Monday, September 12, 2011

6 Ways to Tame Writers' Public Speaking Fears--by Deborah Sharp

Please join me in welcoming my friend Deb Sharp to Mystery Writing is Murder today. I’m a fan of Deb’s Mace Bauer mysteries and can’t wait to see what Mama is up to next in her latest release, Mama Sees Stars. When my first mystery came out four years ago, I was terrified. I wasn't as nervous about how the book would do as I was about how I would do. My fear was one shared by legions of other authors. Nope, not stingy, foodstamp-worthy royalties. Public speaking. Before I share how I managed to tame that fear, I want to thank Elizabeth for inviting me to Mystery Writing is Murder. I've learned a lot from this terrific blog, and I'm grateful to be asked to contribute. I know she's spotlighted public speaking here before. My take is a bit different, though. And the terror remains pervasive. Many surveys show it as No. 1 on the list of human fears, followed by death at No. 2. Jerry Seinfeld did a bit about the ranking: ''This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.'' In the weeks and months leading up to the 2008 release of MAMA DOES TIME, I obsessed about having to talk about the book. Solitary, introverted, I was well-suited to my former career as a newspaper reporter. A crusty old editor told me early on to keep my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut. Sounded like the perfect job description to me. ''What if I forgot what I was going to say about the book?'' I fretted to my husband. ''What if I blather on and on and make no sense? What if I open my mouth and nothing comes out?'' He poured me a glass of water and handed me a Xanax. Just kidding. It was a glass of wine. ''Don't worry,'' he said. ''You're over-thinking. Just wing it.'' Wing it? That strategy may come naturally to my husband, a TV reporter for NBC and a born ham. He's the life of the party to my wallflower; Mr. Loquacious to my Mrs. Laconic; the razzle to my dearth of dazzle. But after 22 years together, he still doesn't know that ''wing it'' are not words found in the vocabulary of his control-freak wife? So, instead of winging it, I signed up for Toastmasters ( ) I spent the three months leading up to my release date learning how not to be afraid. The key to public speaking is confidence, which can actually be learned through practice. Who knew? The 87-year-old organization may not suit everyone, but it definitely served my purpose. Many Toastmasters go on to hold office within the group, polishing leadership skills and pursuing networking opportunities. Not being much of a joiner or networker, my intent was simply to practice through Toastmasters' speaking exercises and competitions. I wanted to learn as much as I could in a short period of time to vanquish my fear. For me, it worked. So much so that I invited a Toastmasters representative to come preach the gospel to my fellow introverts at Mystery Writers of America/Florida Chapter. The crowd we drew was among the largest for any luncheon program this year. Here are five public speaking tips I learned through Toastmasters, modified a bit for issues specific to authors doing signings or appearances: 1. Arrive early and mingle, introducing yourself to strangers. Once you start to speak, seeing those now-familiar faces in the audience will help. They'll be rooting for you. 2. Memorize an opening line and practice, practice it. It will get you off to a good start and build your confidence. 3. Ask questions of the audience. It not only engages them, it makes you feel less ''on display.'' A safe one is ''How many other writers are here today?'' because lots of hands usually go up. You can then introduce any other published authors in the crowd, because it's a nice thing to do ... and it also takes the spotlight off you. 4. Unless you're Meryl Streep or Al Pacino, resist the urge to read long passages from your book. Even if you feel comfortable and your delivery is lively -- good eye contact, lots of pauses, audible projection -- still keep it short. A few passages, maybe three or four pages. Any more, and you're likely to hear snoring. 5. A few deep breaths before speaking will steady your voice. S-L-O-W down. Rushing is a common beginner's mistake. Drinking water is great, but small sips are best. I learned the hard way that a giant swallow may lead to a burp. Over the microphone. Bonus Tip: No need to be fancy, but do dress presentably. Just because we write in our pajamas, doesn't mean we show up in our pajamas. How about you? Any public speaking nightmares to share? Any successes? Deborah Sharp writes the funny Mace Bauer Mysteries, set in a sweet-tea-and-barbecue slice of her native Florida. MAMA SEES STARS (September 2011, Midnight Ink) is the series' fourth book, each featuring Mace's wacky mama. Deborah has been interviewed on the Today Show, where she managed to string together some coherent sentences while not throwing up on Al Roker -- major accomplishments for a formerly fearful public speaker. You can read an excerpt from Mama Sees Stars here: