This article is a little different from the pieces I usually write or commission for BookMachine, but I think the topic of public speaking deserves a place here because most of us in this industry need to do it from time to time. Whether it’s making a presentation at an in-house meeting, or speaking at a conference in front of 400 people, it’s always scary – but it’s worth doing if we want our ideas to be heard.
So, with my experience of hosting last week’s BookMachine Unplugged event still very fresh in my memory, I wanted to share some tips on how to cope when you have to speak in front of people, especially aimed at those of us who prefer people in ones and twos rather than hundreds. I hope they help you too.
- Most importantly, remember that people have turned up because they want to see you and hear what you have to say. They haven’t come to laugh at you or because they think you’re rubbish. Also, don’t forget that you know your stuff: nobody knows your job as well as you do.
- Be kind to yourself. You are almost certainly your own harshest critic. If you find yourself dwelling on all the ways you’re not ready or not good enough, just ask yourself if you’d pour all that negativity into the ear of a friend who was preparing to give a talk. Of course you wouldn’t – so notice your own inner dialogue and see if you can frame it as you would towards a friend.
- On a practical note, make yourself comfortable. Yes, people will be looking at you, but wear something that works for you. Life will be easier if your shoes don’t hurt and your clothes aren’t too tight.
- Still on practical matters, remember to eat. When I’m nervous my appetite shrivels up and disappears – but I’ve found that having some kind of snack helps me feel human and not panic, even if a whole meal is out of the question. Bananas are good.
- Accept that nerves are part of the deal. I’ve asked seasoned speakers about this, and they all feel nervous before going on stage: the adrenaline that makes your mouth go dry also drives you to shine brightly in your moment of fame. Every other apparently self-assured and cool speaker you’ve seen at conferences probably felt the same before speaking as you’re feeling right now.
- One nice thing about the nervousness deal is that it gets a little easier every time you do it. The first time you have to speak in public, you might worry about it for a month beforehand, the second time a week beforehand, then a day beforehand, and so on… The butterflies will never completely go away but you and they will come to terms with each another.
- That voice that tells us we’re not good enough? You don’t have to waste energy trying to silence it. Instead of aiming to defeat your imposter syndrome, you could choose to coexist with it, and not gratify it with too much of your attention. ‘Oh hi, Imposter Syndrome: I know you’re there, and I’m going to carry on with what I do anyway.’
- Speaking in public is a political act, especially if you are a woman or from an underrepresented group. Remember that each time one of us stands up to speak in public, we’re creating space and possibility for other voices to be heard, and by doing so we’re making it that little bit easier for other people to share our place on the stage. Even when it’s hard, by facing our fear, we’re showing other people we – and they – belong here.
Performing in front of people is scary for most of us, especially book lovers who are more comfortable with words on a page or screen than in a speech or presentation. And if you really really hate the idea, you can probably go through your career never doing it. BUT: if you have something to say, then you deserve to be heard, and it’s worth giving yourself permission to try, to stand up in front of an audience and share with them the amazing stuff that happens in your brain. Good luck! I am proud of you already, and I can’t wait to hear you speaking at a publishing event soon.
Abbie Headon is Commissioning Editor at Prelude Books, and also writes and edits books as Abbie Headon Publishing Services. She is a 2018 Bookseller Rising Star and sits on the BookMachine Editorial Board.