Friday 16 October 2015

10 Top Tips For Preparing a Book Talk

I'm quite a confident public speaker. I run a lot of training sessions for organisations, but I still find book talks a little intimidating. I think the difference is that when you're running a workshop about something like human rights or social media, it's not about you. You're all there to focus on something else. As a trainer you're often afforded a certain amount of respect on the subject - you can set the tone of a talk the moment you walk into a room. 

In contrast, I tend to feel as though book talks are less about the subject and more a personality test. People turn up to decide what they think of you as a person. It can make or break book sales. 

I know book talks and self-promotion is something that makes a lot of authors uncomfortable, so I thought I'd share my tips on preparing for one.

1. Find Out What Your Audience Want

First off, find out exactly what your audience are expecting. Are you talking to a group of mainly writers, or mainly readers? (The type of jokes you tell might be different). How long is it: one hour, two? Are you the sole speaker, are there others? Is there a schedule? Do they want a presentation, a reading, Q&As, a signing - a combination? How many people are they expecting? Where is the venue and what does it look like inside?

Knowing what your audience is expecting helps you to plan with confidence.

2. Prepare Your Spiel

Talks where you get to give a presentation are great. Or they can be great if you focus on the right things. Remember, you're there to promote a book that you wrote. That means you know the book really well. You're an expert on your book. What are the most interesting points about that book? Is it set during a time in history that's interesting? Or in the future? What sparked your imagination? What did you discover whilst researching? Where did you draw your inspiration from?

I love PowerPoint, but you need to use it right. Death by PowerPoint occurs when you use slides to write up chunks of text and long lists of bullet-points. Avoid this at all costs. Use PowerPoint to project images and short video snippets. Turn it into a visual prompt to jog your memory, like flash cards, rather than an autocue.

If you're really afraid you'll forget something, jot down some bullet-points to remind yourself what to talk about on each slide. But avoid writing a script for yourself. Having a script means you spend the whole talk staring at the paper in your lap, and if you miss a line you may panic and freeze up. Instead, practise and practise your talk. Trust in the fact that you know what you're talking about. This means that when you do talk, it'll sound natural and free-flowing, and you'll be able to make eye contact with your audience without worrying about losing your place.

3. Practise

I know I said it before, but I'll say it again because it's so important. Practise going through your talk. Practise formulating phrases you're happy with, ordering the information as though you're having a conversation with someone. The more you practise your speech, the more likely your long-term memory will leap in to save you if you run dry. 

4. Keep Calm

Consider what you'll do if you do forget something. This takes the fear out of forgetting. Have a little joke on hand if you freeze up and need a few seconds to find your place again. For example, if I trip over my own tongue whilst speaking, I'll say something stern to myself like 'call yourself an author!' Making a joke of the fact I can't get my words out. Little quips are really helpful - they buy you time, and they also make people laugh, and laughter equates to good will. People tend to be very forgiving of mistakes that make them laugh. Never be afraid of laughter. 

5. Arrive Early

Get to the venue in plenty of time to meet the organisers and set up your equipment. There's nothing worse than trying to get technology to work in front of an audience. Try to maintain the magical illusion of everything being perfect when your audience arrive. And do take time to get to know your meet-and-greeters. These are your strongest allies on the night. Your friendly faces in the crowd, who want the event to be as big a success as you do. These are the people who can smooth over any hiccups and dig you out of a hole if no one asks any questions at the end. 

6. Speak Up, Remain Hydrated

Another advantage of arriving early is that you can lay out the room as you need it and practise projecting your voice. You don't need to shout, but people are coming to listen to you, so you need to be heard. Again, it's easier to project your voice to the back of the room when your head is up and you're facing forward, rather than reading from a sheet in your lap.

Readings often take place in quite intimate spaces, so if you're there before your audience, greet people as they come in. Even a little 'hello' helps to take the edge off your nerves, turning strangers into friends. 

Audiences are often as nervous about authors as authors are about audiences. Breaking the ice in this fashion also makes it more likely people will feel confident enough to ask you a question at the end, or approach for a book signing.

Do have a glass of water. Don't reach for that glass of water in the first ten minutes. The first few minutes of a talk are usually the most nerve-racking. You don't want to let your throat get parched, but at the same time, you want to feel relaxed before you take a drink. I was once so nervous at a meeting that when I reached for my glass I couldn't drink. It was shaking so hard I would have spilt water all over myself before it reached my lips. Instead I reached for a biro to fiddle with - and accidentally threw it across the room.

Take deep breaths. Do not be afraid of short silences and pauses. People are there to listen to you. Speak at a steady pace, and speak when you are ready.

7. Pacing

One of the most common reactions to nerves is to speed up. Try hard not to do that, otherwise you'll whizz through your forty-five minute talk in twenty and have nothing to fill the next hour with. Pacing again comes from practise. Rehearse your speech each day, and be mindful of the pace and pauses. 

Top Tip: If you start a PowerPoint presentation and right click, you should get the option to Show Presenter View

This is a fabulous tool. It allows you to project your presentation as normal, but to see which slide comes next (easy to forget on the spot) and to keep track of your time.

(click to enlarge)

The other thing to be careful of, especially if you're encouraging audience participation or questions, is not to get side tracked and waffle on about something so long that you don't have time to finish what you were supposed to be talking about. Try not to labour points. Assume your audience has understood you the first time. If they don't, they'll ask for clarification during the Q&A. Talking too much about the same thing tunes people out.

8. Consider Your Responses

If your audience are expecting a Q&A, for goodness sake start talking to yourself in the shower. Ask yourself really random stuff like 'what is my favourite colour?', 'who has influenced my work?', 'what was my route to publication?', 'what advice would I give new authors?'

If you've been promoting yourself for a while, you'll know most of the stock questions from doing interview blogs, but there will always be a curve ball. Try to work out where you stand on political issues, creative issues, issues of interior design... Just get used to the sound of your own voice, and again, have a couple of polite next-subject quips in your pocket, ready to pull out if you can't think of a suitable answer to something, like 'how do you get fudge out of the carpet?'

9. Read with Confidence

One of my most dreaded activities is giving readings. I dislike it intensely. Partly because I write a lot of books with words I'm not sure how to pronounce (seriously, I have to listen to the audiobook of Rosy Hours to know how to say çocukcağız), and partly because it's the point at which I fear I'll freeze up entirely. 

Often people think they need a written script to talk publicly. I argue that's actually unhelpful. If you know your subject, just talk about it. Don't be afraid to amble a little. Rely on your inner knowledge (and plenty of practise). The problem with a script is that it's something very exact - like a reading. You either get it right, or you don't. That's a lot of pressure.

I did tank once. With one of my early novels, a member of the audience laughed at something they found funny, and I glanced up and laughed a little too - then panicked when I returned my eyes to the page and realised I'd lost my place mid-sentence. There was an awkward moment whilst I found it again.

Lessons learned on this include: 

  • Whilst talking to your audience, make eye contact. Whilst giving a reading, forget the audience entirely. Don't be tempted to look up between sentences. It's perfectly okay - and preferable - to focus on the page and just read. Your audience have slipped into their own private listening space anyway, they don't need your eye contact.
  • If you're at an event where they want a talk as well as a reading, make the talk longer, keep the reading brief. By the time you've finished your presentation your audience will have been listening to your voice for a while, and they'll be eager to get onto questions. So just give them a brief, tantalising teaser of a reading and move on. The shorter the reading, the less likely you are to slip up.
  • Something magical tends to happen with readings. You can practise and practise your reading, and you'll almost always make a mistake. But everything will be 'all right on the night'. I mess up about 90% of the time when rehearsing readings, but perhaps 1% of the time at the event. I'm not sure why this is, but a part of your brain kicks into gear when there's an audience present (quite possibly the adrenaline), and you're likely to get through it unscathed. If you do trip, don't worry about it. Nobody else will remember tomorrow. Just find your place and carry on.

Above all - rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. 

10. Name Notes

If you're giving a signing afterwards, have post-it notes ready. I observed this at Cheltenham Literature Festival one year, whilst queueing to get a book signed. The author distributed post-it notes for people to write out their names and messages ahead of signing. This ensured that the author was 100% certain of the spelling of the name, and the message. When you're on the spot, it's really easy to mishear something, and there are many names that can be spelt differently or aren't obvious to decipher. Avoid embarrassment, and wasted books, by getting it in black and white before you commit to the page.

Above all, have fun. Yes, it's nerve-racking, but it does get easier with experience, and although I said it's about people making up their minds about you as an author, there's a lot in your favour. People usually turn up in a spirit of good faith. They're usually on your side to begin with, and everyone likes to learn something new, so if you can interest people and get them enthused about your topic, they're even more likely to back you (and hopefully buy a book). 

And, if it doesn't go to plan, well, you're unlikely to meet these people again. 

Which leads me to my final suggestion on the topic of friends and family. F&Fs are often the first people who want to come to an event, but it's my experience that it's often more comfortable talking to a room full of strangers, somewhere far away from home, than it is to a room full of strangers plus your family and friends. 

When you're giving a book talk, paid or otherwise, you're working. You're doing your thing as an author. Yes, it's nice to have friendly faces in the audience, but it can also be inhibiting. Most of us, when we're talking publicly, have a certain level of alter-ego that kicks in to get us through it. 

As mentioned above, it's also comforting to know that if it doesn't go well you can go home and leave it behind you, like a day at the office. But when friends and family are in the audience, it can add an extra level of tension. If you write horror, can you talk so openly about how you envision murdering a character's mother when your own mother is in the room? What if the audience ask about your upbringing, or whether you draw inspiration from real relationships - could you answer? Even if your family and friends love your books, does their presence support you or gatecrash your fourth wall, blurring the line between your professional persona and your private self?

I'm not saying it's bad to have friends and family at talks, certainly not (if I ever make it to Hay I'll resurrect my granny!), but I also think it's okay to say no. Whatever makes you most comfortable and allows you to do the best job you can.

If you've got any personal experiences you'd like to share, or tips I've missed out, I'd love to read your comments below.

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