Yesterday, I spoke to two groups – a high school English class and a church seniors’ group.  Both gatherings were friendly and exciting for me, and each presentation was followed by challenging and thoughtful questions.  Today, I’m speaking at my hometown library for their Friends of the Library meeting.  I’m really excited.

A good display of books that includes lots of copies is a wise idea.

A good display of books that includes lots of copies is a wise idea.

Because my book is about history, I have a variety of opportunities to speak – historical societies, classes, genealogical groups, etc – and each group requires a slightly different presentation for me – more about the writing process for the English class, for example, and more focus on the history of slavery and plantation for the history organizations.  Today, at the Friends meeting, I’ll have the opportunity to read a bit and share ideas about publication.

Speaking makes many people nervous, and I definitely experience butterflies. But because I was a professor for a number of years, I feel fairly confident in front of an audience and usually don’t plan each presentation precisely, leaving myself the freedom to elaborate or excise content as I move through a slide show.

Yet, even with years of speaking in front of audiences, I find myself encountering specific challenges as I promote The Slaves Have Names.

1. Disinterest – Okay, so some of my students were not all that interested in learning about writing either, but they had their grades to think about.  In speaking engagements, most people come of their own volition, which you think might make them interested, but that’s not always the case. Some are there to hear another part of the event; some come because they feel obligated to the group; some come because they know your parents and want to support you personally – but sometimes, these people are not that engaged with the topic.

I’ve found that, then, it’s my job to get them interested. I use humor – small jokes to help perk up the energy in the room – and I encourage people to ask questions as I speak.  That seems to help keep people engaged, as do photos.

2. Hostility – Unlike disinterest, hostility is much more active. In my experience, it usually comes in the form of questions – people challenging my authority or interpretation of the subject.  So far, no one has been loud or obnoxious, but it’s definitely off-putting to have some question the story you’ve shared, especially if – like me – you care about the story and the people in it a great deal.

My best approach here is the standard tool of good communication. I try to affirm their statement or question in the ways that are truthful, and then I either a) move on to another point or question or b) take another approach to explaining the original point.  It’s important, for the sake of the talk, that remain the authority, but it’s also important that people feel heard and understood.

3. Logistics – I’m a planner. I like to know where things are happening and when before I get to an event, but not all organizers are planners.  So it’s important to try to be as accommodating as possible while also being sure to get the information you need to be able to present effectively.

When setting up a speaking engagement, I find out 7 things in advance:

  • Where is the talk?
  • When it is?
  • What time should I arrive?
  • For long should I plan to speak?
  • Is it possible to share a video or slide show?
  • How many people are they expecting?
  • Would they like me to sell books?  (I always phrase this last question in this way so that it seems like an opportunity for them, not just a sales spiel from me.)

These 7 things help me prepare my thoughts for the day and allow me to arrive without hurry and set up my space.  I try to arrive 15 minutes before they’ve told me just in case I get lost or need to carry lots of things to the room. (I wait outside casually with a book if need be.) I put my books out – if I’m selling – before hand with a sign that includes the price so that people don’t have to ask or feel embarrassed about determining if they have the funds available.  I also always have a note pad and pen available to jot down questions that I’ll research and send information on and to sign books if people wish. (I always ask if they want me to sign and if they want the book inscribed to someone.)  Finally, I have business cards to distribute if people wish to email me.

Being prepared for disinterest, hostility, and the logistical demands of the meeting and space helps allay my nerves and meet the needs of the group to whom I’m speaking.  Every presentation has its highlights and less than ideal moments, but I enjoy and am grateful for every opportunity.  Every single one.

What do you do to prepare for a book talk or reading?  Any tips you’d like to share?