Pub Rants

What’s In A Speech?

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STATUS: It looks like I’m finally going to go to bed before midnight tonight. First time all week. Yes!

What’s playing on the iPod right now? Not listening to my shuffle at the moment.

When asked in surveys about what people fear most, they reply with the following (and in this order):

1. Public Speaking
2. Death

Says a lot about what goes bump in the night for some folks but I realized something important tonight when I was at the Association of Booksellers for Children’s dinner at the Copacabana. After all, I had to think some deep thoughts between the cookies and the final dessert.

Public speaking at a forum full of booksellers, and it doing it well, can be a huge endearment to the people who will soon be hand-selling your book to the public.

An uninspiring speaker makes the audience feel the same way about the book. A remarkable, interesting, funny, self-deprecating, and completely charming author speaker makes the audience want to run out and buy that book right now.

That’s exactly what I felt (as well as several people around me) after hearing two terrific speeches from Markus Zusak (author of THE BOOK THIEF) and Watt Key (ALABAMA MOON). We didn’t need to know the plot of either novel. If the book was only half as wonderful as the stories they told to that packed room, we would be satisfied.

That is the power of speech. And dare I suggest that such an ability is one more element that distinguishes a bestselling author from the rest of the crowd in today’s market? (Makes you wonder if a reclusive Salinger-like author could make it in today’s publishing climate and I really have no answer for that.) What I do know is that words are even more powerful when spoken well.

And I know it seems like you need to add yet another item to the long list of what makes a successful author, I don’t think you can ignore this aspect even if the thought of public speaking leaves you quaking in your shoes. I’d get comfortable with it just in case you find yourself in the enviable position of being in a room full of hundreds of booksellers. You don’t want to lose that opportunity.

36 Responses

  1. Anonymous said:

    I never knew that, Kristin. I’m an aspiring writer and am so afraid of public speaking, though I’m slowly gaining confidence. This may be too much to ask and it may also be the complete wrong area to ask it, but I was wondering if you would be interested in my novel – it is a fantasy for young adults. I apologize if leaving this comment here is the worst thing to do and, if it is, then I will make sure to never do it again. Otherwise, my AIM screenname is:


    and my email is:


  2. rose said:

    Oh, you got to hear Markus Zusak!! He was the keynote speaker at a conference I attended last fall. I hadn’t read anything by him before that, but you bet I left with The Book Thief tucked under my arm. Powerful book, even if I hadn’t heard him speak, but reading it on top of having met and heard him made the experience even more meaningful.

    I might add that the way one presents oneself on the internet can have a similar effect as well–I’ve read authors who were charming in blogs/internet interviews/web sites whose comments made me want to buy their books. Then there are a few whose books I liked–BEFORE I read them on line. From cold and terse to outride nasty (as in the case of one FAQ I read) is um, rather alienating, and have given me a 180 on the idea of buying books from at least one author. (I’m not talking about dealing with personal contact/fan mail–I just mean the generic internet front presented by the author to the world.)

  3. Natalie said:

    I was at the same conference in Munich with Rose and heard Markus Zusak speak, and I second (third) what a great speaker he is. He’s not only funny and charming, but humble, as well. When the event organizer was introducing him to the crowd and listing his awards/kudos, he actually blushed and looked down at his hands. At that point, the organizer said something like: “And Markus is obviously very comfortable (not) with all this praise!” and all of us laughed, including him.

    If you ever have the chance to hear him speak, don’t miss it.

  4. jjdebenedictis said:

    Yes, leaving your email on an agent’s blog is an inappropriate way to query. Authors present their work to agents by writing a form of business correspondence called a query letter.

    There are books on how to write query letters at the library and a lot of information on the internet too. Evil Editor and Elektra’s Crapometer are entertaining sites where you can learn a lot. I also recommend reading the archives of the (sadly missed) Miss Snark.

    Once you’ve learned to write a great query, you need to research the agents you want to send it to.

    To get names, you can check the book called “Writer’s Market”. A new edition is published every year and most libraries have it. You can also search for agents on AgentQuery.

    Next, check that these agents are legitimate and effective (there are scam artists and incompetents out there) by reading about them at Preditors and Editors. Writer Beware is another good site for this sort of information.

    Finally, before you query an agent, always check her guidelines first. You can find Kristin’s on her agency website.

    Good luck! There’s a lot to learn about how to present your work to agents, but we all had to go through it. 🙂


  5. Kimber An said:

    This one’s not scary for me. I aced Public Speaking in college. I don’t think I’m particularly animated, but I know how to prepare and I MUCH prefer looking at faces. Don’t trap me behind a table or podium with audience all dark. THAT totally freaks me out! I need to see individual faces. Real human beings.

  6. KingM said:

    It doesn’t scare me, either. One of the few good things from my fundamentalist upbringing was that I was expected to speak in public from an early age and so lost my fear of it a long time ago.

    Having said that, it doesn’t sound particularly fair. Everything you said makes sense, but I know some writers who are shy and awkward in person but absolutely sparkle in the written form.

  7. Patrick McNamara said:

    I’ve definately noticed some weaknesses in the way I speak with my podcast. Once I put the headphones on I slip into dictation mode. But I’m working on that. I took a course in public speaking and, although it’s been a while, I’m not bad when in front of a group.

    The public speaking course I took was the Christopher Course (US) (Canada). I’ve also recently heard of one called Toastmasters (, though that one might looks to be more of a business.

  8. B.E. Sanderson said:

    Excellent point to bring up. Public speaking terrified me when I was younger. The way I conquered it was to take a few public speaking courses in college, and I loved it so much I made it my major. Unfortunately, most people who speak in public do such a horrible job I think it adds to the collective fear of it. No one wants to get in front of people only to look bad.

  9. Shaun said:

    If you have the best idea, book, or product in the world, but cannot explain it in a convincing and motivating way, you may never truly be “heard.”

    The best way to learn is through doing. Toastmasters is a worldwide non-profit organization you can join to practice and get feedback on your speaking skills.

    If you want individual attention, find a mentor or coach to help you with your public speaking.

    Shaun Jamison, JD, PhD

  10. 2readornot said:

    I love to speak in public — in fact, that’s one of the things I look forward to as a perk of being published. I think the first time I spoke in public was when I was 13 — to about 500 people.

    I’m not funny, though. But I seem to be able to hold attention — I think anyone who can just share their life with passion will do well.

  11. A.S. King said:

    So great you blogged about this Kristin! I’m usually great at public speaking – and yet, having been faced with it on Thursday night at the BKSP banquet, with a sound system that I knew was failing, and a crowd that had already started talking to each other, I figured the best road was the fast road!!
    I guess sometimes, the art of public speaking is knowing how to read each situation and react accordingly!

    Great to see you!


  12. Janice said:

    I heard that it was 1. Public Speaking, but Death was down the list at #7. Anyway, yes, many people would rather DIE than speak in public.

  13. Anonymous said:

    I have to say that I look at this growing list of skills an author should have if they want to succeed and I…just don’t believe it.

    I think if you write well, eventually, you’ll succeed regardless.

    When I buy a book, it’s because the book seems good. I don’t give a hang about the author until after I’ve determined that I really like their writing.

    I think the majority of book consumers are the same way, which means success (in terms of numbers sold) doesn’t hinge on the writer’s ability to market themselves.

    I do, however, agree with Kristin’s assertion that getting the people marketing your book excited about the novel will only help you find success faster. Their efforts are what make the book visible in the book stores.

  14. Kris Eton said:

    I really believe most writers are not good public speakers. I write well because I like the power it gives me over words. I can think about what I want to put down on paper. Not so easy to do when standing in front of a crowd of people. I would have to have notecards and things prepared, and I probably would come off very shy or extremely goofy.

    Writers who are published and successful are good at WRITING. And that is where their skills lie. In the written word. Not public speaking.

    Yes, there are some authors who are good at it, and I believe they are the ‘storyteller’ type of writer…who can always remember the punchline to every joke, can tell a true-life story in amazing detail off-the-cuff.

    I would hope any publisher that ever took me on as an author would cut me a break if I weren’t some pro public speaker. I’m not bad, but I’m certainly no Bill Clinton.

  15. Michele Lee said:

    I tell people that I think better through my hands. It about sums it up. I’ve done acting and videos (and even a video opinion piece for a local news station, it was a huge blast) but I know when speaking to people I stumble sometimes and I’m always afraid I’ll look like fool. If I “stumble” while writing I have white out and a delete button. It’s like it never happened…

  16. Kelly P said:

    I also saw Markus Zusak at a reading and he was amazing. I had never hear of him and ended up buying all the books he has published (and loved his adorable voice in all of them). Along with the great speaking skills he has is the undeniable charisma he projects. Some people have it, some don’t.

  17. Southern Writer said:

    Which is more intimate ~ a kiss, or a sentence well-spoken? ~ David Lenz

    (I think I have attributed it to the correct person. Google turned up nothing.)

  18. Anonymous said:

    I tried to delete my comment immediately after I posted it, but I couldn’t. If someone can, please do though. It was too spontaneous, I know that and I will be sure to not do it again. In any case, again, if someone can delete it, I’d be glad for that and from now on, I will be careful what I post and do the research as I should.

  19. OpenChannel said:

    I agree with kingm that it isn’t particularly fair, but it is what it is. Kind of like when I go shopping: if the clerk is nasty, I don’t care what she’s selling, I’m not going to buy. If the clerk is fun and pleasant and I connect with her, I sometimes buy more than I intended. Haha.

    Of course we buy books for many reasons, sometimes knowing nothing about the author at all. But if you can impress someone in person, it certainly helps. I heard Chuck Palahniuk speak on a panel and I suddenly wanted to read his work because he was hysterical.

    I disagree with Anonymous. In this day and age, anything you can do to get your voice heard above the rest helps. Sure, books that are very well written can become best-sellers by word of mouth, but why wouldn’t you want to do everything in your power to attract people to your work? I don’t think enough writers and artists know how to market themselves, and sometimes very good talent goes unnoticed due to this.

    For the stage-challenged, in addition to toastmasters, I suggest going to open mic readings and sharing your work. You could even invite your trusted peers and get some feedback. It might help your stagefright a bit and you may even enjoy it! (plus, you’ll gain fans of your work if you become a regular)

    Before I became an (accidental) novelist, I used to be a spokenword artist. That combined with years of teaching has made me enjoy live audiences and connecting with them.

    Imagine being able to hold an audience captive! If anyone feels connected or moved or entertained by you as a person, they will thank you by purchasing your book. And they’ll tell all their friends about you.

  20. Kim Stagliano said:

    Oooh, I have my first speaking engagment this week! At the Empire State Building no less. I’m nervous of course. But I find once I get started, I know my topic well, and seem to be able to survive. I guess we really have to develop many skills to be successful authors – which may differ from being a successful writer.

  21. JulieLeto said:

    Kris eton, I totally disagree with you. Some of the best speakers I’ve heard have been writers. Stephen King. Harland Coben. Debbie Macomber. Jenny Crusie.

    I was a speech communication major in college–as well as creative writing. The two blended perfectly together. I consider myself a very good public speaker, I’m not funny at all and I am not a “storyteller” type writer. In fact, I can’t tell a joke to save my life. I can employ a wry humor when needed and sarcasm is my friend. I think what makes a good public speaker is simply knowledge and confidence–something a lot of writers have in spades.

    I’m actually an introvert, too. But I’m not shy. It’s just that being extroverted is work for me. I’d much rather stay in my office and write. But I have to venture forth from time to time…so I’m very choosy about when I go, where and why.

    Toastmasters is a great suggestion. My older brother, who is a fabulous public speaker (leaves me in the dust) and corporate CEO, was a member for many years.

  22. Beth said:

    A poor speaker can probably learn to become a competent speaker, but being a witty or compelling speaker is a gift that can’t be taught. Some of us are better off communicating on the page.

  23. anneglamore said:

    I met Watt when we both spoke at a writers’ conference in B’ham. He’s a ton of fun. I hope he told the story about getting (and curing) armadillo breath during his survival experiment– if he didn’t, you missed a great story!

  24. Chris said:

    There is a current reclusive, almost Salinger-esque, writer who is making it big: Cormac McCarthy. Of course, A) he’s a genius and B) it took him a long time to get commercial success. ANd anyway, he’s going on Oprah this week, so I guess he’s quitting the reclusive business, but he has done a good job of it up until now.

  25. Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said:

    Oh, dear, yes (or no). A query on an agent’s blog is not good form. … By all means use Elektra’s Crapometer. Good place for writers.

    I am a practiced public speaker. I’ve spoken to gatherings of over 10,000, and I ‘m good at it. If I was as good a writer as I am a public speaker, I’d be published by now.

    Isn’t that sad?

  26. Lorra Laven said:

    I know well the feeling of wanting to faint dead away when I walk onto a stage to face a sea of strangers. But having done it many times as an actress, public speaker and musician, I can promise you that it does get easier the more you do it – never easy, mind you, but easier.

    The most horrifying is playing a concert. But even that gets tolerable if you do it enough. I’m not saying you won’t be a wreck, just that you’ll be able to handle it, especially if you are well prepared.

    Deep breathing before stepping onstage helps a great deal too. So prepare, learn to breath and slow down! Speak much more slowly than you think necessary since panic makes most people speak too quickly.

    Good luck!

  27. Anonymous said:

    This is not true. I’m not even remotely a public speaker and dread doing it. Yet I’ve sold plenty of novels and have been making a living off this writer gig for years.

    Every time I hear writers speak it’s at a place like BEA, where maybe 1% of the writers present are doing so, or it’s writers talking to other writers at a conference.

    Very few writers do readings. Most bookstores would rather you just sign, where, far from being required to do public speaking, most people don’t even want you to have a conversation with them while you are scrawling your name and date on the book they plan to sell on ebay.

  28. Kristin said:

    Stephen King might be a good public speaker because he has had to learn how to be one over the years (30+ years as a published author). But, by his own admission and his own lifestyle, he is most definitely introverted.

    MOST writers are introverted people because introverts are very self-reflective and internal. That is a good quality to have if you want to immerse yourself in the written word. They tend to be very good observers, like to problem solve, and enjoy introspection. Once again, good qualities for a writer to have.

    I agree that you can learn how to be a better public speaker, but I don’t think introverts will ever be comfortable with doing it. And some introverts would have a difficult time with the practicing part.

    As an introvert myself, I find it extremely difficult to focus on what I am saying if I have to give a speech of any sort. I do not like “all eyes on me” for any reason…a dark room where I can’t see the audience would be perfect for me.

  29. Anonymous said:

    I think you’re forgetting that anticipation has much to do with how a speaker is perceived.

    You KNOW Marcus Zusack’s books, he’s an award winner, he’s a name author. He’s had years of crictical acclaim and makes serious cash as well. He’s established within the industry. That breeds confidence.

    The audience wants to like him. And are willing to find him charming. Plus, I’m sure he is chamrming and that helps, too.

    That is a totally different from a no-name struggling or debut novelist trying to talk to people about their novel, people who don’t know them and probably don’t care.

    Write a great book, public speaking has nothing to do with that.

  30. Anonymous said:

    J.A. Jance (successful, multi-published mystery author and frequent public speaker) said she went to Toastmasters.

    Does anyone know of other ways to develop one’s public speaking abilities?

  31. Marsupialis said:

    I can’t really attack the messenger, especially because, agents, by definition, are the sales business. But the more and more I read this and other agent blogs, the more it seems that the writing part is really the smallest part of the equation.

    In addition to previous exhortations to be a great marketeer and a brilliant sales person, now we learn it’s necessary to be a great public speaker. Frankly, these skills were all ones that I never wanted to develop because they aren’t part of being a writer. They’re part of being a celebrity. They’re part of the “author function,” as Foucault describes it. They take you away from being a writer.

  32. Anonymous said:

    As an editor, I want to offer a few thoughts here:

    I think the point Kristin’s making is that as an author, your enthusiasm and passion for your book is an extremely powerful tool for you — right up there with your written words on the page! And a way you can communicate with your audience (and bring your work to an even larger audience) is by being a well-spoken, articulate, empassioned advocate for your own writing. Maybe it’s cheesy, but I tell my authors that every time they get up in front of a group of people (whether it’s 5 people at a local library of 500 people at a writer’s conference!) it’s a chance to sell their book.

    As an editor, I am also a bit of an introvert. But it’s my job to convey my enthusiasm about my authors to the rest of my publishing colleagues — my fellow editors, my boss, my publicists, my sales reps — so that they in turn can convey that passion to the outside world. So I learned how to be a good presenter, because I love my books and I want to “sell” my authors to everyone in-house.

    -An editor

  33. Anonymous said:

    I, like many people I know, refuse to buy books from overbearing self-promoters. I buy a book to read, and make an effort to research what I want (libraries and Amazon make this easy). Once a book is pushed as a mass product it just loses its luster. I am a reader first and foremost, and never cared to hear authors speak. I sometimes wonder how I manage to persevere, because all the marketing is just getting annoying, and the actual writing seems to be the least important aspect of all the important aspects.

    It isn’t about books anymore: it’s all about authors as celebrity. I’ve been reading Cormac McCarthy since the 1970s. The man is one of the most reclusive, media shy authors alive (yes he is doing Oprah, but this is his 4th interview in 40 years. Not public speaking. Not making a nuisance of himself)

    Self-promoters are quite a pain. If the book is any good there will be no shortage of promotion, in the way that matters: word of mouth. I’ll trust the opinions of those I know over the author any day.

    This is all in context of course. If Stephen King, Cormac McCarthy, or big name, established writers are speaking then I listen. They don’t have to be great speakers, the content of what they are saying matters: after decades they have earned my trust. Coincidentally, I rarely see Stephen King peddling his own books.

  34. V said:

    I don’t have a cell phone story, but this is just as bad. I was attending a performance by a juggling clown (he didn’t speak, but it wasn’t a mime show, either. He just played a mute clown).

    Before the performance the house announced, as the house always does, “We allow no cameras and no recording devices. Please turn off your cell phones.

    Right in the middle of a some plate juggling, a woman in the third row pulls out her camera and takes a flash picture. The performer finishes the trick successfully. Before the ushers can get to her, the clown puts everything down and points to her and then to the stage beside him, looking like an outraged parent. He keeps doing that until the woman creeps down the row and joins him on stage.

    He holds out his hand for her purse and gets it. He then rummages for her camera (turning it inot a gag and playing to the audience for all he was worth). Camera in hand, he gets within a foot and starts taking pictures of her face. After about three flashes at close range, he makes a “see?” gesture, then hugs her one armed while he takes a picture of them together. He hands back her camera and her purse, shakes her hand, and shooes her off the stage to much applause.

    He then continued the show with at least one more exagerated check to make certain her camera was still in her purse.