Author Presentations

Authors are usually introverts, so it’s a nice twist of the knife by fate that authoring comes with lots of obligations to talk at length with complete strangers: engaging with readers at signings, chatting with educators at brunches and dinners (as I did yesterday), and giving author presentations. A lot of an author’s success can be built around having a good public presence: word-of-mouth about your public speaking ability, graciousness and charm is as good as having a bestseller or award.

I could use a few lessons on this myself, since I am not a gifted orator and although I enjoy meeting new people and talking to them, I rarely find myself leading the discussion (and socializing exhausts me more than any other task. I have collapsed after every reading & signing). I am, however, and experienced instructional designer so I am good at the planning part.

New authors pretty frequently ask, after scheduling their first school presentation or public event, what exactly they should do. If it’s a reading, you’re fine — talk about your book for a few minutes, read for about ten minutes, then take questions. But if it’s more of a “presentation,” you need a plan. I think of every presentation as “teaching” and rely on the formulas I learned as an instructional designer and instructional consultant:

  1. Have a theme for your presentation. “I wrote this book,” is not a theme. Well, it could be, but try to tease out something more meaningful, like “this is why I wrote this book,” or, better yet, “these are the real people and places you will find in my book.” The best theme will be one only you can do, something so specific to your book and your experience writing it that nobody else could give the same presentation.
  2. Learn as much as you can about your audience. Who are they? Why are they there? Did they decide to come or are they waiting for the bell to ring? Are they aspiring writers or are they just lovers of children’s books? Understanding who your audience is and what their goal is (even if it’s, “not be bored,”) is very important.
  3. What are your goals, besides convincing people to buy your book? This has been the most challenging thing for me, I admit, but if you can find the passion you want to communicate—the things you care about that motivate your books—then the audience will be moved by your passion. I have given mediocre presentations about my books when I focus on the plots. I’ve given better ones when I focused on the characters and the specific challenges/decisions they make—sometimes by accident, led by the audience’s questions—now I understand that it’s what I should be talking about. In the future my presentations will be about “the really bad choices my characters make,” or “why my characters are bad role models for children.”
  4. Break the presentation up into chunks of 5-10 minutes. Have a goal for each piece. Write it as a statement about the audience. “Talk about moving to Africa,” is a me-centric topic. “Discuss key moments in life where you can re-invent yourself,” is something the audience can connect to.
  5. Every chunk of content should be an opportunity to engage with the audience: ask them to reflect on similar experiences to the one you talked about. People love to talk about themselves. This also gives you a chance to catch your breath.
  6. Don’t do any one thing the whole time—you can have writing activities, break the group up into pairs and small groups and encourage the to visit, throw in a little trivia, whatever. Just don’t drone on the whole time.
  7. Use visual aids if you want but not the whole time. Visual aids can be great but after ten years of technical training I’ve come to love having the lights on and eye contact, rather than dark rooms and eyes on a screen. And you can give powerful presentations without visual aids.
  8. Don’t use Powerpoint (except as a way to sort and present photographic slides). Bullet points have no purpose in a book talk. I’m convinced of this.
  9. Check out the room in advance if possible so you know how to use the space. If someone is with you, check the acoustics. Know if you’ll have a microphone or not—I find the microphone puts space between me and the audience, and prefer not to use one, but it’s better than not being heard. I am, by nature, a “low talker,” so I have to be especially mindful in large rooms.
  10. Let Q&A go both ways. Sometimes audiences will keep you humming along with their own questions, but if it falls flat have some questions of your own for the audience. “Are you writers? What are you working on?” In schools I always ask what kids are reading, what their favorite books are, what books they wish there were more of.
  11. (Maybe this is just me but…) Really watch the caffeine intake. It’s tempting to drink more coffee than usual when presenting, then get all jittery and talk too fast, and your bladder starts to nudge you halfway through the presentation. Not that that’s ever happened to me, uh…. Don’t have a huge lunch and get logy, either. Or, put in a less “TMI” way, keep in mind that you present with your body, not with your plan.
  12. Don’t forget to have a bottle of water on hand. Talking is thirsty business.

I’m blogging this so when the question comes up again, I can just link to it.

Feel free to comment with your own suggestions.