Before You Speak: A Few Tips for Handling the Presentation Jitters

By Wendy Tyson

My comfort zone is behind my computer, not in front of an audience. Sure, I can talk about books and writing for hours—when it’s a casual conversation (preferably over a cold glass of Sauvignon Blanc). But speak for an hour in front of a crowd? Not something I’d have done voluntarily when I first started out in this business.

But once a book goes live, speaking engagements can be hard to avoid. Festivals, workshops, readings, launch parties—and the more formal events—are part of book promotion. Now that I’m two-plus years into this publishing journey? Public speaking is a breeze. Okay, maybe not a breeze, but definitely not the pull-out-my-nails-with-pliers torture it once was.

Now I have a process.

I’m a fly by the seat of my pants kind of gal, preferring to keep my options open and my calendar free. Of course, life never works out that way and my days are an endless march of work meetings, appointments, kids’ lacrosse and soccer games, errands, and all the other must-dos that make up a parent’s schedule. One thing this has taught me is that, to have a really great presentation, structure helps.

Earlier this month I participated in an event that I’d been both anticipating and dreading: a fundraiser that involved speaking for an hour about anything I wanted. I wanted audience members to leave feeling enlightened, entertained, satisfied—not questioning how someone so boring could possibly write interesting novels, or why they’d paid to be there in the first place. To make the event a success for all of us, I knew I’d have to employ my process:

Know the basic parameters ahead of time.

How many people will be there? How long are you expected to present? What’s the venue like? Will there be equipment (for visuals, sound, etc.)? These may seem like obvious questions, but I can’t tell you how many times I’m not given even basic information ahead of an event. Now I keep a checklist and always go back to the event coordinator with follow-up questions.

In this instance, my venue was a flower farm/nursery. I visited ahead of time, worked with the owner and manager to scope out possible speaking areas, and created a contingency (rain!) plan. I knew I’d have to dress for heat, and that no equipment would be available. Plus, I found out I’d be fighting possible noise challenges (roaming peacocks and background sounds from a waterfall), so I’d have to talk loudly.

Understand the audience and the goal.

Again, seems basic, but it’s incredibly important. I was once a keynote speaker at a book festival and my audience consisted largely of aspiring authors. The goal therefore was to educate and inspire. I knew that ahead of time, so I tailored my presentation with information that would resonate with writers striving to get published. On the other hand, for the fundraiser, I knew there would be about 30-50 people, but I had no information about ages, tastes, professions, etc. The goal? Entertain and inform. This is the hardest situation, in my experience, because tailoring the discussion to a general audience is like throwing darts in the dark. But knowing that upfront helps with the planning process.

Prepare, prepare, prepare.

When I do book events, I like to maintain a conversational tone. That can be difficult in a formal situation, when the media is present or you’re talking to a big crowd. I’ve found that the better I know my material, the more fluid and natural I sound, whatever the circumstances.

And how do you do that?  By preparing. A lot.

Consider starting with a general concept for the presentation. Obviously you’ll want to promote your books, but blatant selling turns off an audience. Instead, create a structure that allows you to weave in stories, examples, tidbits about your books, whatever might resonate with that audience and help them to relate to your material. I always make sure the presentation is shorter than the allotted time, and that no section drags. People relate to personal examples and emotion. Make them care.

For example, at the fundraiser, I framed the presentation as “three things I’ve learned during my publishing journey.” Then I decided on the three main topics and outlined which personal anecdotes, conference stories, bits about my books, etc. fit. I practiced a few times before putting pen to paper in order to get a feel for what worked. Then I created an outline of the presentation. Once I had my talk committed to memory (by practicing it aloud), I created a one-page bulleted cheat sheet that I never looked at. The key is to know the material so well that getting off track won’t get you off track.

This may sound like a ton of work, but it’s really not. I had the presentation written and committed to memory in less than a day. Using down-time to practice—like in the shower, or while driving—helps.

Visualize beforehand.

No, I’m not going to tell you to sit quietly and visualize yourself presenting successfully to your audience (although you can certainly do that if it works). Remember that one-page bulleted cheat sheet? In the hours before a speaking event, try mentally walking through the main points of the cheat sheet a few times, making sure you know the flow of the stories/anecdotes/facts that will come under each bullet. Think of it as a mental roadmap. Your brain will follow the route even if you get nervous on stage.

Celebrate the moment.

Once you’re up there, have fun. You’ve prepared in advance, crafted material that’s personal and evocative, and you know your venue and your audience. You’re ready. The audience will sense you’re passionate about your craft, and they’ll respond in kind.

A wise woman once advised me that public speaking is like being the host at a party. Rather than feeling uncomfortable or self-conscious, concentrate on making sure your audience is benefitting from your talk. When you transfer the focus from yourself to your audience members, you set yourself up for a more successful experience.

Not all of these tips will work for everyone—different strokes for different folks. But if you find yourself facing a speaking event and you’re anxious about the opportunity, try implementing a process. A little planning and forethought will go a long way toward making you feel (and look) like a natural.

WENDY TYSON has written five published crime novels.  The first in the Campbell series, Killer Image, was named a best mystery for book clubs in 2014 by  Wendy is also the author of the Greenhouse Mystery Series, the first of which, A Muddied Murder, was released in March 2016. She lives with her family on a micro-farm near Philadelphia.

To learn more about Wendy Tyson’s latest novel, click on the cover below: