29 November 2022

Public-Speaking Tips for Authors

This is an updated version of a column I ran seven years ago with public-speaking tips for authors, though I think the advice could apply to most any public speaker.

Every autumn the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime runs two programs we call Mystery Author Extravaganzas. Chapter authors who've had new stories or novels published that year can tell the audience about them, and a local bookseller is on hand to sell the authors' works. In November we appear at a library in Ellicott City, Maryland. In December, we appear at a library in Reston, Virginia. These events are free and open to the public, and the libraries promote the heck out of them. They offer the audience a good opportunity to support local authors and a local indie bookstore at the same time. (After all, it is the holiday season, and books make great giftsfor others and yourself!)

For the past two years, the events have been held online, but this year, we're back to meeting in person. We started having our extravaganzas annually when I was chapter president fifteen 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 since our December extravaganza will be this Saturday (keep reading to the end for more details), I figured this would be a good time to share some public-speaking tips:

  • Keep it snappyHit the high points without going into unnecessary detail. The authors who keep the audience's attention best are the ones who don't describe all their characters or 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. For instance, here's the gist of what I'll say this weekend about my story "For Bailey" (from the anthology Low Down Dirty Vote Volume III): If you've ever cursed your neighbors for setting off fireworks, scaring your pets, you'll identify with teenager Jocelyn. Her town's about to vote on a proposed fireworks ban. Fearing it won't pass, she and two friends come up with an unconventional method to encourage one of the councilmembers to vote their way.
  • Don't be too briefThis is your chance to talk to readers who are interested in what you have to say, so make sure you go into enough detail to make them think, "Ooh, that sounds good. I want to read that." While you don't have to use all the time allotted to you, don't be so eager to get off the stage that you don't share what makes your story or book interesting.
  • Consider if you have interesting backstory to share, perhaps what prompted you to write your book or an interesting research tidbit. For instance, my story "Go Big or Go Home" (published this year in the Malice Domestic anthology Mystery Most Diabolical) was inspired by a lot of unsolicited advice I've received on Facebook. In the past I've heard from audience members who enjoyed learning the story behind the story.
  • Don't write a speech and read it. Public speaking can be scary, and writing down what you want to say may 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. If it would be helpful to have notes, bring them, but they should 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 "Five Days to Fitness" (from the anthology Murder in the Mountains) my bullet-point notes might say:
    • Title and publication
    • Main character, her problem, her solution
    • The setting
    • It's a whodunit
  • If you're considering reading aloud from your book or story, practice doing so. Have someone you trustsomeone not afraid to tell you the truthlisten to you read so they can tell you if you're good at it. 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, don't read. The last thing you want to do is put your potential readers to sleep.
  • Briefly 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.) The cover of this year's Bouchercon anthology (Land of 10,000 Thrills, which has my story "The Gift") is wonderfully eye-catching, but I wouldn't want the audience to be so distracted by the bloody axe on the cover that they don't listen to what I have to say. 
  • 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 favorite of my stories published this year, "Beauty and the Beyotch," from issue 29 of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine.
It's a tale about three high school girls told from two perspectives about one thing: the struggle to make their deepest desires come true. What happens when those dreams collide? While you can buy the issue in paper and ebook formats from the usual online sources, I've put the story on my website for easy reading. Just click here.
Want to attend our extravaganza this Saturday (12/3)? It starts at 1 p.m. at the Reston, Virginia, library. 11925 Bowman Towne Drive. The 20 authors who'll be appearing are: Donna Andrews, Kathryn Prater Bomey, Maya Corrigan, Ellen Crosby, Barb Goffman (yep, that's me!), Sherry Harris, Smita Harish Jain, Maureen Klovers, Tara Laskowski, Con Lehane, Eileen Haavik McIntire, Kathryn O'Sullivan, Susan Reiss, Frances Schoonmaker, Mary Stojak, Lane Stone/Cordy Abbott, Shannon Taft, Art Taylor, Robin Templeton, and Cathy Wiley. You'll be able to buy books from Scrawl Books. No RSVP necessary to attend. Just put it on your calendar and come on by.


  1. Good advice, Barb. Thanks. It is also weirdly appropriate as a companion to my piece for tomorrow.

    1. Thanks, Rob. (You know what they say about great minds ...)

  2. Excellent advice, Barb. Can I add one corollary?

    If you're going to read a passage aloud, practice in advance and cut description and backstory in favor of action and dialogue. I print out the passage and practice a few times, crossing out as I find those passages that drag. Then I delete them and reprint the passage in LARGE type. I won't read for more than five minutes without a break, so those minutes should give people a reason to buy the book.

    And, yes, nothing is more painful than someone trying to be funny.

  3. Replies
    1. That makes me so happy, Eve! Thank you for letting me know.

  4. A lot of good advice about speaking--thanks, Barb.

  5. LOL and remember not to leave your notes on the desk when you leave! So embarrassing--"Remember to smile!" "Pause for laughter!" I can never show my face in that town again!

    1. That's excellent advice and a great story. I wish I knew who this was.

  6. Great advise, Barb. And I loved the story.

  7. Hey Barb, Reston?! I'm a Toastmasters club, Humor Farm, that meets in Ashburn, and I know there's a member who is also a member of a club in Reston. Enjoy the extravaganza! Stephen D. Rogers

  8. Great Advice, Barb! Reading a script never cuts it.
    I wish I could be there.

  9. Really good advice. Thanks.

  10. Hey, Barb, I've spent the last fifty years teaching public speaking to university students, and I agree with pretty much everything you said. I would add a couple of tips:

    1. When there's a time limit — as there is at the Chessie Extravaganzas — be prepared to respect it. Going over the allotted time is a serious no-no.

    2. Don't apologize, especially at the end. "I'm so nervous" is an apology. "That's all I have to say" is an apology. Given what we call the Law of Recency, which says that audiences will remember best whatever they see and hear last, the last thing you say is going to be the most important thing you say. Don't waste it on an apology. The best way I know to conclude any speech you ever deliver is with a simple "thank you."

  11. Great points, Barb! A few of notes on microphones: Slow down a bit to allow for reverberation. "Kiss" the mic--don't be afraid to get close. The mic is not magic; you still have to project if you are not naturally loud (like me). Watch the plosive letters P & T. Have fun!

    1. Yes, yes, yes on that mic tip. So often people don't get close enough, and the mic doesn't pick them up and people in the back of the room can't hear what's said. Speakers also should bear that in mind when talking on a panel. Look at the audience and speak into the mic, even if responding to something another panelist just said. When you're on a panel, continually looking sideways at the other panelists while talking pulls your voice away from the mic, which means the audience may not be able to hear you.


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