The power of the spoken word

First, to pick up on the last blog post, how has it been the past week to be back in a place where I used to do so much work? Actually, despite my fears, it’s been great. There are enough people here who still remember me and our time together, and it’s been lovely to see them, even if only for a few minutes. But if I’d left it much longer to return, it would have been too late, so the timing was about right and can’t be repeated.

Secondly, I’ve realised that what people remember, about me or anyone else in the public arena, is not the written word, but the spoken. The events of the past week have reinforced that too: we long to hear words at time of tragedy or uncertainty, not just read them. The human voice has immense emotional power and subtlety. Used well it can move, to tears, to anger, to inspiration. It can also reveal discomfort and insincerity, the tone and timing sometimes belying the actual content.

Can we learn to speak effectively, or is it a gift? For me, relying on my voice over decades in my education work, what seems to matter most is to clear my mind of everything that would come between the words in my head and their expression. Only then will the connection between me and my ‘listeners’ be as close as it needs to be. The words in my head come from careful thought, over an extended period of time, and maybe a few notes which may be discarded or used only as an occasional prompt. Never read, never look down for more than a second, look at people, connect with them, speak freely, let your mind elaborate and make connections.

Don’t rush, hold a silence if you want to, make the words count.┬áSpeaking freely and without notes has a cost: sometimes things don’t come out exactly as they should. A story or a joke may bubble up and can’t be contained, even though some might find it inappropriate. If that happens, apologise, but not too much.

It’s been interesting to discover that what people heard me say is what they remember most, and gratifying to realise that most of it is positive. I’m pleased that some remember my words as both thought-provoking and funny. In a few weeks I’m heading into the first draft of a new novel, which will mean a intense focus on the written word, not the spoken. What I will need also is the chance to speak about what I’m writing and learning, and to savour those precious opportunities.

Advertisements

Doing a ‘talk’ about writing and books

In the past month I’ve done a number of ‘speaking engagements’ with local organisations about my books, both the content and the writing and publishing process. Being a self-published author I welcome and need such opportunities to promote my books directly, as the ‘normal’ channels of commercial publishing are closed to me, although authors who do have a ‘normal’ publisher tell me that they too have to arrange most of their own promotion. I really enjoy talking about my writing work and people tell me I do it well. I’ve been trying to work out what I do that seems to be appreciated.

It took me a while to realise that all I’ve learned about ‘presenting’ as a teacher over the past thirty years can be transferred into this new part of my life. I’ve been designing and running workshops and giving talks of various lengths to various size of audience for long enough to know what works. So here are some of the things I try to do:

1. Think about your audience ahead of time. Find out who they are, what brings them together, what they’re likely to be interested in and expect. That’s not to say that you always aim to do what they expect, but it helps to know what the ‘rules’ are if you want to challenge them. For example, if some of the people in your audience are pretty knowledgeable about your topic already, ask for their questions not at the end but before you start, and then adjust your talk to respond to these questions if you can.

2. If you feel you must use an audio-visual aid like Powerpoint, do so with care and as little as possible. ‘Death by Powerpoint’ is a well-known phenomenon in all forms of public speaking and many people are heartily relieved to be able to look at the speaker and not the screen, and sit in light not in the semi-darkness often required for good definition on your slides. Slides work much better for non-verbal visual images, so leave the words to be spoken not read.

3. Outline briefly what you’re proposing to talk about, and check whether that will suit people. That would be a good time to take a specific ‘requests’: ‘is there anything within that outline that you particularly want me to talk about?’ Listening is so much easier if you have an idea what you’re listening for, and have had the chance to shape it. I’m always surprised how much people appreciate the opportunity to be involved in this way, even if they choose not to take it.

4. Be aware of the time limit you’re working to and stick to it. People have lives to lead and to go on too long puts them in the awkward position of not wanting to tell you to shut up and sit down, even though they need you to do so. If there are essential things to add and your time is up then stop, say that your time is up, and give people the option to move on, leave or ask you to continue for a few more minutes. Here again, giving them the choice is respectful and appreciated.

5. Try not to use notes and never, ever, read from a prepared ‘lecture’. If it’s an academic lecture, or very specific and detailed, you might need the information to hand to ensure that it’s correct, but the kind of talks I’ve been doing to readers’ groups and women’s organisations don’t need that level of attributable precision. It should sound more like a conversation, even if it is pretty one-sided. If you’re reading you can’t be looking at the people you’re talking to and picking up the cues and clues they give you. It’s about respect too: the people are as important as your words. They invited you and don’t want to sit looking at the top of your head or -worse still – your half-turned back as you read off a screen.

6. All this assumes that you really know your stuff, but if you’re talking about a book you’ve written yourself you have been immersed in it for months and know all there is to know about it. The more you talk about it, the more the words flow. Practice, practice, practice: if you need to practice at home with just the cat to talk to, then do it.

7. If you want to read passages from your books, the choice of what to read is too hard – I think- to do on the spot and needs to be thought about ahead of time. You can use extracts to illustrate a specific point as you make it, about using accents in dialogue for example, or writing about weather, or introducing a new character through ‘show don’t tell.’ Plot spoilers are out, of course, and in a good book there might be quite a few extracts that fall within that category and have to be avoided. Some extracts might have particular relevance with or resonance for a particular audience: in my local fiction people love to hear mention of a place or event that they recognise. Once you’ve decided on a short list of extracts, mark them up carefully so you can find them fast, and don’t attempt to read them all, making your final choice according to the people you’re talking to, the circumstances, and what you decide at the time would be most suitable. Two or three extracts, of a few paragraphs each, no more, will be enough. Here again, practice reading them ahead of time. Even though you wrote the words yourself, speaking them out loud for an audience is an art form in itself. Too fast or too slow and your listeners tune out. And leave them wanting more, finishing on a upturn or something unresolved. You would like them to read more for themselves, and you’re providing just an appetiser not the main meal.

8. There’s much more to say hereabout respecting and entertaining your audience, but this is probably enough for now. It’s a blog post not an essay after all. One last thing: you need to be positive toward the people you’re talking to, thank them for the invitation, and for their attention when you’re done. Talking about my books is a privilege for me, and a delight. And, incidentally, I’ve sold more books directly in this way in the past month than I have in the past year on Amazon.