A friend of mine who recently published a book is giving a bookstore reading in a couple of weeks, and wrote to me the other day to ask me if I had any tips. I had plenty, since I gave a couple of dozen such talks while promoting The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, so I sent him a long e-mail crammed with advice. It occurred to me that some of you might possibly find it interesting, so I decided to post it.
If you’ve ever seen me give a speech, you can judge for yourself whether I practiced what I preach!
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A speech–and this includes a reading–is a performance. It’s theater. The people who came to hear you don’t want you to shamble up to the podium, mumble a few unintelligible introductory words, open up a store copy of your book, and stick your nose in it for the next half-hour. They expect you to look and sound prepared–and you’ll feel more comfortable if you do.
To that end, here’s how I do my readings, step by step:
(1) Don’t read too much. No matter how good your book is, you don’t want to spend all your time reading from it. You also need to make direct contact with your listeners, which is harder to do when you’re reading out loud from a text written for the eye, not the ear. If you’ve been asked to perform for thirty minutes, speak for ten, read for just short of twenty, then deliver a prepared coda at the end of the excerpt from the book.
(2) Write your speech out word for word. If you’re an experienced public speaker accustomed to working from sketchy notes, fine. If you know you can wing it like a virtuoso, more power to you–but in either case, you wouldn’t be asking for tips from me. If you’re anybody else, write the speech out word for word, then practice reading it aloud until your delivery sounds natural and conversational. (See below for instructions.) Otherwise, you’ll get lost in a thicket of likes and you knows and ers and ahs–and you’ll talk too long.
Which brings us to
(3) Time the speech exactly. Do not under any circumstances exceed your allotted time. In fact,
(4) Never speak for as long as you’re asked. In my experience, thirty minutes is ideal, especially if you’re new at this. Go on for much longer and people will start to squirm, which is contagious. If you’re asked to speak for forty-five minutes (including the reading), hold it to a half-hour, then go straight to questions from the audience. You don’t have to ask permission from the presenter!
(5) Choose a fairly self-contained excerpt from the book. It doesn’t have to begin or end neatly–you can set up the excerpt as needed in your introductory remarks–but do take care that what you read will be intelligible to those who haven’t already read the book. (Don’t be afraid to leave ’em hanging at the end!)
(6) Don’t read from a printed copy of the book. Not only does it look awkward, even unprofessional, but too many things can go wrong (i.e., dropping the book and losing your place). Instead, I printed out my speech and reading text in a single manuscript set in large, bold type, big enough that I could read it without my glasses if need be.
(7) Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse! Read the speech and the book excerpt aloud, at least twice and preferably in front of somebody else. Then pay close attention to what they tell you.
(8) Strive for vocal emphasis and variety. Most authors are ineffective in front of an audience because their delivery is dull. The goal is to sound like you’re talking informally, not lecturing (and that includes whatever passages you choose to read from the book itself). Each sentence should have its own point of emphasis. Find it and mark it in your manuscript. Don’t trust your memory–underline key words, or highlight them in boldface. And be sure to keep your energy level high. If you don’t sound excited, your listeners won’t feel excited.
(9) When you can, look at the audience. You don’t have to look at them all the time, though. If you’ve done what I told you to do in (8), your oral delivery will be sufficiently varied that you can hold the audience’s attention without making constant eye contact. Still, do try to look up from your speech at least once on every page. The more direct contact you make, the more books you’ll sell.
(10) After you’ve read the speech out loud, change it. A speech is written to be spoken. The point of reading it out loud in advance of the performance is to discover what sits naturally on your tongue and what doesn’t. Remember that the audience isn’t following a printed copy. They must understand every word you say. Whenever you stumble over a word or have difficulty picking your way through an over-complicated phrase, change it.
While you’re at it, don’t hesitate to change the text of the book excerpt if you find you have similar problems reading any part of it out loud. Your listeners won’t know the difference. (You can also make cuts without telling them.)
(11) Start with something funny. I know, it’s the biggest cliché in the world, but it really does loosen up the audience–and you, too, which is at least as important.
(12) When quoting someone else for more than a phrase or two, hold up a page of the printed speech and “read” from it. This is a visual aid intended to make it obvious to your listeners that you’re not reading your own words. It’s amazing how this will increase audience comprehension.
(13) If at all possible, e-mail copies of your speech to the various presenters before leaving town. This isn’t so they can review it and ask for changes–it’s to ensure that there’ll be a copy of the speech on hand in case you lose, misplace, or forget yours. (That happened to me once, in Philadelphia. Don’t ask.)
(14) Before you leave town, double-check your printed copy of the manuscript. Make sure it contains each numbered page and that the pages are in the correct order. Do the same thing before you leave your hotel room to go to the place where you’re speaking. Do it every time. The one time you forget to do it is the time that pages 16 and 22 will be switched, thus causing you to crash and burn.
(15) Arrive early enough for a soundcheck. Don’t trust the presenter. Make sure there’s a podium (yes, it’s happened to me), that it’s deep and wide enough to hold your manuscript, that the sound system works, that the microphone can be raised to an adequate height, and that there’s a glass of water–without ice–within easy reach.
(16) Never apologize for being nervous. The only time you should do this is if you are visibly nervous, in which case a self-deprecating remark will help to put the crowd on your side–but only do it once.
(17) Never apologize for stumbling over a word. Correct it, then move on.
(18) Make sure the audience knows when you’re through. You don’t have to say “thank you.” Just pause, then lower your head. That way they’ll start clapping.
(19) Be sure to allow enough time for questions. If the presenter doesn’t oblige, take matters into your own hands. Audiences love to ask questions (except for students–they usually clam up tight, especially in a classroom setting).
One last thing:
(20) Be polite with hecklers–but be firm. If you’re polite, the audience will back you all the way. That gives you permission to be as firm as necessary. Point out that other people also have questions to ask. If you run afoul of an obsessive, over-persistent questioner, politely suggest that he speak to you privately afterward, then go straight to the next question.