Monday, 1 August 2011

Writer - or performer? Aaaargh!

An evening or so ago I sat amongst fellow writers at a monthly meeting. Some, like me, prefer the dark side. Others enjoy travel or script-writing. We have poets and non-fiction journalists, self-published authors and those who write purely for their own pleasure.

All is well. All is calm. Until I am 'encouraged' to read my work out loud. Suddenly (you can hear my panic; 'suddenly' is one of those words I've always been taught to avoid, like 'nice' and 'was') my heart palpitated. My normally-still hands began to shake. My mouth - OK, OK I'd had a glass of wine - laboured grey as cardboard; any juices lingering on my tongue were sucked dry. Even my vision became blurred.

What the f***?

Now, I have always had an inherent fear of speaking in public - oh yes. Doesn't matter how much I know my subject, or how comfortable I am with an audience... it means nothing.

I'm very aware that in conversation - with people I know and even those I don't I can ramble for England and probably sound lunatic. So for that I apologise - but - is it a surprise that this is why I write? This is my communication method of choice; this is where I can articulate rather than blab and burble. If I do espouse the thoughts that tease my head then people usually politely turn away  - and that's how I discover I am talking crap. Makes you kind of paranoid, but then... what the hell.

So. My question for you - writers or not - is how do you cope with speaking in public? I am not interested in method - I know all about pitch and pause - I want to know how you overcome self-confidence issues. How, when you read your fiction or verse out loud in the comfort of your own home, and it sounds so fab do you stop the subsequent monotone delivery that bears no resemblance to your private performance?

If you are a serious writer, at some stage you will be asked, or will need to promote your work by doing readings at book stores, libraries, public spaces and even theatres. Have a heart, think about it now...

Answers on a postcard, or below - please:



  1. Public speaking *shudder* One of the main reasons I haven't joined a writer's group.

    I write, I don't speak!

    Although people who know me would laugh their socks off at the suggestion of me being shy and quiet.

    There are a few levels to this.

    People I’ve known for a while – chat like it’s an Olympic sport
    People I don’t know that well – small talk (or big talk if drunk)
    People I don’t know – mumble, mumble, mumble
    Public speaking – wee myself and run away

    Although a good secret for public speaking is vodka. I have to admit I’ve used this technique before even going as far as sneaking in a plastic bottle of vodka to sup at before a college talk…who would have thought! A horror writer with a dark past!

  2. Lil, oh, Lil.

    It's toughie this. I've not had the 'pleasure' of reading my work to anyone other than me mum as yet. But I can imagine it being embarrassing initially. However, in the past, I've had to do public speaking at work and every time I absolutely shit me-self! Deep breathing and psyching yourself up helps, but it sounds like you were asked impromptu, so you just got the inevitable surge of panic.

    It's just something you can only master (or be able to do reasonably) by actually doing it. No magic wand on this one - your confidence builds each time. In the end I spoke at conferences in front of up to 500 people, but my heartrate was off the scale! :-)

    No doubt an author can give you a better writer's perspective, if any are reading...

    Be prepared, is the best I can offer.


  3. I have a somewhat skewed take, as I went through University to be an actor. (Wish I could say it worked out; but I was on TV once, so there's that.)

    What that says about me is that I enjoy public speaking, and since I've been writing, I've had one "reading" event. But the trick? Ah. The trick.

    At one point, and I don't know if it was taught, or learned through experience, you come to realize that from the first, most of the people that are watching you speak, are pulling for you. They want you to do well. They want to be entertained, enlightened, whatever.

    Practically speaking, keeping the above in mind, I've always tried to pick a few friendly looking faces out as I go, and flit around. You can't stay on one person too long, as it'll pull you out of your groove. From a reading perspective - you have one additional advantage in your pocket, in that you can usually buy yourself a break to look down at your notes.

    If none of that is working, try this - foreheads and eyebrows. What's to be scared of among foreheads and eyebrows? Nothing, and people still think you're looking them in the eye.

    Note that I did NOT mention the old "visualize them in their underwear" bit - you're a writer, with an vivid imagination, so that way lies madness.

    Oddly enough - despite being rather easy with "performing", I'm entirely in league with Steven when it comes to socializing in person. If I don't know you, I probably still won't by the end of an evening.

    Gah - gone too long again. Shutting up now!

  4. Thank you, all.

    Steven - at least we're in the same speaking to other people club.

    Col - 500 people - I'm trembling at the thought! I run training courses at work, and I'm fine doing those (but then there are only 8 delegates) but doing a presentation to anyone - colleagues or managers - is a different matter completely, however well-prepared I am. I feel like a gibbering idiot and forget everything I know.

    Chris - an actor, huh? My few youthful experiences on stage haven't been pretty, in fact I'd probably go as far as to say they were disasters. So maybe there's a deep-seated set of memories that need to be outed and dissolved. And when you say "you can usually buy yourself a break to look down at your notes" - I can't recite to save my life. Never have been able to. My memory is horribly poor. So you see, it's not sounding good, is it?

    I think I was born without the verbal wit gene; my close friends and hubby are all people who can make me laugh myself sick, but I can't do that. So perhaps that's another fear factor.

    Is it about feeling judged? Maybe.

    You know what? I think I need therapy! Seriously, some NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) might be worth thinking about. Now I just need to sell enough books to be able to pay for it!

    Thanks guys. Has anyone else any advice or experiences they would like to share?

  5. Well, actor-me likes to do it in public ;)

    I´m completely comfortable speaking in public, I even enjoy it (and sometimes get a kick out of it).

    But! Reading my own stuff is another thing. Then it gets deeply personal and I get all sorts of physical symptoms (increased heart-rate, sweating, crazy voice...) And it´s just because it´s so personal -- me standing there "naked" in front of people. I know they most likely want to hear what I have to say and will be kind, but still!

    I´m in complete awe of those who manage to sing their own personal songs in public, I could NEVER do that!

  6. I was really surprised to see you post this as, having not met you but having read your stuff, you come across as someone who would be brilliant at this.

    I agree with the others and particularly with Col about practice/preparation (where possible!) and with what Chris says about your audience rooting for you. Additionally, you will make more sense and ramble less than you actually feel you do.

    As you know, I podcast. So each month I get up there and talk about books, etc (with no physical audience though) and as I talk I think I'm waffling, sounding insincere, coming across a prat. Then I listen back and realise that a lot of it was all in my head. I find that my self-critic is often the harshest one.

    If you feel confident enough, then ask some loved ones to listen to you read and ask for honest feedback. Make sure they specifiy positives as well any negatives; just like getting feedback on writing. That's always been the joy for me of Friday Prediction as it is a 'safe place' to try writing without getting panned.

    Not sure if that helps or not (hope it does) but I think it's just a case of overcoming your own personal critic and the nerves that criticism creates.

  7. Asuqi, it's so wonderful that you enjoy speaking in public and get a kick out of it. But yes, I agree, reading one's own work does feel like you are laying yourself open, baring yourself (although if I really did this my audience would recoil in genuine horror!) I think I might take the risk of asking if I can read someone else's work at the next meeting - almost as a kind of test.

    Phil; interesting. People I know at work are always surprised too; they all think I'm super-confident - which I'm not. Maybe it's because I wear too much make-up and 'have an opinion' lol. It occurred to me when I was reading your comments about your podcast (which I vow to listen to - must dig out my headphones) that I don't really know what my voice sounds like. Maybe I should start recording the odd piece and upload it to The Feardom.
    Thanks for your suggestion about reading something out to a loved one; I think only my husband would be truly honest because he understands me. He's agreed - even that makes me nervous! But then I used to read Camus to him in French, and funnily enough had no qualms about that whatsoever. But then I didn't write it - French or not.

    Thanks everyone; your comments are invaluable. I really appreciate them.

  8. Five years ago in the part of the world where I don't hide behind William, I had to speak to an assembly of 500 plus Police Officers and solictors. Mid presentation I discovered I had a vocal tick, which meant I punctuated every sentence with the sound "Hurumpmfff" then a nerve in my cheek started throbbing, and I felt I became MR freak show. Afterwards I was taken for a drink by my Managing Director, who congratulated me on my presentation. I think everyone's right in that people are willing you on and are on your side.

  9. Wow, you have some great tips and advice here, Lily. Go Chris and Asuqi!

    I've taken public speaking in college, and of course, many of the end-reports in other classes had to be shared with the class, but I'm still not comfortable with it.

    However, I'm eager to meet other writers, love to socialize, and at the end of an evening, unlike Chris, you and I will know far too much about each other!

  10. William - an interesting lesson here, that others aren't necessarily seeing what we are experiencing when we present - which is a relief! Thank you for sharing this.

    Erin - when shall we get together? :)
    I'm OK at socialising with people I know, even vaguely but find it hard to strike up conversations with people I've never met before. I'm getting better at that though. Again it's perception - I was called a snob at school and college - but I wasn't being aloof, just unsure of myself. I never smiled much until I met my husband and he taught me how to be happy - maybe I looked permanently malcontent. These days I smile nearly all the time - so that's probably why people think I'm confident?

    I'll tell you what - this is the best therapy! Thanks guys.

  11. you know your subject, they don't. You are one up on them from the start. I went to Carisbrooke Castle recently to talk about Sir Edward Woodville and his disastrous campaign in Brittany (440 island men dead, and Sir Edward too, one boy survived the slaughter)I just kept looking at all the different faces, watched how they were getting involved in the talk, sidelined into Sir Antony Woodville (my hero, hence my user name) and got them laughing over some of the anecdotes of the Woodville family, because I really really want to bring this part of history alive. I really am passionate about it, I can go on about it forever, if you give me the opportunity, so standing up and talking gives me no problems at all, it's 'here's another chance to spread the word.' Lose yourself in what you have to say more than thinking about how you will be received. I will be leading the meeting Sunday week, introduction, prayer and reading, not sure if I will do a mini talk to start with the clairvoyance, but either way, it comes easy now. I do recall, though, giving a talk to a bunch of writers in London and having to sniff Frankincense oil for courage ... that was a while ago. Now it is really losing yourself in your topic, whatever it is. You will find the audience rooting for you.

  12. I recently received feedback as a trainer. I had a class of 10 and I was passing on my extensive (cough!) knowledge of a certain application.

    I was basically described as having the most boring voice in Christendom.

    (I was bored, the subject was boring, my training manager frowned onanything vaguely humourous as being un professional)

    So, dear Lily, know that there is always someone worse than you. You'll be fine!


Lily Childs is a writer of horror, esoteric, mystery and chilling fiction.

If you see her dancing outside in a thunder storm - don't try to bring her in. She's safe.