One of the strangest things about writing a novel is that after spending months and years alone with your thoughts, slaving away on your book, you’re supposed to get up in front of people and talk about your work as if it’s something you do every day. For those of us with little or no public speaking experience, it can be daunting to say the least. Terrifying is probably a more appropriate word.
When the local library invited me to do a signing and presentation after my debut novel released, I thought it would be a piece of cake. After all, I had directed a few community plays. I knew I could stand up and talk to a group of people. Plus, I was the first person in our area to have a book traditionally published. I knew everyone would be interested in hearing about that journey.
I was looking forward to the signing, naively confident for a number of reasons. After all, I knew my novel better than anyone. I had learned a lot about the publishing world. And I knew most of the people who would be attending the event. I thought I’d have the same excited sense of anticipation I always had when looking forward to a celebration or holiday. I thought the time leading up to the event would feel like the days before my wedding reception, when I was looking forward to seeing everyone there, smiling and waiting to congratulate me.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The closer it got to the day of the event, the more my stomach churned. I worked on my presentation for a day and half and blew up old family photos from WWII to use as visual aids. I practiced in the kitchen, using the clock on the stove to time myself. Then I made my first lethal mistake. Three days before the event, I asked my husband and twenty-six year old daughter for their opinion on my presentation. What I really wanted was feedback on the content, not a critique of my delivery. My second mistake was not telling them that.
I won’t go into the details here, but by the time they were finished telling me what they thought, I was in tears. I wondered what I’d been thinking, imagining that I could perform like the REAL authors I’d seen on tour. I was certain that I was about to make a fool of myself in front of the half the community. The next two days were sheer torture. I walked around with a boulder in my chest, wishing I’d never written a book in the first place. And to top it all off, I had other appearances already scheduled. There was no way I could cancel them. This was what I'd signed up for and now my worst fears were coming true. I was not going to live up to what was expected of me as a published author.
My husband did his best to make me feel better; reminding me that everyone was excited and proud of me. He said they were coming to the library because I had done something amazing and they loved my novel. He said I could stand up there and pick my nose and they’d still be thrilled to have me sign their books. (after washing my hands, of course) I wasn’t convinced. To say I was a mess would be an understatement. Then, the night before my presentation, I had a dream about a little blonde girl who looked up at me with big-blue eyes and said, “Think about it with your heart, not your head.”
Now I know it might sound silly, but the next morning a strange sense of calm had come over me. I knew the little girl in my dream was talking about my presentation. I was still nervous, but thankfully, I was no longer terrified. I’d been afraid of sounding stupid in front of everyone, of losing my place, of fumbling over words, of not being able to answer questions intelligently. Some people have vast amounts of knowledge when it comes to WWII, while others have preconceived notions. I wanted to sound like I knew what I was talking about. I wanted to sound smart.
But the little girl in my dreams was right. After all, passion lies in the heart, not in the head. If nothing else, I was passionate about my novel! I’d made the decision to write THE PLUM TREE because I’d grown up listening to my family’s stories about surviving WWII. I believed the average German civilian’s story needed to be told. How could I go wrong talking about something that was so important to me? I reminded myself that I’d done over four years of research and would be able to intelligently answer questions about that time period. When I’m passionate about something, the details stay with me. I could trust myself.
Most importantly, I reminded myself people were coming to see me because they were excited about me being a published author, not to judge me on my speaking skills, or how much I knew about WWII. They couldn’t wait to hear about the inspiration behind my novel and my journey toward publication. (okay, my husband was right)
In the end, my presentation went a thousand times better than I could have hoped. It was pretty emotional to see over a hundred faces smiling back at me, happy to be there to support me and hear what I had to say. It’s true that you can feel the energy of an audience, and that night I felt nothing but acceptance, excitement and pride; all matters of the heart.
The audience laughed when I read a quote I thought was perfect for the occasion: “The human brain starts working the moment you’re born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public.” They grinned from ear to ear when I took pictures of them holding up their books. There were audible ‘ohs and ahhs’ during my stories about my grandparents and mother. A few people told me afterwards that they were nearly in tears. I had feared the Q & A period and it turned out to be my favorite part. Other people said I was a natural at public speaking. Go figure.
But best of all, my mother, my husband and adult children said they got choked up while I was speaking. They said I did a fantastic job and couldn’t believe what they were hearing and seeing. Since that night, I’ve done two more presentations and find myself looking forward to the next. I've made the decision to trust myself, to think to with my heart and not my head. And so far, it's worked.
If you’re nervous about your first book presentation, here are a few tips that worked for me:
1) Before you start, take a deep breath, smile and count to three. It gives you a little time to collect yourself.
2) Trust yourself. You know your book and your publishing journey better than anyone in the world.
3) Be yourself. If you try to fake it and act like someone you’re not, it will show.
4) Remember that you are a published author!! Even with all your daily fears, frustrations and doubts, (feelings that no one in the audience knows about, by the way) the fact that you have a book published is pretty amazing and something to be proud of! Most of the audience is already in awe of your accomplishment.
5) Break the ice. Thank the people who invited you, thank the audience, and say something funny to put them at ease. Beside the quote above (which you’re free to steal) I asked how many were there because they loved books and reading, and how many were there because they were related to me. (thanks to my BP friend, Julie Kibler) People laughed!
6) Occasionally turn the attention on the audience if you can. Take a picture of them holding up your book! It worked great for me and I’m so glad I have those photos.
7) Have a bottle of water with you. Not only will it give you a tiny break, but your mouth will get unbelievably dry. When I said I needed a drink and took a sip from the bottle, everyone chuckled. Even this small thing will make you look personable.
8) If you have visual aids–old photos, costumes, etc.–use them to break up your talk.
10) Don’t practice in front of your family! It will turn out badly and you will lose any confidence you had.
11) Think about your presentation with your heart, not your head. You’re passionate about your novel, right? Use that!