The Writer Who Speaks

Blogger: Cynthia Ruchti

Writers speak. Speaking in public remains a perennial item on the list of things-I-think-will-kill-me-or-worse for many people, writers included. A writer who is able to communicate clearly on paper does not instantly translate into a natural speaker.

speak podiumBut writers are often asked to speak. For library events. At writers’ conferences. In front of book clubs. Or as a keynoter for a topic-related event on which the writer has a level of expertise.

Literary agents don’t serve as speaking agents. But we care about our clients and blog readers and their success when called upon to speak.

Preparing a talk or a keynote address is not so different from writing a book. With a few exceptions, you’re probably already working on the skill set it takes to prepare a meaningful speech. We’ll address the process of speaking in an upcoming blog post. Today’s blog focuses on creating the talk.

Know your audience.

Who are they and what do they expect? Information? Encouragement? Inspiration? Answers? Entertainment? Usually, it’s a combo. Most keynotes lean more heavily on encouragement and inspiration than a workshop or topic of expertise, which leans toward teaching or instruction.

Every speaker, like every author, has his or her own “voice.”

If speakers sound like each other, we could keep using the one speaker for every event and workshop. Don’t worry if your style and delivery is different from other speakers you appreciate. You have unique gifts and a unique story to tell.

What’s the point?

There’s usually one overarching theme, as with a novel. Keep that point in mind. If the anecdote or Scripture passage you’re using has lots of other information in it, trim until you as a speaker and your listeners can clearly define the theme, moral to the story, or action step.

The first line or paragraph needs to be memorable, just as with a novel.

If that opening is memorable or gripping, funny or heart-tugging, both the speaker and the audience will be in it for the long haul.

Incorporate stories/illustrations you can tell without looking at your notes.

The stories or anecdotes should all support your point. If they do, they should serve to connect you to your audience.

Like a novel, your talk will need a beginning, middle, and an end, plus a resolution that ties up any loose ends you created.

Make what you say a conversation starter for your audience members…something to talk about. And easy for them to remember.

speak microphone

If you do nothing else, make the audience feel good about themselves.

They could use the uplift. Keeping that purpose in mind will help keep you relaxed and focused as you prepare your talk. What’s in it for the reader? Or in this case, the audience?

Is it an encouragement to you that many of the skills needed to create a meaningful talk are skills you work with every day as a writer?

In yet one more way, everything we learn informs everything else we still need to learn.

26 Responses

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  1. When my husband was in his first seminary class on preaching, he always had a good beginning and an interesting middle. We had many a giggle about his end (or lack thereof) — the never-ending sermon. He’s mastered the end now, thankfully.
    * I’ve heard others deliver a good message, start to wrap it up with a good end . . . and continue with another thought. In my head I scream, “Don’t do it!”
    * You have lots of good ideas. Go with your best one. Leave the others on the table for your next talk. Let them invite you back.

    • Cynthia Ruchti says:

      Great counsel, Shirlee. I had a tendency to write one too many sentences before ending my chapters until a writer friend pointed out my habit. Eliminating the extra thought beyond the perfect ending strengthened my chapters and made (I trust) readers want to keep reading!

  2. Meg Gemelli says:

    “Things-I-think-will-kill-me,” Amen! My little writing office is so warm and inviting…words just flowing from the finger tips. Must I really put on real pants when my leggings are just right? On a serious note, I love workshops and small groups, but even the mention of a keynote sends me into a sweat. Growing… Great tips! Thank you.

    • Cynthia Ruchti says:

      Meg, I sometimes like to think of the keynote as a key note–one beautiful and memorable thought the audience can take with them. Everything else is story leading to or undergirding that one thought. I cuts the task down to size!

  3. If you can afford it (It’s actually one of the less expensive options), I highly recommend the Leverage Speaker Conference headed up by Kathi & Roger Lipp with Communicator Academy. It is still young (I attended the 2nd one, and the 3rd is scheduled to kick off in about three weeks) but I can assure you, it comes off as a much more mature conference with the combined decades of expertise and experience of those who lead and coach. I have been speaking before audiences ranging in size from single digits in size to those in the thousands over the last 30 years, and I can tell you, even with all that experience, I learned SO much from this conference. I don’t mean this to come off as an advertisement, but really, it is that good.

  4. Great tips, Cynthia! I always loved public speaking, ever since my schooldays when a piano recital went horribly wrong and I had to explain to an audience (invisible beyond the footlights, but I could hear them out there, breathing like some great composite beast) that I was actually NOT a comedy act.
    * Some thoughts:
    – Dress comfortably. I made tight black jeans, a bright t-shirt, a white dinner jacket and wraparound Oakleys my trademark. I felt good in them, and could speak more freely.
    – Make sure you have water, and don’t be shy about taking a sip. Hearing someone’s voice go hoarse from a dry mouth is kinda gross.
    – Use visuals when you can, and make sure that they are compatible with the projection system. You don’t want to find yourself saying “Well, if you could see this slide, here’s what you’d be looking at…”. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.
    – Have a watch on the podium, one that you can read at a glance. Having the moderator cut you short is not good.
    – Be sparing with humour; a joke that falls flat kills the momentum of your talk stone dead.
    – Speak to individual members of your audience, choosing those who look happy and receptive.
    – Be grateful that you live in a time of wireless microphones, and that you will be spared the experience of walking around while speaking, wrapping the microphone cable around your ankles, and taking a dive into the first row of seats. On the other hand, it is one way to meet people…
    – When you finish, make sure you have arranged to high-five the moderator, and then bellow, “Who’s NUMBER ONE, BABY!!!” Well, sort of kidding, there (yes, I’ve done it), but a successfully finished talk makes you feel great.

  5. I haven’t had a chance to speak this year, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I miss it. Public speaking has always been my worst fear, but it’s where I see God show up the most in my life. The “when I am weak, then I am strong” kind of moment …

    • Cynthia Ruchti says:

      Watching God show up in our weakness or uncertainty certainly makes it a glorious experience…and the glory is His. We may walk in with trepidation, but walk out with our hearts full of gratitude.

  6. Barb Roose says:

    Cynthia, I love this! It’s been such a privilege to Connect with so many incredible authors in our agency. Not only do these men and women right incredible stories, but I admire their faith, their creativity, humor and wisdom. While their audiences love the stories they are right, I think that the audiences are just as blessed by the words that they say live and in person. So, I appreciate the practical advice for any author that may dread the

  7. Barb Roose says:

    Cynthia, I love this! It’s been such a privilege to connect with so many incredible authors in our agency. Not only do these men and women write incredible stories, but I admire their faith, their creativity, humor and wisdom. While their audiences love the stories they are write, I think that the audiences are just as blessed by the words that they say live and in person. So, I appreciate the practical advice for any author that may dread the

  8. Thank you for writing about this topic Cynthia. I love both speaking and writing equally because I enjoy commicating, especially if it’s something that will benefit the listeners or readers. A long time ago, I realized people can only take so much information in, no matter how interesting or necessary the information is for the audience.
    They can only retain so much, after that they can become overwhelmed and their mind shuts down, often retaining very little if any information. But, if you give them a few wonderful pieces of information couched in stories or anecdotes, they will remember more and have been able to actually digest the information and put it to use. Plus, they’ll be willing to listen to you again, and again.
    Proverbs 25:16, ESV, puts it this way. “If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit it.”

    Yes, this verse speaks of the body and overeating something that is sweet and pleasant, but the mind does the same. As a nurse, I had to make sure information I provided patients was understood and able to be used.

    Honestly, I’m such a people lover and extrovert it’s nothing for me to talk to people I don’t know, and talk in the spot about topics. It is more challenging for me to put my behind in a chair and write. I do it because I love the finished product.

  9. I’ve never had stage fright, except sometimes after a talk or performance I’ve thought “I could have messed up!” As in Method Acting, what you think is what the audience will see. In a play, that means you think what the character would be thinking. In a talk, it means if you think about how you can help the audience instead of wondering if you’ll mess up, you won’t be scared and your message will come across to them. Hopefully, they’ll even buy your books!

  10. Funny that this post popped in my inbox right after I returned home from a speaking engagement today. 🙂

    LOVE these tips, Cynthia. I find speaking so enjoyable because it puts a face to my readers. So often we write words and don’t get to see how they might impact someone. But with speaking, we get immediate feedback in the audience’s reaction. It’s one of my favorite parts of being a published author so far!

  11. Julie Scorziell says:

    I love to speak in public and as a Bible study leader, volunteer high school debate coach, and former attorney have done so in front of small, intimate groups, judges, and even a stadium full of people (law school graduation). I don’t usually have a case of nerves, but occasionally I’ll get a solid dose of adrenaline and sometimes in the least likely places. I have found, though, that when I am well-prepared, meaning, I’ve written out what I need to say and practiced it so many times that I can essentially ad-lib from the topic headings, I don’t get nervous. Plus my speech is much more enjoyable for the audience when it sounds like I’m talking with them than if I’m reading verbatim.

    It’s also important to know that people’s attention spans are soooo much shorter today. To help keep your audience focused, try changing something every ten minutes or so. What I mean by “something” is, walk away from the podium and stand elsewhere, change the tone of your voice or what you’re saying — add an unexpected or humorous line, use a prop, or simply include the unexpected to re-engage your audience. Our brains love surprises!

  12. I love your tips, Cynthia! Thanks for sharing.

    I’m not a public speaker, but when my novella came out last fall I was asked to speak to a local group. My daughter-in-law came with her youngest daughter. Allie was three at the time. She looked around and picked the seat where she could see me the best. Her action was so sweet, and I appreciated them coming to support me. It made the entire process easier.

  13. Kimberly Duffy says:

    I love this. Your talk at CFRR was so engaging and interesting, I’ll gladly take advice on this topic from you. I actually like speaking in front of people and it’s been part of my writing goals from the very beginning.