Yesterday we talked about why writers don't necessarily make good speakers. Nevertheless writers, more frequently than florists or fire fighters, are asked to speak in public. And the more successful the writer, generally, the more he or she is invited to speak—and thus, make an ass of him or herself.
We can't have that.
At the risk of offering something for free something useful (and hard-earned), here are a few tips specifically for writers who would like to stand before people and appear to be at least half as wise and a third as witty as their prose promises:
1. You are not Christopher Hitchens or Fran Lebowitz. Get it through your head.
2. Eight is enough. That's my rule of rehearsal. Eight times through is the right number, whether you'll be reading from a text and want to appear semi-sponteneous, or speaking extemporaneously and want to appear somewhat coherent. These eight rehearsals don't just take time; they take energy. During the first sessions all by yourself, your hands will sweat, and you will gasp for breath.
3. If you think you can't practice an improvised speech, you are incorrect. You simply improvise the rehearsal. Over and over again. Sometimes your second rehearsal goes better than the third. But generally, the thing keeps getting better—until it starts getting gradually worse, at which time you know you have rehearsed it enough. Now, it'll actually be much better when you have real eyeballs to look at instead of your microwave oven.
4. It's okay to read it from a script too. But the message should be this close to explosive, the delivery must be animated and the writing had better be good enough to justify your insistence on sticking to the script. Being read something dull by a dullard—that wasn't fun in any century.
5. Above all, you must believe you are the only person to be delivering this particular message. While most of the above advice is applies to anyone trying for success in public speaking, I believe writers in particular need to be connected, on an almost spiritual basis, with their message. When I have spoken on communication technology, strategy and management, I have sucked. Why? Because I knew that 500 or 1,000 other people could give that talk just as well or better. It's when I've been talking about the purpose of communication, about writing, about how people connect with other people—these are the times my eyes have welled up with tears as I've stood with one foot on my mother's shoulder and one foot on my dad's. Uh, yeah. More like that.
All this sounds like a tremendous, time-consuming pain in the ass, doesn't it? It is a tremendous pain. But no more a pain than writing a long feature story would be for a certified electrician. You are a writer! You are not a speaker! You must work hard to convince your audience otherwise!
Do it anyway. Spend the time. It's the difference between communicating a message that's important to you and memorable to an audience, and communicating another, equally important and memorable message: You are a bumbling, arrogant fool who neither knows him- or herself nor values the hundreds of human hours being wasted listening to your jumbled, empty words.
Dead on advice as usual, David.
Maybe this is part of #5, but I think most of us also need to get over the ego and flattery of being asked to speak and be honest enough to say “no” when we know we don’t have #5 nailed. Just because somebody invites you to speak, doesn’t really mean you should.
David Murray says
True dat, Rueben. In my “speechwriting jam session” I say that most speaking engagements are ceremonial rather than communicative: The speaker was invited to speak (flattering the speaker) and the speaker accepted (flattering the audience).
It’s all over but the shouting. Or, in the case of speeches, the platitudinizing.
Thomas Lee says
David, both these columns are terrific. Having been a writer and then a speechwriter and then a speaker, I can echo all your observations. One thing about rehearsals: For me they never go well. I always feel awkward and ill-prepared in rehearsals. Sweaty palms? Hell, I have sweaty knees. But a funny thing happens after rehearsing. In the real moment, I am suddenly comfortable. No idea why or how that works, but it does.
David Murray says
Yeah, I agree, Tom; I’ve never had a rehearsal go as well as the real thing.
(Though I have had the real thing go as bad as my worst rehearsal.)
It’s kind of a leap of faith–a faith that gets strengthened with every speech, because it works, every single time.