As a writer, my comfort zone, like most writers, is at home wrapped in the warm, soft blanket of creation. To create well-rounded, compelling characters, and pull them through the high stakes of their lives … there is simply no place I’d rather be.
But every so often, a writer has to get out and meet their readers. Word of mouth is truly the best way to sell books, but guess who must get that ball rolling? The writer. Once an event is booked, once you arrive on the scene, how do you size up the audience? Is the speech you have prepared the right one?
Be proactive. If you want to get an audience on your side, first you need to choose the right length of time to talk. Sometimes, even when they give you an allotted time to speak, you know after arriving, to shorten it, skip the Q & A, or change the speech entirely.
How can you make that decision? There is no fast rule here. You must learn to analyze each audience. I remember hearing that one pastor offered this silent prayer every time he stepped into the pulpit: “Lord, fill my mouth with worthwhile stuff, and nudge me when I’ve said enough.” Cute.
If you are the main event, if they came specifically to hear you speak, you possess much more latitude. But if you are the “scheduled speaker” at a business lunch, a monthly meeting, or a Mother’s Day event, if the audience didn’t come because of you, then do your homework and be prepared. Some folks in the audience, guaranteed, have never even heard of you. Unless you’re a celebrity author, you’ve got to make that group fall in love with you and want to take a piece of you home. Your book!
A program coordinator will typically suggest a specific length for your presentation, and usually it’s thirty minutes to an hour. Nod your head, appear appreciative, say thank you, then totally ignore whatever time frame they gave you.
Unless the entire program is focused on you and your books, meetings and conferences rarely stay on schedule. Technical glitches eat up time. Coffee breaks have a mysterious way of expanding. Attendees run late. Don’t assume you will get all the time you’ve been promised.
Event planners have an agenda. They think in terms of “time slots.” They need a speaker to fill their speaker slot on their schedule. Fine. But good speakers do more than fill time slots. As the invited speaker, your job is to entertain, enlighten, communicate and captivate your audience, all while selling your book(s) in the process. Tough process? You bet. But the good news, you can learn how to speak to your readers, be great at it, and have fun doing it!
Consider the place of the event. Is it inside or outside? Is it air-conditioned? Women and men? How many will attend and are the seats comfortable? It’s hard to communicate with an audience when they are uncomfortable. If you talk too long, they will tune you out. If it’s a lunch meeting, remember these folks need to get back to work. You want to give them enough time to buy your book!
What precedes your presentation? For example, if you’re scheduled to talk right after lunch, understand that lunch often runs overtime and so you might get less time to deliver your talk. Also, folks get sleepy. Don’t drag on and on. Give an interesting, quick, and to the point presentation. Talk in a friendly tone but don’t fiddle with your hair. And above all, remember to smile! Some say, “be yourself” but as a speaker you may want to spend your time as someone else! What a great excuse to do that! Crawl out of your own skin and into the skin of a well-known actor, or orator. Nobody has to know. Again, have fun!
On occasion the program director may want you to speak while the audience is eating. Try to get them to change this. People want to visit with those at their table when eating, not have to listen to a speaker. I know, crazy, but it happens.
Often a cocktail hour or a reception follows and the audience will be itching to get on with it. Not a comfortable situation to be in. But you have deal with this. Don’t just get through it, have fun with it. I’ve changed my speech several times, gearing it to the mood of the audience. If you don’t think you’re talented enough to do this, then I suggest you take a class in public speaking or join Toastmasters for a while, and learn how to manage your audience.
Always factor in a few minutes for starting late. I’ve sat in Rotary meetings that have run over, giving me a whole ten minutes to wow the room. I jump in with a quick reading, about a paragraph of my book, something funny, and talk about what will resonate with the audience. Enough to whet their appetite and buy the book. But never, ever look or sound irritated. Common sense, right? You’d be surprised.
When you arrive, are the women friendly? If it’s a mixed group, will that bother you? Do they welcome you warmly? Most do, but every once in a while you walk into a freezer. Truly, that’s when you make it a challenge. Your dog and pony show can surprise them, have them rushing to your table to buy your book after your closing remarks. Even if you’re a great speaker, be prepared for a non-responsive audience. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.
Don’t lecture. Find a coach to help you create compelling speeches about your work, research, and the book itself. Jodi Picoult is famous for her research prior to writing her novel. I’ve heard her speak on three separate occasions, and each time she spellbinds the audience with her story. I’ve also been in the audience of many other authors who put folks to sleep, or have no idea how to speak to a group. I’ve actually been quite embarrassed for them.
Allow time for someone to introduce you, and prepare that ahead of time. Make sure they have the correct bio in hand, or some interesting piece of news you would like the audience to know.
It’s okay to use your notes, walk around, or stand behind a podium. Dress for the event. Don’t overdress. And allow time for Questions and Answers. At most Book Clubs, the entire time is taken up in Q&A. It’s very informal and I love this. It’s easy, and the time goes fast.
But always, always allow time for selling your book.
Do your best. Once again, give the audience 100% and be prepared to shorten or change the speech upon your arrival. Never forget that the more you say, the less people remember. But take five minutes and read from your book. It doesn’t have to be from the first page, but make sure it’s a good part, and read in character if you can. I often turn into a Southern Fried Woman when I read. It’s just a part of me, so it’s easy. Find your niche. Know who you are as a writer and a speaker. It takes practice, hard work, and you must be fearless.
But more than anything, know your audience. If you can learn to read the faces, your success rate climbs. In invitations to speak, and in book sales. I’ve been professionally writing and speaking for well over a decade now, and I can tell you there is no social media like meeting your readers face to face.