also audio tape their panels. Listening to your own panel could help you spot if you talk to quickly, tend to ramble, interrupt others, speak to softly, and more.

    And thanks about the stories. Much appreciated.

  11. Very nice post, Barb. And I loved your short story, too. Happy Holidays.

  12. Thanks, Diana. That's much appreciated. Happy holidays to you, too!

  13. Excellent post, Barb. Thank you. I was so sorry to miss the gathering--had a family function to attend that day. One point I would add--make sure you eat something before the event. A sudden sugar drop will make you feel nervous and jittery about facing an audience.

  14. That's a good tip. Thanks, Grace. Season's greetings!


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