In my time as a writer I’ve done a few events. It’s part of the publishing, even writing, process – at some stage, most writers will have to do a talk or a reading or an event of some kind. And at first, it’s frightening. Writing is generally a solitary pursuit, just you and the sound of a keyboard clicking away in a quiet room, so it’s a pretty big leap to go from an audience of no one to a crowded room waiting to hear what you have to say. You learn a heap from every event you do and there are some major lessons I’ve learned from my experiences – I figured they might help others in their preparation for literary events. So here’s some of the things I’ve taken in from my turns as a literary event speaker.
1. Don’t read out a totally pre-written speech. Or if you do, practise it with an audience first. I wrote speeches in intricate detail for all the early events I did. I drafted them, read them out loud, held them shivering in my nervous hands as I stood up in front of the audience. But then one day I figured something out. At all these events, I also watched other authors speak, checked out how they did it. The best of them were confident, assured characters who owned the stage. They read the crowd, they played off the energy of the room, and most of the time the didn’t read from a script. Because they didn’t have to. When you’re starting out, you get so hung up on the fact that you need to be great, you need to provide an intelligent, informative, lecture, that you start to move away from why you’ve been asked to speak in the first place. You spend so much time trying to sound like a real writer that you forget that you actually are a real writer. Your thoughts and opinions are all you need, your stories from your experiences. Definitely, it’s worth analysing the topic, writing notes, getting an idea in your head of what you might say, but you need to think about the audience, what they see. If you’re up there with your head down, scanning a print out, probably reading too quickly – do you think that’s going to be engaging for the audience? You don’t need to have intricate details, you just need an outline and some notes, then you just speak about your what you know. It comes across much more natural, more comfortable, if you can speak like a real person, rather than what you think an author should sound like. Trust me, I’ve spent ages thinking over what an intelligent author would say and trying to do that, as opposed to just saying things how I would normally speak. It’s much better to just be you.
2. The audience want to hear what you have to say. They’re not there to attack you or criticise. Most literary event audiences would love nothing more than to have the opportunity you’ve got, to be up on that stage, and they’re keen to hear what you, as a chosen panellist, can contribute to the discussion. Sometimes it’s nerve-wracking, thinking of all those eyeballs looking at you, but you have to remember, again, what it’s like sitting in the audience. Would you be judgemental of someone who was a bit nervous? Who was doing their best to present their knowledge and experience? I wouldn’t, and definitely if it was clear the person was being themself, talking about how they do things, I’d appreciate it. I’d probably relate to it. The audience wants to know you, they want to know what you do. If there’s something you’re not sure about, but that’s your experience, you should just say what you think. More often than not, people will link with your struggles, they want to hear about those details too, so no need to be nervous or hide anything or try to be something you’re not. They want to hear you, you’re good, there’s nothing to be nervous about. You’re honest and real, that will resonate with the crowd.
3. Don’t drink red wine if you’re wearing a white shirt and you’re about to go on stage. Yep, this happened. When I was at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, some dude turned too quick with a glass of red and splashed my shirt, a white one I’d bought just for the occasion. That was nerve-wracking. Luckily I got most of it out and the mic stand covered the stain either way. They also used a bad photo of me that was projected onto this massive screen (you needed a picture for the entry, so I just took one of myself, not thinking there would come a time when it would be blown up to 50X and beamed into a room of tuxedoed important-types) and the host made fun of me for being nervous (in fairness, it was the perfect set-up – two very young kids had done a reading immediately before me and when I got up to the stage it was the perfect chance for him to say: ‘Geez, you’re more nervous than those two kids’ – hilarious) but the point is, be careful what you wear and what you eat if you’re going up on stage. You’re nervous already, you don’t need any more reason to be self-conscious.
4. Enjoy yourself. Literary events are fun. Yes, people paid to get in, and yeah, they’ll expect something for their money, but that’s not all on you (unless you’re doing a solo talk, in which case it is) and regardless, the event will be more entertaining if you’re relaxed. The more nervous you are, the more that’ll come across, and you’ll be able to feel it all through the room. You need to try and enjoy the moment, they don’t come around that often for most. Remember that you’ve done the hard work to get there, you are a writer, someone these people want to hear from. You aren’t a fraud, a poser whose fluked his/her way into this, you’re successful, you have experiences people want to know about. Literary events are supposed to be enjoyable and engaging. Audiences would rather you be open and alive than stuffy and academic the whole time. Relatable experiences are more resonant than hard-nosed lessons – they can read about those in any number of how-to books. Be real, be genuine, tell people about your blocks and difficulties as well as the good stuff. And have fun with it.
5. Don’t walk around flashing your ‘Artist’ lanyard expecting people to ask for your autograph. No one’s gonna’ do it, rock star. Unless you’re JK Rowling or Stephenie Meyer, no one’s going to be too bothered about who you are out on the street. Yes, you should feel proud that you got invited, but don’t get too far ahead of yourself. Ain’t no one at the food court gon’ care that you’re the keynote speaker of the day.
Overall, you need to try not to take literary events too seriously. Yes, you want to put in a good performance and no, you don’t want to go in under prepared and sound like a fool, but generally when I’ve over prepared I’ve looked more foolish than the former. You should do your research, learn what you need to know, ensure you can handle the situation. But then you’ve got to be yourself. Don’t get caught up trying to be what you think the audience want, be you. It’s the only way to truly succeed and stand out as a speaker. Authenticity will shine through much more than any lessons you’d like to impart. Trust in your ability and knowledge, share what you know, what you think the audience can learn from, and show who your are.