The standard joke is that writers do what they do because it allows them to work 1) alone and/or 2) silently, and no one should be surprised when writers are awkward or boring in person. There was certainly a time when one could fit that stereotype and still make a decent living, but nowadays it’s nearly impossible to be a career writer and not have to do a certain amount of public speaking as part and parcel of that existence. Write books? Go on tour to promote them. Blog for a living? Sit on some panels at conferences. Otherwise freelance in the realm of getting paid for your words? Rest assured, somewhere, at some point, you are going to be expected to speak publicly in support of the work you do.
Nothing will make people question your professionalism more than a terrible public speaking engagement. Listen, some people just get nervous and handle themselves poorly in public; it doesn’t mean they’re dumb or incompetent by default. But a good public showing showcases your ability to conduct yourself like a professional, while a poor one suggests you don’t do well under pressure.
The good news is that presentation skills can be learned. If you don’t yet handle yourself well in this arena, don’t panic! You can cultivate the skills you need.
Being professional is about 75% being polite. I’m always amazed at how many people—often those who are considered very important (or believe they are, anyway) overlook this basic tenet of human interaction. I would argue that you cannot be professional in the absence of politeness. That means you listen as well as speak, you observe basic manners, and you follow the rules of whatever forum in which you’re participating. It sounds simple because it is: Don’t interrupt other speakers, don’t go over the time allotted, don’t insult people, etc. This is basic stuff, but it makes a world of difference in the impression you leave.
Be confident, or fake it until you really are. Speak loudly enough to be heard. Try not to talk too fast or too slow. Slow down and take a deep breath rather than stammering or saying “um,” if you can. (Practicing helps with these sorts of issues a lot; you can train yourself to speak more clearly if you practice enough.) Learn the sorts of “tricks” that can get you through difficult interactions, such as smiling and saying, “That’s a really interesting question, I never thought about that” when you don’t know the answer to something. You don’t have to know everything—and faking knowledge can come back to bite you—but you do have to figure out how to be gracious.
Use assistive technology to enhance, rather than detract. If you’re just going to talk, that’s great. If it’s the sort of thing where you “should” have a slide deck, that’s fine, but use the slides to enhance your words rather than to act as a crutch. (I love this LifeHacker piece on making amazing PowerPoint presentations as a good set of guidelines.) Don’t start using music and animation or whatever unless you need it to support something you’re discussing. Your words should be enough; everything else should be (sparing) icing on the cake.
Be passionate. Any time you agree to speak in public, it should be because you really care about the subject at hand (and that should translate into an engaging presentation by default). If you don’t care about the topic, pass on the opportunity. It’s very difficult to get others to care about what you don’t, and it’s not fun for anyone involved. When you have big feelings about a subject, it’s easier to set aside your own jitters and share that emotion with others.
Don’t forget to be human. “Good presentation” is not synonymous with “perfect,” nor does it need to be. Sometimes you’re going to trip over your tongue or drop a microphone or your slides will freeze up. You might say the wrong thing or go blank for a second when it’s your turn to talk. Handled properly—as minor blips, with a quick apology or maybe a joke—these sorts of things make you look more approachable rather than detracting from your overall impression on your audience. No one needs you to be perfect. And if you accept at the outset that something will probably go wrong and you’ll handle it and move on, you’re less likely to be thrown off your game when it does.
Five simple points; I hope your next public speaking opportunity is a huge success!
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