I wouldn’t say they were exactly doing that at last weekend’s Parisot (SW France) Literary Festival, but I did make the audience laugh a few times. I was there to talk about my recently-published debut novel, The House at Zaronza.
Doing an author talk and/or reading can be intimidating if you don’t have much experience. And public speaking generally is daunting unless you’re one of life’s extroverts, which I’m not. I have done quite a lot of it in past incarnations, sometimes to quite hostile audiences, but it still makes me nervous.
Here are a few tips:
Agree how the session will run with the organisers. Where is it being held? How big is the venue and how is it laid out? How long have you got? Will you take questions during or after? What are you going to talk about? Make sure you provide flattering biographical details for their introduction.
Prepare well in advance. As a last-minute merchant, I surprised myself by preparing my talk and choosing the readings a week before the event. This gives you the time to…
Practice. Getting the timing right is crucial. If it’s too short, the discussion will peter out. If you go on too long, heads will nod in the audience. Read your chosen passages out loud and check how long they take to read.
Jokes: should you use them or not? If you’re not used to cracking jokes, it’s probably better not to try. You should be yourself and not try to project a different image. However, if you feel comfortable, the odd, carefully-chosen joke can break the ice. It’s acceptable to take the mickey out of yourself, but not out of the audience.
Speak slowly. I have a tendency to go off like a rocket, so I type SLOWLY in large font across the top of my notes. If you read passages from a novel or a short story, allow dramatic pauses at appropriate places and don’t gabble.
Engage with the audience: don’t keep your head down in your notes. Look around while you’re speaking and look people in the eye. Ask the audience the occasional question that’s relevant to your talk: e.g. how many of them have read a certain book, been to a particular place, are writers themselves. That makes them feel more involved.
Question time: with luck, you will get a lot of questions. People always want to know about how authors tick. Try to give concise but informative answers. Don’t drone on and deprive some of the audience of their chance to contribute.
Afterwards: if you’re signing books or the organisers arrange coffee or drinks, continue the dialogue. For example, “You raised an interesting point about x, and I’ve had a few more thoughts.” People remember you for showing an interest.
Finally, enjoy it. Authors need exposure and visibility and doing talks and readings is one way of getting them. The audience is usually with you and wants you to do well.