Public Speaking Tips for the Timid, Shy, or Panicked
If you’re an author, odds are you’re going to be giving some sort of presentation, whether it be a book signing or school visit or conference workshop.
And if you’re an author, odds are you’re an introvert.
Maybe you’re an extroverted introvert, the social type who’s often confused for an extrovert.
Heck, maybe you are an extrovert, you rare bird you.
Any way you label it, odds are you hate public speaking. Otherwise you’d be out drinking with your friends and not reading this blog post. Glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, is said to affect up to 75% of the population, and ranks higher than the fear of death. Over 15 million Americans suffer from some sort of social anxiety.* It’s amazing anyone gets out of bed.
Or, say in bed.
But those speaking engagements are still there. They are going to “get your name out there,” build your brand, and sell your books. You can’t avoid them. Not if you want to sell books, that is.
I’m not trying to scare you off, but people are strikingly more likely to remember HOW you said something compared to WHAT you said. Think of a great speaker you saw. Now tell me what he or she said. You probably won’t remember most of the content, but you’ll remember the overall message or feeling they left you with. When it comes to remembering a speaker’s talk, a UCLA study showed that people tend to remember about 7% of what the presenter said (the words). That’s it. The rest, 93%, is the nonverbal impression the speaker made on the attendee. The good news is 93% of what attendees walk away with is all under your control. Gestures account for 55%, tone 38% of the opinion/memory. You can affect that. Relatively easily (honest–I’ll show you). Another study by Management Science showed people are more likely influenced by the likability of a speaker that the quality of the speaker’s arguments. So…not to add to your stress, but instead of spending all that time on content, you need to spend time on delivery too. Good thing you’re a peach.
I’m going to give you some solid ways to make sure your presentation stands out from the crowd, no matter how shy or nervous or a beginner you are. These 5 DOs and 5 DON’Ts will ease your mind and take you from a panicked mess to a well-informed presenter. I’ve also included 3 extra of each, for the advanced presenter who wants to crank it up to eleven.
If you take it seriously and do your homework, you’re gonna do great. Realistically you might not hit a home run your next time at bat (sorry but IRL there are no shortcuts or instant successes, this isn’t a Hallmark movie), but you’ll get on base at least. You got this. Honest.
Or, you can, if you try.
- 1. DON’T Confuse your agenda with theirs
You are there to give a presentation, right? Wrong.
You are there to share information, right? Wrong.
You are there to make them a better speaker/reader/person. You are taking your expertise and sharing it with them so they can implement it and improve their lives/careers and therefore they can improve the lives/careers of others.
Isn’t that wonderful?
Not:“I’m here to talk about…” But: “Today you will learn…”
It may seem like a subtle difference but that change in perspective makes all the difference in the world. (OK, not the world, but big.)
Don’t be a writer but instead be writing…Faulkner, 1958
- 2. DON’T Peddle your wares
No one likes a sales pitch. It’s icky. You’re not starring in an infomercial. Have your book(s) standing up on a table off to the side, and unless someone asks directly or you are quoting from them, don’t even acknowledge your titles. Let them speak for themselves. (It’s perfectly OK to point to them in your intro as you mention you are an author, tho.) If your presentation goes well they will be flocking over to buy or ask about them. Even if you think you’re being cute, the second you start hawking your stuff you lose credibility–as well as your audience.
- 3. DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT NOT REHEARSING. Out loud. Repeatedly.
How do you become a decent presenter? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice practice. While most audiences will decide within seconds whether or not they deem a speaker credible, writer-ly crowds are rooting for you, so don’t sweat it too hard at writing conferences. You still have to practice; just know they aren’t out to judge you harshly–they really want to learn. Give them reasons to pay attention to you instead of reasons to doodle or switch sessions midstream.
There is no way around this: you HAVE to practice your talk. Out loud. In front of people. More than once. Your audience isn’t expecting a TED Talk, but they want to know you didn’t wake up this morning and crank the presentation out on your way to the conference hall. And they deserve your best efforts. I’ve heard presenters say “When I was working on this on the plane” and “Last night when I wrote the page” and it’s flat out insulting. You’re a professional getting paid to do this. Act like it.
Yes, you will feel awkward talking to yourself as you rehearse. But you have to say it out loud. The first “dry run” will give you an idea on timing: how long is it? Do you need more material or do you need to cut some stuff out? The second time you’ll be more likely to notice where you repeat yourself or where things are out of order. The third and fourth time you’ll get more comfortable and more familiar with the material, with what’s coming next, so you can focus more on the HOW you’re presenting instead of the WHAT. (You wrote it, how hard can it be to remember it?) You’ll get more comfortable walking around as you talk. [Repeat after me: I am not sitting or standing in one place the whole time. I am not a boring robot.] The more comfortable you are with the material, the more comfortable you will be onstage presenting it.
- 4. DON’T START OUT APOLOGIZING. Or apologize mid-talk.
Never start out with an apology. You only get one change to make a first impression, right? Start out strong. If the projector isn’t working, stop and quietly go over to your handler or whoever is in charge to get help. No need to announce “Oh this isn’t working, let me get help.” We know it’s not working. We are in the room. If a table is in the way, walk over and move it, without saying a word. Control the room.
Don’t make eye contact with the audience until you have things under control and are ready to go.
That’s not to say you don’t own up to anything if you have made a mistake (“Oh, sorry, I thought you said beaches”). I’m referring to if something technical/mechanical goes wrong during your talk.
- Not: “Oh, wait, this needs to, um, let me fix, er, move this, bum-dee-bum, hi, oh sorry, I hate this, hang on while I juggle some furniture around, doot-de-doot-doo, almost there, one mooooore sec, OK, now we can get started.” Nope. Not: “Wait, that page isn’t supposed to be here, I thought I fixed that, hang on while I–dang it, I paged back too far, now I have to…doot-doot, bear with me here, folks…” No. Shut your trap and make it right. Without a sound. Without eye contact. You might think you’re making it less awkward or being charming by narrating, but what you’re doing is calling attention to the fact something is wrong. Or that you don’t have your act together. No sense announcing it. Fix it. If it’s a dreaded typo, don’t fawn over it, simply state “oh, that’s spelled wrong” and move on. If you can’t fix what’s wrong, calmly move on, talk from your notes instead of slides, or jump to Q&A. To me, this is the #1 way to tell a beginner speaker from a seasoned one.
- Not: Sorry I’m late But: Thanks for waiting
- Not: I was going to have handouts but… But: I’m passing around a sign-up sheet; I’ll be emailing you a summary/worksheet/handout tomorrow
- Not: Sorry it’s so cold in here But: Thanks for bearing through this arctic room temp
On a related note, never throw anyone under the bus. Even if, say Thomas is to blame for the typo/missing docs/cold temp/etc, never call him out (“Ack, I told Tom to fix that”). You’ll look like a jerk, even if it was Tom’s fault. It’s your presentation. Blame no one.
Silence while you correct it, on the spot, like a boss.
- 5. DON’T GO LONG
Ending on time proves you rehearsed, are fully aware how much time you were given, and knew how to use it effectively. It also shows you respect the audience’s time.
- 1. DO Start BY ANSWERING ‘WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME?’
In addition to starting with who you are and why you’re qualified to be speaking either on the topic or at that event, tell the audience what they will learn (not “what I will talk about!”), and how it will make them a better writer/editor/artist/person–i.e., what’s in it for them.
- Greeting followed by your name, spoken slowly and clearly
- Two or three reference points on why you are the content expert and maybe a fun fact about yourself
- Specifics on what people are going to learn/walk away knowing
- Why they need this important information, if possible
“Hello! I’m Bitsy Kemper. I’m author of 21 books and have taught presentation skills for years, from beginners up to corporate vice presidents (talk about a tough crowd). Today you’re going to learn how YOU, you sweet introverts, can make your next author visit or book presentation shine, even if you hate giving presentations. How does that sound?”
Or: “By the time you finish reading this blog post, you will learn ways to make your author presentation better, in both content and presentation skills. As introverted as most authors are, these tips will not only ease the stress of future book signings or conference speeches, but give you insight into how to make talks successful regardless of how comfortable you feel in front of a crowd. Your future audiences will walk away with a positive impression of both you and your session.”
You don’t want to include background on yourself that isn’t relevant to that particular setting. In the first example above I stated I’m an author because I’m talking to authors. If it was a corporate setting, I know they are a tougher sell so would have started with “I spent 13 years in the computer industry, then consulted on marketing and branding for small businesses, have been on CNN/movies/TV, and as author of 21 books giving presentations across the country, now focus on helping others–like you–write and present. Today you’re going to learn how to take your presentations to the next level, whether you hate giving presentations or think you’re already pretty darn good. Who’s ready to start learning some secret intel?” In that case I gave some corporate experience so they know we have a common thread, gave quick acting nod as that always helps a presenter’s cred, and used being an author as my most relevant experience explaining why/how I know about giving presentations.
No humble brags. More of a brief resume recap that’s targeted to the audience. And speaking of audience…
- 2. DO Know your audience!
Who are you talking to? Are they fifth graders? PreK? PreK all the way through 5th grade? Teaching staff? Just like you wouldn’t write a book for fifth graders in the same way you’d write it for four year olds, you need to know who you’re talking to and adjust accordingly.
Your message won’t change, but how you get it across will.
There are times you won’t know in advance–whether the people that hired you never told you, or they don’t know themselves (hello, book tour!). There are times the info changes (“…there was a K/1 field trip today so we’re sending you to third grade instead”). I mean, how many of you have ever signed up for a session at a conference and then switched once you got there? It happens.
Even if you were told who they are–CONFIRM. After that great intro you just gave–ask some questions to get a feel for the room. Start with a questions they can answer yes to. It gets buy-in from the get-go. “We’ve got writers in the crowd, yes?” Then narrow things down. “How many are published? YA writers? Picture book? Any illustrators?” Don’t spend too much time here, though, or you’ll come off as unprepared. View this as confirmation of who you think is there, not a panicked blank stare. You know everyone there is there to hear what you have to say on the topic, so it’s not like a random crowd rounded up from the street. A few clarifying Qs should handle it.
- 3. DO Spend time on content
As much as you’ll want to practice HOW you’re saying it, you need to make sure WHAT you’re saying is a) factually correct, b) what they hired you to talk about c) WHAT WAS ADVERTISED (if you are at a conference, triple check this; almost nothing upsets a crowd more than a speaker talking about a subject that differs from the title or program summary. They will blame you, not the conference coordinators.)
- 4. DO Radiate
Be confident knowing you are a content expert. You are up there presenting because you know what you are talking about. Everyone has felt the pangs of Imposter Syndrome; don’t let it get to you. Sure, there will always be someone who knows more than you on the subject. Does mean that you don’t know enough, or are unqualified? Not at all. You were asked to present (or in some cases, did the asking) because you know what you are talking about. So let that shine through. Remember that statistic on importance of being likable?
If you’re not a confident person in general, pretend, just for today, that you are, and act like one. That’s why you are there. That’s why they booked YOU. They could have asked anyone, and they chose you. Own it.
I’m not asking you to put on airs or suddenly become someone you’re not. We don’t want to see fakers. We still want the see the real you. Just a confident version of you. I mean, if you don’t believe in yourself or your material, why should I as an audience member? I want you to use your same voice, chose the same vocabulary, dress the same way (OK maybe a little nicer, please–see #5 below). And the only way to get that confidence level up is to practice, practice, practice. (See Don’t #3, above)
- 5. DO Dress nicely
To use an industry expression, people DO judge books by their covers. Dressing up shows you are respecting the audience. Doesn’t have to be a three-piece suit. Doesn’t have to be high-heeled shoes. But it needs to be something that makes you stand out from the crowd, just a little bit. You’re not an attendee, you’re a guest of honor. Don something that shows you put effort into this. And be consistent, as it builds your brand. (“Oh, the guy in the bow ties” or “You know, the speaker who always wears polka dots”)
Let me caution away from three things. Please, nothing 1. way too low cut or 2. wildly LOOK AT THIS distracting. We want to look at your sweet face as you’re talking, not at your clothes (will there be a wardrobe malfunction?) or platform shoes (will she trip out of them at any second?). Also, 3. nothing brand new. You need to know how something feels and moves before you try it out in front of a crowd for the first time. You don’t want the itchies or to split a seam reaching for a visual aid. (I can, um, neither confirm nor deny any of the above things happening to me…)
Is that all? you’re asking yourself.
If you’ve got all that down pat and are ready for more refinement, here are 3 bonus DOs and 3 bonus DON’Ts.
- BONUS DON’T #7: DON’T TALK TO “EVERYBODY.” Be specific. Talk to ME.
Think of this as a one on one conversation. With every member of the crowd. If you start out with “Hi, everyone!” it feels impersonal. Cold. Corporate. Like I’m one of many. If you say “Hello Cherry Avenue fifth graders!” you’ve made every fifth grader at that school feel special. Plus their teacher <shout out to Mrs. Fox!>. The crowd knows you are there for THEM, not for any ol’ group of kids. It feels personal. There’s a reason the crowd goes wild every time a rock star says “Hello, [insert your hometown]!” We feel special. Seen.
- BONUS DON’T 7: DON’T DISMISS Qs
“As seen on page 10…” or “As I mentioned earlier…” are not great ways to answer a question. If they knew the answer was on page 10, if they remembered what you said earlier, or if the answers given were clear, they wouldn’t be asking. Don’t be an arrogant jerk. Answer as if it’s the first time you’ve heard it. [Caveat: if the 4th first-grader in a row asks the same question, recognize they might not be capable of coming up with other/new questions and just want to be called on to make you happy. State the answer and end with “Are there questions not related to [xx]?” or simply end the Q&A. With a smile.]
On the flip side, there is nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know” to a Q. If you truly can’t bring yourself to say those words, a) get some professional help and b) pause and answer with a genuine “Let me look into that. Other questions?”
- BONUS DON’T #8 DON’T BRAG
State facts. Sure, tell us what went right. But include failure in your success story. We want to share in your humanness.
- BONUS DO #6: DO ADD VISUALS
We like you. But we don’t wanna spend the entire time staring at your mug while you yammer on. Or listen to you read your slides word for word. Personally, I feel if a speaker doesn’t have a powerpoint-type presentation it means they didn’t take it seriously or didn’t put in enough effort. I really do. That’s my corporate background talking and I can’t shake it. If computer-generated presentations really aren’t your bag, baby, at least give me a few other things to look at. Think of it as Show & Tell. Any sort of visual will go a long way. Sprinkle them in, don’t give me one in your entire 90-minute session. Include, say, a prop. A sample product. Photos. A large flip chart. An audio or video clip. Artwork. Don’t pass anything around, though. If people are looking at something in their hands, or distracted by the rumble of it getting passed around, it means they aren’t listening to you. Speaking of passing it around…
- BONUS DO #7: DO Bring a handout or giveaway of some sort
Yes, total suck-up move. But it works. People LOVE handouts–it’s like a follow up session with tangible information. It should have your name/logo/website on it, whether it’s a bookmark or session summary. Great branding opportunity! Wait until your talk is over before handing them out to keep the focus on you instead of the paper/trinket.
An example of an exception here is conferences or workshops for grown-ups. Maybe teenagers. To keep it interactive, often times I’ll bring a bag of candy (usually M&M Halloween-sized) and keep it hidden. The first time someone interrupts with a question, after I answer it I toss them a bag, thanking them for being bold enough to ask a question. I say it’s an incentive for the crowd to keep asking Qs, and toss one each time a Q is asked. They love it!
All handouts leave attendees with a positive impression, and a tangible piece of you. Win win.
- BONUS DO #8: DO Ask your audience (yes) questions
Asking questions keeps them involved. It keeps them on their toes (“whoops, I wasn’t listening, what did she say? I need to focus back”). By asking questions they agree with, it gets them on your side. And it gets them invested in the outcome of the session. You can take it a step further by getting them active: “By a round of applause, who wants to get published?” [Ask a Q everyone will answer yes to, and therefore all applaud.] Applauding effects the brain. Happy people applaud. Happy people smile. When even one person smiles it makes everyone in the room feel better because they, consciously or unconsciously, are smiling with that smile-er. Smiling people set a positive tone for your presentation. A happy tone is a great start. Wouldn’t you say that’s worth clapping for? <—see what I did there? 🙂
I hope implementing these tips will help your next presentation be the best one yet. The links give a ton more help, in much more depth than one blog can offer, and are worth a quick click. There are plenty of tried-and-true classic books to review as well, by well-respected experts like Dale Carnegie and Decker Communications. Check back with me in a little bit. Let me know what you’ve improved on most.
*Yes, I did quote my own book. In this/that link you can find my (award-winning!) TEENS AND PHOBIAS book for as little as $5.95. I don’t profit from sales, so I’m not actually asking you to buy it. But it’s honestly very helpful for anyone, not just teens, with social anxiety or a phobia of any kind, especially ones they may be reluctant to admit.