Sunday, April 27, 2014

Fear of Public Speaking (or Improv at Jersey Boys)


As writers of self-published or small-press published books, we know exactly how much help will get marketing and publicizing our work: zero to none. And so, the burden is on our stoic yet sensitive shoulders to hawk our goods and knock some sense into the ignorant and unwashed in order to get them to buy our books. This means getting interviewed on blogs and websites. This means doing talk shows on AM radio stations in Podunk, who the hell knows where, at 4 AM. This means telling your story on cable TV public access stations at 6 AM on Sunday when even God's asleep. But it also means speaking in front of a live audience. This audience could be your writers group, a hip bar, a library, or even a writers' conference. I've spoken at libraries where more people have shown up to use the bathroom then they did to hear my spiel.

Public speaking is nerve-racking. It's painful to watch a nervous speaker fall apart in a presentation. There are usually signs that the dude is nervous: rapid breaths, pauses where it looks like they couldn't remember their name let alone their speech, a sudden wet stain down the front of their pants, and of course, fainting.

My wife has a terrible time speaking in front of an audience. She stutters, stammers, and worst of all, develops hives, large red splotches all over her face and arms. If you gave her a choice of speaking in front of a group or death, she’d choose the latter.

I'm not a bad speaker, but I'm not good either. I don't have the experience a best-selling author does speaking to 40 or 50 large groups a year. So I practice when I can.

Last night, Pam and I went to see the musical, Jersey Boys, at the Bob Carr Theater in Orlando. We had front row seats and the play was fabulous. During intermission, Pam went to the restroom leaving me there in front of the stage to stretch my legs. What a great time to practice my public speaking, I thought. I turned around to see 2500 theatergoers all looking in my direction. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For the next five minutes I spoke of my writing, my books, and anything else I could think of while staring in the eyes of patrons who must've all thought I was nuts. I spoke softly but gestured wildly, imagining I was at the largest writers’ conference in the world.

I tried to imagine my audience was naked to calm my nerves, but ever since McDonald's and KFC changed the shape of the American body I just can't do that anymore. It just doesn’t work unless you're talking to a convention of supermodels.  Instead,  I took deliberate pauses between sentences and thought of something relaxing, like surfing or golf.
When my children were about ten-years-old, I taught them public speaking skills by offering them a dollar if they could talk about a subject, any subject, for one minute, without saying, um, or like, or you know. The girls failed most of the time but when they nailed it, that dollar felt like a trophy to them. Now my daughters tell me the game gave them the confidence to stand up in front of large audiences and feel completely calm.

Back to the Jersey Boys. I finished with a flurry and a bow to the 2500 confused patrons, who seemed to be really looking forward to the show starting up again after the intermission.
In conclusion, if you go to a play or a ball game or a rock concert and some nerd gets onstage and pretends he's a keynote speaker, don't call Security. He's just a writer and you know how they are.