Thursday, April 14, 2011

Speaking Tips for Writers

Earlier this month, I spoke at two very different events: Blue Ridge Writers' Conference (Blue Ridge, GA); and Austin International Poetry Festival (Austin, TX). Both were a blast, but I was able to take notes on what I like in speakers and what I'm not so keen on hearing. Of course, I'm always taking notes to try and improve my own speaking, but I'd like to share my observations with other writers who may have to speak, whether they're giving a PowerPoint presentation or reading a poem.
  1. Make your introduction brief. Like less than 30 seconds. If someone introduces you, skip the introduction completely, because you were just introduced. There's nothing that stalls a presentation or performance more than a two or three minute monologue before getting into the "meat" of things.
  2. Use the podium. If there is a podium or table, use it to hold your materials. Sometimes we shake when we read (even if we're not nervous, though especially if we are), and we shake more if we become conscious of our own shaking.
  3. Use the microphone. If there's a mic, use it. Sure your voice might carry without one, or you may have to fiddle with it a moment to adjust for your height, but people in the back can hear better when your voice is amplified. Trust me on this.
  4. Encourage audience interaction. When performing poetry, this means you can allow an audience to clap if they choose to clap. When giving a presentation, let the audience know whether it's appropriate to ask questions as you present or if you'll have a Q&A after the presentation is complete. Then, make sure there is a Q&A.
  5. Act confident. You might be terrified, but try not to let it show on the outside. To accomplish this, stand tall. Speak with conviction. Make eye contact. Most importantly, don't apologize. While you may know when you're making mistakes in front of an audience, many of them are probably unaware.
  6. Be organzied. If you're giving a presentation, have talking points ready to go before the presentation. If you're reading poems (or from a fiction/nonfiction book), have your selections planned out before you hit the stage. Organization goes a long way in how the audience perceives you and how you perceive yourself.
  7. Slow down. This is an important tip, because many people automatically start talking fast, especially if they know they're on the clock. I try to remember to breathe and pause in appropriate places. Nothing awkward, just long enough to allow my audience to digest what I just said.
  8. Make personal, add humor. Sometimes your jokes will not be personal. Sometimes your personal stories will not be humorous. Sometimes the stars will align and both will coincide, and that's when you'll engage your audience the most. While I advise humor and personal anecdotes, make sure they have context in your presentation.
  9. Stop before you're asked to leave. There's something to the thought of leaving the audience wanting more. Know your time. Wear a watch. And end a little early (like a minute or two). If the audience feels like the presentation or performance went by fast, they'll attribute it to your great speaking skills.
  10. Provide next steps and/or a conclusion. Depending on why you're speaking, you should have some kind of suggestion for your audience. Maybe it's to buy your chapbook or applaud the hosts. Maybe it's to put some of your advice into action immediately. If you're presenting a topic, it's a good idea to sum up all the main points before sending your audience back out into the world.
One bonus tip: Provide handouts. Whether you're reading poetry or leading a workshop on business management, handouts are a great way to let your audience have something tangible to take away with them. Your handouts should be helpful and relevant. They should also include your name and contact information, including your website or blog url. (Yes, it's a sneaky good marketing tool.)

Just remember, speaking is an activity. Most activities are hard to master unless you practice. So get out there and speak and realize that you're going to make mistakes early on. That's part of the learning process. Just dust yourself off and get out there again.


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If you're searching for someone to speak at your event or to your group, send me an e-mail at with the subject line "Speaking Opportunity" to get the ball rolling. I cover a wide range of topics and would love the opportunity to connect with your group or event.


Want even more advice from the experts? Check out these titles on public speaking:


Jennifer Ruth Jackson said...

Very good post, Robert! I will remember this should I ever get the chance to speak somewhere.

Though, since I lurk on Poetic Asides most times and not take part even there, I very much doubt I will. lol

APG Jamie said...

Great advice, not Bob.

One can have great voice without speaking.

thanks for everything Robert, my best to Tammy and the boys

Anonymous said...

Awesome advice and timely: Ive just been asked to speak.

(already I'm shaking. I hope there's a podium)

wordkyle said...

Your points are all solid. One additional point might be "practice, practice, practice." As a longtime Toastmaster, I can vouch for that organization's effectiveness in helping with that. My TM experience has taught me something else -- the podium is what you stand on. You put your notes on a lectern. (I was corrected on that mistake early on. You wouldn't believe how compulsive some of those people are. They're as bad as writers!)

Valerie Nieman said...

Great advice! I had to learn these tips the hard way when I began teaching.

Unknown said...

I have to disagree. I'm a professionsl speaker and I must say to you all, NEVER use a completely blocks the connection between you and the audience. It's a barrier.

Unknown said...

I agree with the others--a very good post.Since you obviously know your subject,please consider doing a similar piece on handling questions from the audience. The impact of many a good presentation gets lost if the Q&A session goes poorly. If you like, I can send you some thoughts under separate cover.

R. William (Bill) Holland

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Wordkyle, yes, practice-practice-practice is essential. Speaking skills (like writing skills) develop over time. And thanks for correcting me on the podium vs. lectern. With no TM experience, I'm used to everyone getting it wrong (including me). :)

Hannah, I agree that not having a podium can help the connection between you and the audience--but not if the speaker is holding a piece of paper that is shaking out of control. Then, the audience is focused on the shaking instead of the speaking. I'm making the assumption that most writers are not speaking every day or week.

Bill, send me an e-mail ( if you're interested in doing a guest post on the subject of efficiently handling the Q&A session. If you have experience, then I'd love to see your ideas on the subject.

rbdwyer001 said...

Hi Bill,

Great advice. This is pretty much what we were taught at the Marine Corps Staff NCO Academy in our Techniques of Military Instruction class. I would agree with wordkyle that practice, practice, practice is an essential element.

Rick @

Merna Dyer Skinner said...

I work with many authors, preparing them for book tours and media interviews and I agree with your helpful tips and understand comments about using a lectern. (We stand on a podium and behind a lectern, but I'm quibbling). In a bookstore setting, a lectern can serve you well as an anchored position for your audience and a helpful place for you to hold a hefty volume, but to avoid it becoming a barrier, I recommend that you never grab or lean on it - it will steal your energy. Let it hold your book, but not you. Use your arms and hands to gesture and pass your energy out to your audience. If you do forgo the lectern, hold your book at waist height in one hand. Occasionally switch the book to the other hand. For more on controlling nerves and handling Q & A's contact me at: Merna

WS Gager said...

Robert: Thank you for that great list. I just did a speaking engagement on Saturday and I did okay except for the hand outs. Will fix that next time! Thank you.
W.S. Gager

Sarah Stevenson said...

I always learn something interesting from your posts, Robert--and the comments. (Here I was thinking a podium was the one that's free-standing, while a lectern's the kind that sits on a table. But, thinking about the word root of podium, makes perfect sense that podium = dais...)

Anyway, I wanted to echo the advice about practice, and especially your tip about slowing down. Remembering to breathe is important, and it gives you time to keep your thoughts in order. This is one I have to keep reminding myself of whenever I'm reading, especially, and when I'm under a time limit. Nervousness also makes me tend to rush a bit, but just being aware of it helps a lot.

As a not-so-tall person, I tend to stand next to the lectern anyway, but having it there to hold materials, microphone, & water is a major bonus. In fact, my tip would be don't forget to have a glass or bottle of water handy! If you're up there for a while, your throat might get dry and scratchy (especially if you're nervous). And stopping now and then to take a sip can help you remember to pace yourself.

Anonymous said...

Handouts are fantastic! But, what would you hand out at a poetry reading?
I enjoyed hearing you and reading your handouts at Austin Internation Poetry Festival! I would add that I really enjoyed those who memorized the first poem or two. Despite reading three times during the event, I did not have one memorized but I need to do that!

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Nice points on using a lectern effectively, Merna.

Great point, Sarah, about having water handy. In fact, I recently did not bring water up with me and struggled to get through the second half of my reading as my throat dried out. Not making that mistake again (until I do). :)

Writerrabe, a poet can easily make a handout that has a poem (preferably one that is performed at the reading) or two, and the poet's name and contact information (including url).

Anonymous said...

Another useful to remember for factual / research presentations: "Tell them what you're going to say, say it, then tell them what you said." I don't know a good source, but it's a good general point.

Book Club Reviewer said...

Great points! One thing I'd like to add: If you're nervous, channel that energy and use it in your presentation. Belive me, it makes a BIG difference. And, most importantly, remember that everybody messes up.

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Good point, Sandra. Channeling that nervous energy can turn you into a dynamic speaker (who is secretly terrified of the audience). Move your hands, tell self-deprecating jokes, share anecdotes. Be human, and the audience will respond favorably.

Jason, your point about the rule of three is very important for factual/research presentations. Repetition and reinforcement helps everything "stick" after the presentation is over. Thanks!

Stephen L. Brayton said...

Slow down! Yes! That's one problem I sometimes have when speaking is I don't slow down and my words either don't get heard or they don't get understood. Very good advice throughout.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Robert. I've found TM most helpful for learning to think on my feet. Many local groups offer scheduled meeting time for practicing short, extemporaneous responses to various questions. After almost two years, I'm actually processing relevant information more quickly.

wordkyle said...

A brief comment on reading aloud to an audience - I have pretty bad eyesight, and reading from a regular printed source is hard for me without bringing it to within inches of my eyes. When doing such a project, I type out the material to be read in extra large lettering, then put the sheets in plastic protector sleeves, which I put into a binder. That is what I read from. By placing the binder on the lectern, I keep page-turning distractions to a minimum, and I'm able to stand more naturally erect while speaking. What's more, I can make notes, marks or other useful notations on the copy to help me read it better. This method requires much more work than simply reading from a book, but -- for me -- it produces vastly superior results.

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Good point, wordkyle! Everyone should know their own strengths, weaknesses, special needs, etc., and apply that to their speaking. Also, extensive preparation helps the whole thing work out better in the end.