When I was in kindergarten, I was enlisted to sing Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” as part of a school production. As I wandered onstage in a cowboy hat and holster with toy pistols in my hands, some teachers in the front row began making downward hand gestures. Soon, it seemed that everyone in the auditorium was snickering. I looked down and froze: My skirt was caught up in my holster and my underwear was on perfect, painful display.
I recall this mortifying moment any time I’m invited to speak in public, which as the author of a new book, happens often. Since February, I’ve given readings in bookstores, presentations in libraries, and demos in private homes. As a naturally shy person, each invitation brings new forms of dread. Recently, I spoke to a historical society in Massachusetts, and the crowd was bigger, older, and rowdier than I had anticipated. The venue also lacked a mic. As the tipsy 70-and-over crowd yelled at me to — well, yell back at them — I almost froze.
Almost. As adults, we need to push our scarred inner kindergarteners to the side and just get on with it. To wit, I’ve drawn on wisdom from Mike Brady (“Picture them in their underwear,”…hehe), from mentors, and even from Google searches. I’ve learned that when I think there’s schmutz on my face, there usually isn’t. Mostly, though, I’m been building on small successes — as well as failures.
For my fellow shrinking violets (and other writerly types), these are a few things I’ve learned so far.
1. Accept your fate (a.k.a., There’s no escape.) Being invited to speak is flattering, and for first-time authors, a “yes” might be automatic. Dread can creep in later. Don’t cancel due to fear — instead, push the occasion to the back of your mind until a week or so beforehand. At that point, it’s too late to back out but still early enough to prepare. Ridiculous, but effective.
2. Don’t over prepare. For my first few talks, I typed up extensive notes and worried after every syllable. By the third time I was in front of a crowd, I realized that much of what I wanted to say had been etched into my brain by months of research and writing. My notes became cursory; instead of reading, “The Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock in November 1620 because the crew and passengers were running out of beer,” my notes might now say, “Mayflower/beer,” or even just “beer” (people love beer). The audience always seems more engaged when I talk freely rather than read from a script.
3. Interact early and often. You’re talking to room full of fellow humans with their own experiences, interests and anecdotes. They are literally living treasure. Asking questions before the presentation begins (“How many of you have tried x?” or “Who here is a home brewer?”) establishes rapport and can yield new directions to steer the talk.
4. Keep it brief. The Q&A is the most interesting part of any speaking engagement, and people’s attention spans (including my own) are getting shorter. I tend to break my talks into 5-7 minute segments with built-in breaks for questions.
4. Belt it out if necessary. This one I learned from the septuagenarians: What feels to me like shouting is actually a normal public speaking voice (depending on the venue and audience). When there’s no microphone, pretend you’re talking to the people at the back of the room — and project your little heart out.
6. If you falter, go easy on yourself. Last week, I moderated a local panel on farm-to-bottle drinks. It was much scarier to speak to 80 or so of my peers than to hundreds of strangers. My crib notes became a blur and I lost my place at the very beginning. I learned three things: Pauses mostly go unnoticed by the audience; it pays to know something fun about your panelists (this is how I saved myself); and beating oneself up over perceived failure is useless. As Glen Campbell sings, “There’s been a lot of compromisin’ / On the road to my horizon.” That includes compromisin’ with the inner critic. Let go and let Glen.