Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Tale of Two Talks: Public Speaking for Writers by Kathy Halsey


The scene: a middle school gym crowded with 6/7/8th graders at 45 minute intervals on the first sunny Monday in weeks. An author with a microphone, a wooden chair, and a table. No Power point, no bells and whistles, but lots of enthusiasm and nary a peep from the crowd until Q & A time. 

Who? Author Gary Schmidt, who was unflappable and mesmerizing! Let's check out his secret sauce recipe to keeping kids engaged.
Middle grade author Gary Schmidt is used to these scenarios and knows how to work a crowd of antsy kids. (I witnessed Gary and the sixth grade group after gym and lunch. If you've ever corralled a group of kids at this hour, you know what a herculean feat it truly is.)
Gary is a rather low-key, mild-mannered speaker, but he is an accomplished storyteller. As soon as the kids sat down he said, "I'll tell ya a story." In his conversational tone, he began telling a true story about a whale going "berserk-o" as it thrashed and began dying near a barge. It was covered in fish hooks, barbs, and steel cables. Three men attempted to untangle the whale armed only with the crudest of implements. 
  
What I Observed from a Pro 
1. His introduction was very different. Kids leaned in to hear the riveting story. He did not talk about himself or his books until the mid-point of the session.
2. He asked his audience questions about what might happen next. He had them anticipating the plot.
3. Once kids shouted answers, Gary redirected their attention quickly, with a polite, "OK, stay with me, guys." Then he waited for quiet.
4. He traversed the gym floor, paced, and finally came as close as possible to the students at the tale's climax. 
5. When the story ended, he discussed WEDNESDAY WARS, but through the POV of the 6th grade Gary who hated his teacher. Kids nodded their heads in agreement as he tickled off a litany of concerns: boredom, the slow reading group, feeling different. 
5. During the Q & A, Gary repeated questions so his audience could hear, and he innately sensed when his audience grew restless.    
6. Gary Schmidt connected with his audience by relaying and amplifying how it feels to be a tween and by being himself. He spoke of drama and adventure. He did not give a speech, he engaged in storytelling and group conversation. 

Segue: My First Gig as Luncheon Speaker

Scene: A crowded hotel ballroom on a rainy Saturday. Family groups, proud/nervous student honorees for the national PTA Reflections contest, Ohio PTA attendees, and me in uncomfortable heels and a Power Point...
Who? Pre-published writer, former English teacher, judge of Reflections' compositions for middle grade

I am comfortable speaking to library groups, educators, and other writers at conferences, but this was a new kettle of fish. I knew no one and I had never been a luncheon speaker for 250 people. However, as a writer, I knew once I had a published book, I'd be on the circuit of school visits as well as more formal occasions such as this. I took a deep breath and plunged in! 
Newbie Revelations
1. Practice, practice, prepare. I had fifteen minutes to "tell my story" and I know I'm chatty. I shaved my presentation to 10 minutes via practice as I knew students would receive their awards after my speech. My long-suffering critique group timed me, too. Unlike other presentations, I practiced this one orally for 4 days beforehand.
2. Fortunately, I followed Gary Schmidt's lead and focused on my audience. Students grades K-12, wrote, filmed, created art, composed music all on the theme of story. My goal was to inspire them as young creatives, urging them to take that passion to the next level.
3. I asked my social media friends how to structure my talk. The consensus was to keep to 2-3 points, discuss each point, and repeat the theme at the end. (When in doubt, Facebook and Twitter can be a useful "hive mind.")
4. I calmed my nerves by engaging with the families and honorees. I offered to take pictures of proud families, and asked students about their work. My mind was on my audience, not me. I relaxed.
5. After the event, unexpected benefits were mine. Student writers wanted to chat with me and even take my picture. A PTA coordinator shared that I had inspired her to write for pleasure not just for her PhD.

A tale of two talks shows that authenticity, focus on others, and learning from the pros are proven ways to tackle public speaking for writers.  




27 comments:

  1. I think public speaking can be difficult for many authors--many of us are introverts. I always try to remember that, generally speaking, when you give of yourself with a good heart, people generally receive it with a good heart as well.

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  2. Linda, I know you speak and visit so many! TY for this great advice!

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  3. Good for you Kathy! I would have been as nervous as an ally cat in a dog pound!

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    1. Well, I could not eat lunch, Julianna! LOL

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  4. Thanks for this post, Kathy! Public speaking scares the living daylights out of me, so thank you for the information/inspiration!

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    1. I think it scares lots of us. Just another hoop to jump through. We can do it!

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  5. Great post Kathy! And congrats on a successful talk!

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    1. Ty, Jenny! I was thrilled for it to be done and surprised anyone wanted to take my picture. Me???

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  6. That's such good advice to focus on the audience, Kathy! And kudos to anyone who can hold the attention of middle schoolers like you've described Gary did.

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    1. Sherry, Gary was so amazing. And he teaches writing in a prison, too. MG doesn't scare HIM.

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  7. Wow, Kathy, congrats on giving this talk! It sounds like you were pitch perfect -- focusing on the audience. I appreciate your excellent tips and reminders. And just think, maybe next time you'll be able to eat lunch. :)

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    1. Ha - I might and maybe next time, I'll have book to sell, too. LOL

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  8. Great job, Kathy, for taking the plunge and then writing about it for your peers. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I am an introvert that becomes an extrovert in front of a crowd. But you kind of have to drag me kicking and screaming to the front. Thank you for these helpful tips and the reassurance that preparation leads to success. One of the most helpful things to remember: it's about the audience, not about me. Relax.

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    1. Jilanne, it is a plunge. Yes, we have to do this and it helps to get one's mind off oneself.

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  9. Great post, Kathy. Always good, to be sincere, to have enthusiasm, and to know your audience! Audience participation is good too😊

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    1. Jnaie, as a storyteller, you got this down cold, I know.

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  10. great post - thanks for sharing it!

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    1. Ty, Sue, for reading it. Had I had more time to get it together, I could have asked authors for their best speaking tips, but as you know, this one had to be up quickly.

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  11. Great post, Kathy. Since public speaking is the #1 fear of most people (at least according to lots of polls), I'd say you'd overcome yours with grace to spare. Thanks for sharing Gary's tips and telling us how you followed those tips with great success.

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    1. Gary is a master. I learned os much. Ty for reading and commenting, Anne.

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  12. Nice comparison, Kathy. I like your tip of focusing on others, not self!

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    1. The comparison came about because these events were so close...

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  13. Thank you so much for this, Kathy. Truly fantastic advise. My speakings days are far in the future, but I'll be keeping this in mind.

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    1. Imagine it, work for it, envision it and it will happen! TY, David.

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  14. I love this post and the connections you made as an author presenter! Very helpful :)

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    1. Andrea, thank you for stopping by and here's to you when you give a speech/talk/author visit!

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  15. This is good stuff on many levels. Super job. You gave us plenty of food for thought. I happen to love public speaking, but I am always eager to learn how to be a better presenter. You have given me some great tools.

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