Like any reasonable person, I’d rather step into the path of a train than get up in front of a crowd and give a speech. Countless surveys have shown that public speaking is the one experience people dread most. Death comes in a distant second. Makes sense. Death doesn’t require that you stick around and hear what people thought of your performance.
When I signed a book contract for the first time, I knew I had to do something to prepare for the public appearances that are part of book promotion. I have always been shy -- I’m okay in one-on-one encounters, but the thought of being the focus of a crowd’s attention makes me panic. I don’t have the voice for public speaking either. I sound strikingly like a 10-year-old with laryngitis, and my husband has been begging me for more than 30 years to SPEAK UP because he can’t hear me from three feet away. How could I get help with both the panic and the voice?
After asking a lot of people for advice, I decided to join A Very Famous Organization that helps people improve their public speaking skills and has zillions of small clubs scattered the length and breadth of creation, practically one on every corner. I joined a club in my neighborhood, and I was honest with the other members from the start. I wasn’t interested in working my way up to regional, national, or international speaking competitions. My only goal was to learn how to talk about my book without freezing up or fainting.
The first time I spoke, my topic was “My Life of Crime” (the speech is now posted on the Writing page of my web site) and the club members gave me the blue ribbon for Best Speaker of the evening. Hey, I thought, this is easy. Never mind that I can’t recall a single second of the time I was speaking. I must have done okay, or I wouldn’t have the ribbon to show for it. Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there.
In four months of meetings, I was only scheduled to speak three times, which was not exactly the intensive preparation I needed. The second time went well. The third time was a disaster, my worst fears realized. A member took me aside and told me, basically, that I was doing everything wrong. I had to move around, walk back and forth, gesture a lot, project and talk faster, make eye contact with people in the audience. I had to speak as if I were bubbling over with excitement. I was soundly criticized for revealing that I had endured a long period of rejection before I sold a book. Never, never, never talk about failure, I was told, because the audience will not respect you if they know you’ve failed in the past. When I tried to explain that audiences love to hear what writers went through to get published, she told me I was wrong.
Another member, assigned to critique my speech for the whole group, said I had to start talking about something besides my book -- that was my “comfort zone” and I must move beyond it and speak on unrelated topics.
My book, of course, was the very thing I felt least comfortable talking about, and I had joined the group to get over that unease. I needed practice. But I was breaking the club rules by sticking to one subject. I left, having gained only a little confidence. I was on my own, sink or swim.
Not long after I attended my last meeting, I went to hear a bestselling mystery writer speak. I won’t name her, because she’s both a political and professional heroine to me, and I don’t want to sound as if I’m ridiculing her. Instead of walking back and forth on the stage, she stayed put behind a lectern. She used a microphone, but even so, her voice fell below the audible level on a few words. She might have made eye contact with some members of the audience, but most of the time she seemed to be looking over our heads. She never gestured. Instead, she fussed constantly with the belt of her jacket, tying it, untying it, pulling the ends behind her back, pulling them to the front again. I became mesmerized by the movements of that belt, wondering what she would do with it next. She did everything wrong. And she gave a wonderful speech. I found this most reassuring.
Since then, I’ve spoken before a number of groups, and I’ve survived. I still feel cold and shivery and dry-mouthed beforehand and I’m faint with relief when it’s over. I rarely recall a word I said, which is a profound blessing. With a second book coming out, I’m embarking on another round of appearances. I’m doing my best to make people feel at the end of each event that attending was worthwhile.
If you’re ever in one of my audiences, and I stumble over my words or look like I’m heading for meltdown, remember that my choice was between you and the train, and I chose you. That ought to count for something.