The Message and the Messenger
So many authors are introverts. It’s so much easier to fully express ourselves on the page, with time to think about our wording, phrasing, what we want to emphasize, how to say what we mean to say in the most effective and elegant way. It’s much harder to do that in speech.
But the new world of publishing and marketing often demands that authors do a healthy amount of live speaking, whether that’s podcast interviews, live appearances, keynote speeches, or panels and presentations. And no matter how good your message is, nothing undermines it more quickly than how you express it, just like story itself.
In this post we’ll look at the first key element of your verbal communication skills: how effectively you convey your intentions. Next week we’ll talk about the other essential component: the mechanics of your voice, diction, tone, and medium.
Crafting your specific talking points is outside the parameters of this post—I’ll dedicate a future post to that topic. But once you have done that homework and know what you what you want to say, consider how best to convey your thoughts, and to prepare for some of the stumbling blocks you may encounter.
Listening is actually the most important skill of speaking.
So often we can get caught up in what message we want to convey that we may sound like hucksters, delivering our sales pitch. Pay attention to the other person or people who are part of the conversation, and consider your audience’s reactions.
I often keep a notepad handy anytime I do a panel presentation or interview. Trying to remember something I want to respond to or address will often get me in my head and out of the moment, and I stop listening as well. Jotting a brief word or two when I’d like to respond to something someone says lets me stay in the moment and pay attention and be present, but still make sure to address any areas that feel important.
Even when you are the only one speaking, as in a webinar or presentation or lecture, it’s helpful to think of it as a conversation with your audience. If you’re online and can’t make actual eye contact or gauge reactions, picture some avatar who represents the kind of person you would most like to reach with your message. Make them specific. Addressing a faceless, amorphous mass in your mind results in a salesperson-type pitch, impedes intimacy, and can leave you feeling disconnected from your own message and material.
Whether I’m speaking into a camera, to a face on a monitor, or in front of a classroom, I’m focused on whom I’m speaking to. Not only does that create the immediacy and intimacy that bring your message to life, but—perhaps counterintuitively—it will often help take the focus off yourself and mitigate nerves.
There will be nerves.
I’ve been acting since elementary school, including professionally, and speaking and teaching now for nearly 15 years, and I still get a little rush of butterflies before every single presentation. Sometimes during. I actually keep a written list of reminders that help me take the pressure and focus off myself, and I read them before every engagement.
Remember you’re not trying to be the Holy Grail of interviews or presentations, or change anyone’s life. You have information that could be useful or interesting to your audience and you’re sharing it with the benefit of your expertise and experience, that’s all.
Often, for a few moments before the presentation begins, I will literally stand in Wonder Woman pose: legs slightly wider than hip width; chest up; and arms comfortably at my sides and open or hands on hips; slow, easy breaths. It’s astonishing how quickly that will instill confidence. Fake it till you make it.
I also remind myself what I enjoy about doing this: that I love my subject material, I am passionate about sharing it with and helping authors, and that I find it fun. Staying connected with that helps keep the focus off my performance and let me simply enjoy the process.
Read more: “Impostor Syndrome“
I prepare fairly extensive notes for every single presentation or interview I do. I rarely consult them during the event, but I do read through them fully at least a time or two right beforehand, so my main points are fresh in my mind. But trying to read from them or rigidly adhere to them in the moment can result in a stilted, pitch-sounding delivery.
Recognize that you will leave things out, that new tangents and avenues will likely come up, especially in an interview or interactive event. Don’t hamstring yourself by trying so hard to convey the message exactly as you wanted to convey it that you wind up wooden or inauthentic. No interview or event will be perfect. Spontaneity and genuineness will be far more riveting for your audience than even the most impactful message you may have painstakingly crafted. And yet…
By the time I present or record a workshop, I’ve had it on its feet at least several times. It’s not enough to review the material; I have to go through it “live,” just as I will when I present it. It will change and evolve with every presentation—I don’t rigidly adhere to a script—but I have to run through it in real time to fine-tune the material and how it flows.
Interview situations can be even more challenging because you can’t (and shouldn’t, I’d argue for reasons mentioned above) fully “rehearse.”
If you can convince a friend to do a mock interview with you, that can be excellent practice for going with the flow. Weirdly I am often more nervous and self-aware if someone I know is conducting the interview or in the room, so if you get good at being able to handle that then you should easily be able to stay engaged with someone you don’t know.
Have your friend ask not only questions you have prepared in advance, but also extemporaneous ones you aren’t expecting. No matter how carefully planned any interview or event may be, there will almost always be curveballs. Learn to roll with it and not be thrown.
You will be thrown.
At some point you will be asked a question you may not know how to answer immediately or forget what you meant to say or lose your train of thought. Athletes are taught to keep their head in the game. As soon as they start obsessing over any mistakes or obstacles, their performance suffers. You have to throw it off and move on.
It helps me to remember that most people understand a fear of public speaking. In fact science says it’s one of people’s most commonly held phobias. Let that work in your favor. I’ve taken to simply acknowledging out loud moments when I lose my train of thought and just redirecting or asking the interviewer what the hell we were just talking about. I let it be funny and relatable (this happens to everyone at some point). You will be amazed how much that may endear you to listeners.
If I don’t know the answer to a question, I simply state that. I’m not claiming to be the be-all, end-all expert of all things writing and editing, and I hope I always have more to learn. Ironically it often makes you look more authoritative if you are willing to acknowledge areas where you may not be as expert. For more on this read up on “powerless communication.”
Remember that life is not writing and we don’t have the opportunity to carefully craft what happens or what we say. Not only is that okay, it’s glorious. There’s a reason people go see their favorite bands live rather than simply listening to their albums. There’s something magic about the spontaneity, intimacy, and genuineness of real-time, in-the-moment communication and performance. It’s why we find children and dogs so fascinating.
Be yourself. It’s enough. Let your own enthusiasm for your subject infuse the experience, and simply let yourself enjoy the opportunity to speak with an interested audience.
Read more: “Making Your Voice Matter in a Crowded Market“
Always assume you have an interested audience.
Looking out at a crowd and seeing people check their phones can cut your knees out from under you. But don’t obsess over it. You have no idea why they’re doing it and it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bored or distracted. Maybe they’re tweeting about you. Maybe they just got an emergency phone call. Maybe they have ADHD. An interview host who is not looking at you while you’re talking might be focusing on your image on his monitor, rather than looking into the camera and seemingly at you, or might be checking his own notes and next questions, because he is likely feeling even more responsibility than you are for making the interview go well.
You have nothing to prove.
In fact you were invited to speak or present or be interviewed because you are already perceived as someone knowledgeable and interesting. You don’t have to know everything and you’re not on trial. Let yourself relax in the fact that you actually have the knowledge you’ve been invited to speak about.
Let yourself be yourself.
One of the main excellent side effects of practicing these techniques and being able to relax a bit is that you can let your personality show. You don’t have to be formal or proper if that’s not who you are. I’m casual and a bit of a goof, and I frequently let that seep into my public speaking and podcast interviews, even as I own the authority of my experience and knowledge. It’s your unique, genuine personality that will draw people to you, not a life-changing message.
A few of my favorite books on effective communication:
- Talk Like TED, by Carmine Gallo
- Nonviolent Communication, by Marshall B. Rosenberg
- Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini
- The Lost Art of Listening, by Michael P. Nichols and Martha B. Strauss
- Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott
Next week we’ll talk about the technical side of presenting yourself and your message effectively.
Meanwhile, over to you, authors—do you freeze up in public-speaking or teaching occasions? What tips and tricks do you have for dealing with nerves? Have you thought about or addressed any of these areas in the past?
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