My Two Cents

About the writer’s fear of public speaking…

by Nov 29, 2013Writers5 comments

Let me tell you about Newt, a shy young man in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Newt adores Lorena, one of the saloon women.

The narrator says Newt “was painfully aware that if the chance for personal speech ever did arise he would have no idea what to say. On the rare occasions when he had an errand that took him by the saloon he lived in terror, afraid some accident might occur which would actually force him to speak to her.”

Other than the fact he’s a character in a great novel, what does Newt have to do with writers, you ask? Many of us are like Newt and live in terror that someone will ask, “what’s your book about?” Or that we’ll be offered a chance to speak in public.

As a writer you’ve spent hours upon hours honing your writing skills, drafting, revising and polishing your work. Perhaps you have a finished manuscript. Perhaps you even managed to find an agent or a publisher without actually talking face to face about your novel.

Now comes the next part of your job – letting people know about the book. For a published author that means talking to readers and reviewers. For unpublished writers, it means talking to agents, editors and publishers.

And that will result in what I call The Terror of Newt – that paralyzing fear that dries your mouth and blanks your mind.

If you had unlimited funds, you’d hire a mouthpiece. But you don’t, so if you are to do your job of letting people know about your book, you must conquer The Terror of Newt. Here are a few suggestions to help you.

• Join a speakers’ group, such as Toastmasters. Until I moved away from Vancouver, I belonged to Off the Page – a local Toastmasters group for writers who want to hone speaking skills. Excellent and collegial.

• If you are part of a writing group, consider devoting one meeting a month to speaking skills.

• If you don’t belong to a writing group, gather a few of your colleagues and create a speakers’ group.

What skills might you practice to beat back The Terror of Newt? How about:

Workshops/conference presentations: have a group member present a short workshop on aspects of craft, blogging, publishing, public readings, or pitching. The workshop leader gains experience in developing material for a workshop, and in leading a workshop; the members learn a new skill, and in interactive workshops (such as reading one’s work, or pitching) practice the skill.

Interviews: run mock interviews. The interviewer gains experience not only in asking questions, but also in listening to the answers and, where appropriate, expanding the interview; the interviewee learns to answer both scripted and impromptu questions.

Panels: similar to workshops, but your panels can involve several members of the group. The moderator learns to structure a panel, set the topic, lead the questions, and manage panel members; the panel members learn to participate as one of a group.

Improv: a group member leads the improv and lobs topics to individual members, who speak for one or two minutes on the topic. Try to select topics that focus on the writer’s work, background, and process to give the writer experience in addressing the most common questions.

Writing can be lonely work. Writing groups help us manage that. Speaking about your writing projects, whether to a small group or a large conference, can be terrifying. If you have a writers’ group (or if not, if you join a group like Toastmasters), you can alleviate some of the terror by devoting time on a regular basis to speaking skills.

What things have you done to conquer The Terror of Newt?

5 Comments

  1. Kaye Linden

    I’m glad you raised this issue, Charlotte. It remains a problem for shy writers. Toastmasters is the best bet. With an audience of 25 to 35 members each week, one gets used to speaking to an audience. I have found that the group morphs into one character, one person. Imagine that you are speaking to a compassionate listener. That helps. Kaye Linden

  2. Charlotte Morganti

    You are correct about imagining speaking to one listener, Kaye. I think public speaking can be an issue for more than just shy people. I don’t think of myself as shy and I certainly have no problem speaking to my workshop groups, but get me in front of people I don’t know and my throat starts to seize! Toastmasters helped me overcome that somewhat. I find being over prepared helps immensely too.

  3. Kaye Linden

    Confidence in one’s subject matter and practice prior to the presentation helps. I find I still can feel nervous but once I warm up, it goes smoothly. The secret is “feeling the butterflies but getting them to fly in formation.” (don’t remember who said that)

  4. Kristina Stanley

    Thanks for the tips. I’ve done a lot of public speaking in my career, but somehow speaking about work topics is easy. Speaking about a novel I’ve written – terrifying 🙂 I’ve been practicing reading aloud to Audacity software and listening to myself. The first thing I learned is to slow down and enjoy saying the words. Kristina

  5. Charlotte Morganti

    Hi Kristina. I agree that listening to yourself is a good plan–I remember the first time I heard my voice on a dictaphone. I was surprised that it sounded different than I had imagined! Videotaping a presentation is also another great learning experience, although soul destroying when you first see all your strange tics, hand wringing and bad posture! And the “ums”–yikes! For me, talking about something I’ve written is more nerve wracking because it’s more than passing out information, I want the listener to like the story — and that raises the stakes!

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