Monday, April 7, 2014

Writer Chats: Hits and Misses by Jess Riley

Public speaking is something most of us have an innate anxiety about. But if you've been doing the writing gig for a while, you will probably be asked at some point to speak to a large or small audience about your experiences. And at that point, you need to make friends with your "public speaking" self, which is a side of your personality you may avoided. (We'll never know why, but it tends to hang out somewhere behind the spleen, which isn't very good at parties either.)

Still practicing what to do with my hands during photos.
The month I sold my first book, I attended a reading by Jennifer Weiner. I remember her talk being candid and charming and breezy, but what really impressed me was how FUNNY she was. She had us laughing, engaged, and panicking. Okay, I was the only one in the crowd who was having a panic attack, because I thought to myself, Oh dead God, she's hysterical! She's in my genre! Do I have to be this funny when I talk to people in the future? I can't be this funny!

Over the last six years, I've spoken to 60+ book clubs and given dozens of library talks and readings, and each semester I speak to a captive audience of eighteen and nineteen-year-old freshmen enrolled in my father's English Composition class at UW-Oshkosh. Regardless of audience, I'm always a little nervous before I walk in the room. It used to be worse, but practice and time have wore down the sweaty palms and racing heartbeat.

I always reserve a front-row seat for my invisible friend Becky.
My favorite groups to speak to are the book clubs, because usually everyone is drinking wine, which makes me seem much funnier in person. Most club members are relaxed & open and ask engaging, thoughtful questions.

Library groups can be hit or miss; if you're not a marquee author, you never know if two or sixty people will show up. Half of them will be aspiring authors wanting to know how you broke in, and half will be there because they got lost on their way to the blood drive. I'm totally joking, of course. (My last library talk was awesome, and I was so grateful to all the folks who braved the cold to come see me.)

Anyway, and here are some tips I've found most helpful:

Scarves! Glorious winter scarves. And a cat.
1) Practice: If you're brand-spanking-new at this, practice. In the mirror, to your dog, to your spouse. Have something of a rough draft in mind before you begin. I used to need notecards (yes, I was that terrified I'd forget *something important,* which is crazy-lady-think). Now I pretty much wing it, based on the audience. (Note: this has not always been a good strategy.) Think of what YOU like to hear when you listen to other authors speak, and be inspired.

2) Pre-questions: If you're meeting with a book club, send them a question guide before you get together. If your publisher has a list of questions, great! If not, make your own. For ideas, check out a few sample reading guides / "Questions for Book Clubs" from other books like yours.

If you're meeting with a group of students, ask their teacher/professor to solicit questions from the students in advance, to be passed on to you before your appearance. I've learned from experience that most college freshmen,* for example, WILL NOT be brave enough to ask you anything when you pause for Q & A. But having them submit questions in advance has led to some very thoughtful, entertaining discussions.

I'm lucky enough that I also get to read the response papers students in my dad's class write after my visit. This has also helped me become a better guest speaker.

(*Second graders, however, will ask you a question every twenty seconds, so they're good to go.)

3) Give away a book or bag-o-swag. This is another fun way to engage your audience.

4) Choose your reading material wisely: If you're doing a reading, keep it brief and entertaining. Hook the crowd and convince them they need to buy your book to hear the whole thing. Also (most importantly), consider your audience when selecting reading material. This has been something of a stumbling point for me in the past.

What did I miss? Check out this fantastic recent Writer Unboxed post for more tips, and please comment here with some of your own!

Jess Riley is the author of Driving Sideways, All the Lonely People, and Mandatory Release. Check her out on Facebook, Twitter, or her badly-neglected blog.


  1. Jess, I love that you address both sides of speaking forums--a group of people gathered to hear "you" the professional author, and a more carefree setting, like a book club. Both do require preparation, but in different ways! Great insight here to both!!

  2. I taught a class to get over my public speaking terror--but I still have it, depending on the audience! Great ideas to combat that!

  3. This is so funny, because I have just written a very similar blog post! I think the key is practice, practice, practice.

  4. All great advice, Jess. It does get easier over time and it helps to keep your wits about you. Keep writing. Keep speaking... turns out most audiences just want to feel engaged and are grateful if your talk strikes a chord.

  5. Almost snorted out Coke Zero through my nose reading your blog post about what happened in Oshkosh at the fundraiser for Winnebago Lit Council.

  6. I'm with you on the funny. Every time I hear Liza Palmer speak, I think, 'Oh gosh, I'll never be that funny.' We've all heard that author I think. Hopefully we can bring something other than funny to the table. Now what that is . . . .

  7. Thanks for chiming in, gang! It helps to know that you can nurture your inner extrovert (ha); practice is key!! I am light years better at public speaking than I once was. And engagement and an open, relaxed dialogue is helpful. :)

  8. I'm late to the party but great post, Jess. The rice joke...aye aye aye...Loved your line where Jesus wept. Perfect!