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Monday, November 3, 2014


We’ve all heard it said – and if you haven’t, you need to – that every writer needs to learn to be a speaker.  REALLY???  Yes.   

And - yes - this is scary for many of us. Indeed, the fear of speaking in public is reportedly the second greatest fear, second only to the fear of flying! 

In order to be a successful speaker, however, there are several things that need to be addressed. And according to the experts, the most important things include: audience; content; setting; and delivery.

Is it possible to overcome the fear that accompanies that first -- or second -- or thirtieth speaking engagement?

Yes! Absolutely.

The first element to consider after accepting a speaking engagement is audience, knowing to whom you’re speaking and why. Is it a library reading or speech for Rotary or Lions – or perhaps a school power-point, workshop presentation, or book club presentation? 

Establishing who the audience is and what their needs are or what your goals are clearly leads you to the next elements in a powerful presentation. But do not underestimate this initial step: without understanding who the audience is you may not prepare properly.

After analyzing who your audience will be, it’s time to analyze or select your content. Content is, of course, what you select to include in your speech or presentation. For writers of historical romances or westerns, it might mean pulling out aspects of your story or aspects of the setting or history, or even the compelling conflict and/or romance! 

Finding obscure historical facts that relate to your story’s time period might be just what triggers greater interest in your story overall. I recall that when speaking to a college class about writing historicals, I shared some rare and humorous events that were tied to my story about BlackBart—but which had not been included in the novel. That made for a great hook and it was easy to move into Black Bart's fascinating life story and the novel I’d written as a result. It also led to a wonderful Q & A afterward.
Content could also include a summary of your story – or the background that led to your story. Or perhaps the characterizations you developed: why you selected the characters you did or how you came up with the names of your characters. Even naming characters can be a fascinating aspect of characterization; I know I spend a substantial amount of time naming my hero and heroine. No doubt most writers do… and readers find this intriguing as well.

The setting for your presentation can improve your delivery by providing elements of interest. I’ve used vintage photos, even poster-size, to elicit a response or question from the audience (following my initial talk, or randomly throughout). I’ve not used videos, per se, but have used power-point presentations (brief ones) as a lead-in to my talks or as a follow up. I’ve used questions or anecdotes as lead-ins, too. The use of a power-point presentation and/or posters and photos have proved successful in eliciting great follow-up questions, especially when speaking to groups of students or groups like Rotary and Native Daughters.

The use of costumes is intriguing, and although I have not done a lot of dressing in vintage costume, the few times I have, I’ve enjoyed it immensely—and so has the audience. But it may not always be appropriate. In truth, however, appearance is something by which a speaker is often judged. It’s been said you should dress as well as the ‘best-dressed’ person attending your presentation. And if coming in costume fits your venue, go for it! When I speak to farm groups or cattlewomen’s organizations, you can be sure that I appear in my best ‘western’ gear, which, for me, is a comfortable arena as a rancher’s wife and fits in well with my historical/western ‘bent.’

Certainly the overall setting and/or location can lend itself to a powerful presentation. On the other hand, a poor setting can be limiting and/or distracting for both you as a speaker or the audience. I’ve presented in small areas that lacked space or appeal, so it meant I had to make the most of MYSELF as the feature…

For me, the hardest part of planning a presentation is the delivery. I do not consider myself a natural speaker, although I’m a veteran teacher! I finally understood that while teaching, the emphasis is always on the student, so I rarely feel intimidated. But speaking to groups, especially to groups of other writers or teachers, the focus shifts obviously to me, and that IS intimidating!  But as time has gone on, I’ve grown more comfortable in working up a lively delivery. Learning how to pause, how to gesture, how to elaborate and/or exaggerate an emotion or content has become a challenge I enjoy undertaking.

Obviously VOICE is hugely important; a monotone delivery is boring. A presentation where the speaker relies only on a written speech is also horribly boring. Intonation and variety in your delivery is imperative. Humor is always a positive, but it needs to be natural – not forced or pretentious – and certainly not derogatory or demeaning.

That being said, as a writer/speaker, selecting the right venue is important. You may actually not want to accept every opportunity to speak. Some audiences may not be the right ones if the proposed subject area is one that doesn’t entice or excite YOU. I have learned to focus on those groups and/or venues that offer the best chance to showcase myself and/or my material.

Finally, in preparing to speak, I’ve learned a couple simple “tricks!” One?  It’s best not to eat just before speaking; eating can make your system sluggish.  Another? Sucking on a lemon 10 or 15 minutes ahead of time can actually help alleviate that awful dry mouth syndrome (I learned that from an acting friend!). 
Or drinking a little lemon-water can help. There's nothing worse than having your mouth become dry and sticky. 

Some people also like to keep a small glass of water nearby. I often do.  Incidentally, don’t get too warm; as in teaching, keeping the environment on the cooler side helps keep everyone more alert. Believe me, I never allowed my classroom to be too warm, especially on testing days!

Another lesson from my teaching days? Do not pass out any “handouts” until after you speak or else your audience will be distracted by what’s written. Between papers being folded or handed around, the audience will pay far less attention if there is something in their hands. And, of course, cell phones need to be quieted and even your pockets should be empty. Again, I’ve seen many teachers make the mistake of clicking pens or jingling keys while standing in front of students. All of these small things can be a terrible distraction.

I think the last item to remember is that even if it’s a small crowd, always treat those who have come to listen to you as if they are the most important people in the world. Never assume that a small crowd is less important than a large one. The interaction can surprise you, even if you look around and see 4 people waiting to hear you speak. Hopefully that doesn't occur, but do not be dismayed.  In the end, if you are engaged and enthusiastic, select the appropriate content and prepare the setting and your delivery to the best of your ability, speaking engagements can be fun, rewarding, and profitable. 

*  *  *  *  *

Gail L. Jenner is the author of two historical novels, including the WILLA Award-winning ACROSS THE SWEET GRASS HILLS, re-released by Prairie Rose Publications in December 2013. She has coauthored 6 nonfiction books, the most recent, ANKLE HIGH AND KNEE DEEP,  has been listed as #3 and #10 in's Top 100 books on Country/Rural living for 5 months. Two of her short stories have also been included in two Prairie Rose Publications' anthologies: Lassoing A Bride; and the upcoming Christmas anthology, Present for a Cowboy.

A former history and English teacher, she is the wife of a fourth generation cattle rancher. She is a Past President of Women Writing the West and a member of Western Writers of America. Her writing has placed in a number of contests, including the William Faulkner Short Story Contest, the Jack London Novel Contest, the PNWA Screenplay Contest, two Writers' Digest contests, and many others.  She has been a speaker and presenter at a wide variety of conferences, and for many different kinds of groups and venues, and she still battles butterflies and dry mouth!


  1. Gail, as someone who teaches classes on speaking, you covered the topic beautifully. Doris

  2. Thank you, Doris! I don't pretend to be an expert, but as an English teacher, I learned the essentials. It wasn't until becoming a writer that I discovered how important those speaking skills really are!

  3. A great post, Gail. Years ago I joined Toastmasters - I was in grad school and would soon defend my thesis, so I knew I needed help with public speaking. It was a wonderful way to practice and get feedback. And because of it, my defense went really well, and my nerves were surprisingly subdued considering I'd stressed about it for 2 years. Practice and preparation make such a huge difference. But, that being said, I don't seek out opportunities to speak these days LOL.

  4. My father was a Toastmaster for years and as a result, was often called upon to emcee different community/local/church events. I avoided speaking for a long time, but more and more have found it to be an adventure, albeit a "stretching" experience. Thanks for stopping by :-)

  5. Very good comments. Over the years I have grown more confident about speaking in public. I think part is I have done it enough that I know I will survive and part is that I'm old enough I've learned to not take myself too seriously. I work hard at not sticking my foot in mouth -- and I'm not always real successful at that. But, if I trip or my tongue or something I say comes out sounding stupid, I laugh it off, try to rephrase and move on. I love your graphic. Thanks! Robyn Echols writing as Zina Abbott

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Zina! I agree about trying not to take myself too seriously!!! AND I have occasionally stuck my foot in my mouth, too, although thankfully, my subject matter rarely has me looking TOO foolish or stupid :-) I had fun with the graphics, btw, esp. the poor woman who looks terrified. But I do think that writers need to take this idea seriously as we need to come out from behind our screens and show ourselves.

  6. Most of the writers I know who do well financially actually make their money by speaking engagements and then sell their books as an added benefit after their presentation.

    1. Hi Peggy!!! Thanks for stopping by!! Yes, I think you're right....certainly getting paid for speaking is a positive for writers. In small communities, the engagements are often not paying gigs. Still, marketing books is a side benefit and it's proved to be quite worthwhile. Name recognition is also an important benefit.

  7. Well, I'm the whole spider web!
    A very informative and helpful blog, Gail.
    I remember walking to the front of the class to give a book report clutching my paper in my hand like it was a life line. It was like an out of body experience. I don't see public speaking in my future. One of the things I like best about writing is I can be alone in my cozy study surrounded by my pets.
    Even though my dad was a meteorologist and, after retiring from the US Weather Bureau, gave the weather on TV. He was comfortable in a crowd and talking in front of people. I did not inherit that gene. I would have to be drunk to stand before a crowd and talk.
    Great blog, Gale, All the very best to your corner of the universe.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Sarah! I agree that not everyone is destined to speak -- but it can be a great opportunity for those who pursue it. I had so many kids in school who also found speaking almost traumatic! One reason why our kids were in 4-H and FFA! Those organizations are so good about getting kids more comfortable with speaking out loud to groups.