When the Show Must Go On: Getting Up There In Front of a Crowd

(Headshots are so fun. Mine is by St. Louis’s Jay Fram.)

Tonight (Monday) I’ll be at St. Louis’s Contemporary Art Museum, doing a reading/appearance with poet Matthew Olzmann (whom I haven’t yet met) as part of the River Styx Reading series. I haven’t been to the Contemporary Art Museum yet, so I’m very much looking forward to it. Museums of all sorts attract me, so I suspect I’ll be pretty comfortable there.

How do you feel about speaking in public?

I used to be terrified. It’s still not easy. I mean, it’s not something I would seek out if I didn’t do it professionally. Fortunately, like so many things, it gets easier the more times you do it. And I genuinely have grown to enjoy it.

The most frightening thing about getting up in front of a group is that there’s always a chance you’ll screw up and look the fool. Here’s a clue: everybody screws up, and the only person who thinks you’re is the one jerk who probably isn’t interested in what you’re saying, anyway. So we’ve got that out of the way, right? EVERYBODY screws up sometime. I’ve forgotten the names of my own books and characters, called the person who introduced me by the wrong name, and forgotten to pay attention to what their name was so I could thank them. I’ve started reading in the middle of a story, forgetting that I needed to set the scene and explain the presence of a character or two. I’ve arrived at a gig with only one minute to spare and spent the first five minutes trying to cover while I tried to make sense of my notes. I’ve forgotten my notes. For the most part, these things are minor mishaps and easily forgotten by the audience. And I know I’ve screwed up in many more ways–but I’m blessed with a faulty memory, thank goodness.

If you’ve done a lot of public speaking, you probably already have your own habits that get you through. If you haven’t, here are a few things to ponder:

  1. Forget about picturing the audience in their underwear. That’s distracting and silly.
  2. Two weeks before the event, brainstorm what you want to say. Write it down.
  3. Prepare an outline: Beginning, middle, end. Fill in the points. You’ll find you have a lot to say when you start breaking it down into sections/categories.
  4. Know your material and practice. I’m not a fan of rehearsing for friends and family, but some people find it helpful. It’s good to go through your presentation out loud, though. Cats and dogs are excellent audiences.
  5. Eat lightly before the event if you have a nervous tummy.
  6. Dress nicely, but be comfortable. I don’t wear more than a 1 or 2″ heel in real life, and wearing stilettos for a gig would have me worrying I was going to fall over. Also, Spanx make me always have to pee. Your experience may be different.
  7. Take your own water, and don’t be afraid to pause to take a drink. No one cares. But by no means drink soda or fizzy water. Burping is awkward.
  8. If you’re including visuals, take your own laptop and connectors and make sure the program runs smoothly. Also take a copy on a separate flash drive in case the venue has its own equipment. I can’t stress this enough.
  9. Arrive 15-20 minutes before you’ll be speaking. Double that if you’re doing visuals so you can make sure it runs.
  10. Tell a joke to open if you must, but keep your audience in mind. A simple thanks for their attendance is always a good prologue.
  11. Make sure you can read your own notes.
  12. Don’t worry if you go off on a little tangent. It’s an authentic occurrence, and you have your notes in front of you if you get lost.
  13. It’s always better to go short than to go too long. People will be delighted if you end a couple of minutes early, but they will always remember you–and not in a good way–if you go on and on.
  14. Think about what it’s like to be in the audience. What would you expect?
  15. This is easy to forget: Chances are that if you’ve been invited to speak, people are excited about you being there. Appreciate that enthusiasm. Let it guide and carry you.
  16. Don’t worry if someone falls asleep. They may have been up all night with a sick child, or have sleep apnea, or are hungover. And chances are there are at least a few people in the audience who are worried that their stomach is going to rumble or they’re going to accidentally fart.
  17. Leave room for question and answer time, if appropriate.
  18. As at a wedding, things will happen and then it will all be over. It will be what it is. You can do anything for 15-30 minutes, plus Q&A.
  19. Say thank you.

That’s it. Have I forgotten anything? Do you enjoy speaking in front of groups?


March 19th  Words
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4 thoughts on “When the Show Must Go On: Getting Up There In Front of a Crowd”

  1. skyecaitlin says:

    Sending you the best wishes for the reading. I used to be afraid to speak in front of groups, until I was forced to do so for a college course. Once I began, I could not stop, and the terrifying experience was amazing for me and led the way towards my future. Who Knew? You will be just fine.

    1. Laura Benedict says:

      What a neat story, Skye. We never know when one of our passions is going to suddenly present itself. The reading did go just fine, thank you!

  2. J.T. Ellison says:

    You’re going to be fabulous, as always! I’d only add one thing to this — remember that YOU are the expert on your topic, and they’ve come to see you talk about it. Takes the pressure off.

    1. Laura Benedict says:

      That’s a terrific addition. There were lots of friendly faces in the crowd tonight, which made it even more of a pleasure.

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