Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter.
An interesting fact: most people fear public speaking more than they fear death.
Having recently gone from reclusive novelist to active book promoter, I believe it, and I think writers are especially vulnerable to the terror of getting up in front of an audience and talking about anything, especially our own work.
My first experience in public speaking left an indelible scar, and it wasn’t even about my writing. At the time, I was a supervisor in my employer’s benefits department, and I had to participate in a presentation about certain changes to our plans. I wasn’t particularly nervous until I reached the front of the room. Then my mouth went so dry that my tongue felt like paper; my hands trembled; and my previously well-organized thoughts scattered like dandelion fluff. I could tell from the pitying looks on my colleagues’ faces that my talk was a total disaster.
After that debacle, I enrolled in a public speaking class at the local community college, and eventually I got to the point where I could talk in front of a group without showing my nervousness. But I never enjoyed the experience.
In the years that followed, my hard-won public speaking ability eroded—like any skill, you either use it or you lose it.
Flash forward a couple of decades, and my novel Mending Dreams was published: a dream come true. That dream, however, came hand in hand with a nightmare: I had to once again venture into the spotlight, this time to promote my book. I had to resurrect skills that had never been all that strong in the first place and were now mighty rusty. I needed help.
I found that help in Toastmasters 4 Writers, a delightful group of people who immediately understood my predicament and helped me get back on the public speaking horse. More than that, they made it fun. Since I’d already committed to a launch party for Mending Dreams, I was able to jump right in and pitch my novel to the group, and their enthusiasm and encouragement carried me through the launch and on into a string of other appearances. Several of the club members even came to the book launch to show their support. The group has become a treasured part of my writing life.
I didn’t realize how far I’d come on my public speaking journey until recently, when I was asked to speak to a group of former co-workers at their monthly “alumni club” meeting. This talk needed to be longer than my usual 10-15 minutes, and the audience included not only people I had worked with during my career, but also some I had worked for. I was slightly intimidated.
However, I practiced the first part of the talk at my Toastmasters 4 Writers meeting and got some incisive feedback so useful that it pulled the speech structure into shape. Armed with that support, I felt ready to take on the (so far) biggest challenge in my book-promoter role.
From my point of view, the talk went really well. I kept the group awake after a carbo-loaded lunch, and they laughed at the parts where I hoped they would. But even more important, while I was talking, I realized I’m not scared anymore, and that awareness was the same kind of high I get when the solution to a thorny story problem suddenly comes clear.
This epiphany didn’t happen by magic. I’ve learned a few things since that disastrous speech many years ago:
- First and foremost, preparation is crucial. Know your stuff and practice it every chance you get: if not in front of a group, at least to the mirror, the cat, or the dog. If you have the means to video it, do that.
- Just as important—remember to breathe. Take a DEEP breath and exhale as you’re walking to the lectern, the podium, the front of the room—or simply standing up in place. You don’t want to be gasping for breath, and an oxygen-deprived brain won’t help you recall your talking points.
- Bring water with you if possible. That dry mouth thing is a killer, and nobody notices if you pause to take an occasional sip of water in between sentences.
- If your audience is larger than ten to 20, use a microphone. If you’re not straining to make your words heard, you can focus on more important issues. I used to be afraid of microphones, until I realized how much easier they made things. Take whatever’s available—and if you’re using a hand-held mike, clamp that arm to your side and keep it there; gestures are great, but you don’t want to be waving that mike all over the place.
- Even if I know the speech cold, I always bring a few notes, usually typed in 20-point Verdana so I can see them easily. This removes the fear of a brain freeze—which happens to even the most accomplished speakers sometimes.
- If making eye contact is a challenge for you, seek out one or two friendly faces in the audience and return to them again and again for confidence, but focus on others as well. I bet you’ll find that most of them are smiling and looking interested, too.
- Above all, if you’re speaking to a group interested in you and your writing, remember this: they’re already on your side. They want to like you. Got it?
I don’t know that I will ever enjoy public speaking, but thanks to my Toastmasters 4 Writers club, and my loyal friends who show up to support me, an invitation to come out and talk about my work no longer fills me with terror.
Conquering fear is a very empowering act. Maybe next I’ll tackle the Dreaded Blank Page Syndrome. Wish me luck!