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Public speaking tips for writers

Like many writers, growing up I was a shy introvert. The thought of standing in front of a room of people and reading my work out TERRIFED me. Fast forward a few decades and I’m now happily chatting to crowds of hundreds of strangers. So what changed? And if you have to go through this same process and read your work out loud (say perhaps for Friday Night Live) - how do you start?  

1: Practice makes perfect. The first time I read my work out loud, I felt so sick I thought I might faint on stage. But then I tried again. And again. At reading groups, poetry slams, video calls – whatever. The more you do something, the easier it becomes. Confidence isn’t a trait – it's a habit.  


2: Learn from the masters. Reading is about so much more than just saying words out loud. It's about conveying rhythm, emotion – all the wonderful things that make language beautiful. No one does this better than spoken word poets. My favourites: Anthony Anaxagorou; Lemn Sissay; Kate Tempest; Sabrina Mahfouz. Watch and learn!  


3: Take your time. When you’re nervous, you want to get it over and done with as soon as possible. But engaging reading is often slow and considered. It pauses for emphasis.  


4: Use flashcards and notes. Break your text up on the page by separating them into flashcards, or use a pen to highlight tricky words and phrases.  


5: Finally – be human. Everyone makes mistakes. If you stumble in a live reading – own it. Start the sentence again. You’ve got this.  


What are your tips for reading your work out loud? Are there any I’ve missed? Share below!


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Replies (10)
  • Great advice! Though I might gently query whether anyone ever completely gets to the point where they're never nervous - I think all of us are to a degree, regardless of how long we've been doing it or how many times we've done it before. I did it a LOT as I was an actor for 20 years, and even after I switched careers my role put me in a position where I had to deliver talks and presentations on a regular basis. And I always, without fail, got butterflies in my stomach before walking out onto the stage.

    Point 1 is key. You have to be prepared in order to be relaxed. If you're a seasoned performer you'll be familiar with the situation. But even then - and even more important if you're less experienced - preparation and practice is everything. If you find you have time for one more run-through of your piece or your topic or your key points before the 'live' performance, do it!

    Top tip #1: Our psychological state triggers physiological changes in us. The opposite is also true - you can trigger a psychological state in yourself by taking physiological actions.  So if you're very nervous before you hit the stage you can relax yourself by taking deep, slow breaths. That will slow your heartbeat, and after a short while you will actually feel less nervous! 

    Top tip #2: Always take a bottle of water on-stage with you or ask for a glass of water to be available. Nervousness and/or talking will give you a dry mouth. And trying to talk in a relaxed way with no saliva is horrid! Pause, take a sip of water, and you'll be fine.

    Top tip #3: Try and look at the audience some of the time rather than staring at your notes or book for the duration. They'll love you more if you include them in the conversation. But don't try and take all of them in at once; pick out individual people around the room and talk as if you're speaking to them. It feels more personal for the audience and it's less intimidating for you, especially if they're smiling. Great radio presenters always say that they talk as if they're having a conversation with a single listener. In my experience, good public speakers do the same.

    Finally, the single most important thing to keep in mind is Point 5... Always remember that no-one in that room wants you to fail. They're all on your side and willing you to succeed. They won't heckle. They wan't mutter at each other about you. They won't be thinking nasty things about you. And they'll be absolutely fine with slips and stumbles. In fact they'll usually like you more! Think of them as friends, not judges!

    ***

    Anyone who's interested in seeing a shambling middle-aged man chatting to an audience for half an hour can see me in action on YouTube here. It's from a conference 7 years ago combining aspects of my acting years with my later career in a talk which actually may have some relevance to writing too, as it's really about creating believable characters!


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    • Hahaha! That's brilliant! 😂 Good old Samuel!

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      • Oh, I think a teacher definitely outranks an actor in the 'dealing with a tough crowd' competition! 😁 

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        • Yeah, I don't think there is a tougher crowd. Age makes no difference. Small children and teenagers are both tough, but for different reasons. Small children are more enthusiastic and generally easier to win over, but they won't let you get away with any mistakes. If you screw up, they will eat you alive. Teenagers are so busy trying to act like they don't care about anything that putting on an act that makes them show you they have a smidgen of empathy is quite a feat. 

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        • Practice does make perfect. For those who are uncomfortable with the idea of reading their own work out loud, I would suggest reading other books out loud to start. Some people will feel more at ease reading what someone else has written. Practice with passages from a favourite book. Once you become comfortable doing that, then try tackling your own work. 

          I would also suggest recording yourself. There is barely a soul who won't hate what they hear when they play the recording back. That's pretty much a given. However, the point is not to crush your soul by making you listen to yourself. The goals are to find out if you sound stiff, nervous, etc., and to identify what, if any, vocal ticks you have. A lot of people aren't aware of the vocal ticks they have or which words or sounds they make to fill in the spaces between sentences or even clauses within sentences when they speak (e.g., "you know," "like," "uh", "um"). Knowing whether you have bad speaking habits, and what they are, is the only way you're going to be able to eliminate them. It takes a conscientious effort, and it can be quite difficult for some. But it is worth putting the time and effort into correcting because it is the most effective way to becoming a better public speaker.

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          • Thank you Sarah for the piece. This is exactly the book I'm writing - a how to speak in public. A 'Speech Direct' approach. Not suggestions but down and dirty practical tactics based on over forty years of performing and teaching speaking internationally. I include sight reading - which most politicians do really badly! Now is that the sort of thing I could enter for Friday Night Live or is it only for fiction? Nice tips from everyone. 

            Sarah Myers

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            • Best tip I ever received - Direct your voice to the person at the back of the room. That will stop you from mumbling. If you have amplification, let the PA guy adjust the volume so as not to deafen those at the front.

              2nd best tip has already been covered. Look at the audience from time to time. They came to see and hear you.

              John Jacobs

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              • This is something I used to get my delegates to do when on a presentation skills course:

                Try making a video of yourself then watch it back in three different ways.

                1. Watch it to get over the Initial embarrassment and the oh look at my hair, or, I don’t think I sound like that, you get my drift. We all do it!

                2. Once over the above, close your eyes and concentrate on the voice tones. Do you need to put more emphasis In, are you too quiet, do you sound excited by your work, is your voice interesting and varied, have you got the emphasis in the right place. Practice placing the emphasis in different parts. It’s a skill, you can learn quite quickly to improve the delivery.

                3. Now watch with the sound down. Watch your body language. What is your body saying? Nervous or confident? Relaxed or uptight?

                self critique can be really powerful . Make notes as you are watching yourself and practice, practice, practice. Hope this helps.

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