Writing isn’t enough. Authors must also master public speaking.

New Ways to Get Naked by Daniela Vladimirova

I know you don’t want to hear it, but it’s true.

It’s no longer enough to be a brilliant writer – to craft characters and worlds, to give ideas foundations and wings. Now, (on top of being her own PR maven and marketing wiz) a writer also has to be a personality – a performer. We need to be not only the brain behind our book, but also the engine behind our sales and promotion.

It’s not an easy task, and for many writers, the toughest part is the public speaking.

There’s good news, though: You can learn to excel at public speaking … and even enjoy it.

Your “voice” is more than your words. 

When we writers talk about “voice,” we are most often referring to the elusive quality – the je ne sais quoi – that defines an author’s writing style. However, most successful writers also develop a more literal voice – the voice they use when speaking in front of live audiences.

It’s scary. I know. Most of the writers I know would rather jam slivers of flaming bamboo under their fingernails than speak in front of an audience, but speaking can play a big role in your book’s success. Whether that role is a positive one, or a negative one depends on how you develop and project your presence.

Your presence is how you stand in the world and how you interact with others.

You know a powerful presence when you see one. Whether the person is a teacher in a third grade classroom, a seasoned musician on stage, or a business leader speaking at a press conference, people with presence make lasting impressions. They have the ability to capture our attention, engage our imaginations, and persuade us to see things from their perspective. A person with a powerful presence might be called a storyteller, an orator, or simply a “people person.” She knows how to talk to people, how to make her point, how to connect with her audience in an intimate and moving way.

Do you think you have a powerful presence?

Everyone has an authentic presence – you just have to find it. 

I’ve always been deathly afraid of public speaking … until now.

When I signed on to take my friend Cheryl Dolan’s Platinum Presence workshop I had no idea it would deliver such a paradigm shift for me. I knew that speaking could have a positive impact on both my marketing and writing work, but I had never known how to get past my fear of standing at the front of the room. My knees would buckle, my palms would sweat, my voice would drop an octave and fall almost to a whisper. It wasn’t a presence that was going to capture anyone’s attention, let alone their imagination.

What I learned in Cheryl’s class is that developing your presence is less about how you deliver a speech and more about being confident and comfortable in your own skin so that you can be fully and dynamically present for others. I also learned that your success as a presenter is as much about learning to “listen” to the non-verbal language of others as it is about discovering how you can use that language to improve your own communication skills.

How to find your authentic presence:

The first step is figuring out how and when you feel your best. In the workshop, Cheryl had each of us think of a time when we really “nailed it.” She asked us to bring ourselves back to that moment in as much detail as possible – remembering the situation, what we were wearing, how we were interacting, what persona we were projecting, what it felt like to be in the “flow.” When I went through this exercise, I learned I felt best when I:

  • Had a very strong knowledge about my subject matter
  • Could move around a lot
  • Was able to put my audience at ease with a little humor and conversation
  • Took a no-drama, lets-get-this-done kind of attitude
  • Focused on the outcome (for my audience) rather than my performance

That last bit is a big part of the second step:  know your intention. Know clearly what you want to deliver and what you want to get out of any situation, whether it’s an interview, a networking conversation, or a presentation to a crowd. You need to understand what your goal is and also – more importantly – what your audience’s goal is. Then you need to find a way to bring those two things together.

The third step is learning the art and science of skilful communication.  That’s not a topic I can tackle in one humble blog post, but what I can tell you is that there are a LOT of fascinating and informative resources covering topics from psychology to neuroscience to kinetics. As Cheryl says, there are always two conversations happening – the verbal and the non-verbal. If the two don’t align, people won’t believe that you are being honest. The insights and knowledge that Cheryl shared with her students touched on the power of eye contact, how to use your hands effectively, how to trigger the happy chemicals in your brain to help calm and center yourself before any interaction or presentation, and so much more.

One of my favorite tips for boosting energy, confidence, and creative juices is bouncing on an exercise ball. I was resistant to this at first, but am now a regular “bouncer” – using it to calm my nerves, clear my head, and unlock my muse. Here’s a brief video of Cheryl talking with Pam Slim about why the bouncing works so well:

This is just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s an iceberg worth exploring further. 

I’m so excited about everything I learned with Cheryl, that I could go on and on (and on!), but this blog post is about to hit 1,000 words, and I think I’ve already taken up enough of your time. Let me leave you with this – even if you are one of those people who dreads public speaking with such intensity that you get sick to your stomach just thinking about it, you can learn to be comfortable and confident in front of an audience. Whether you engage someone like Cheryl as a coach, take a workshop like Platinum Presence, or just do some research on your own by reading books and watching other presenters (Google “Ted Talks presentation skills” for a start), give yourself the gift of believing you can overcome your personal presentation demons, and then go out and start figuring out how to whoop their butts.

As I said at the beginning of this post, it’s not enough for writers to write. Today, an author needs to be more than a scribe. An author needs to learn to use her literal voice as well as her literary voice so she can create a strong presence in the minds of her audience.

What do you think? How important are speaking skills to a writer’s success? Do you feel like you have strengths in this area, or do you struggle? Have you taken part in any training or coaching that has helped you? Can you suggest any other resources that might help people understand how to become a more powerful presence?


Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of voice and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

28 thoughts on “Writing isn’t enough. Authors must also master public speaking.

  1. I think ball bouncing works – and so doesn’t swinging, which elicits a calming affect (we used both techniques for my daughter with severe sensory issues and ADD). Balls are hard to sneak into hotel rooms and what if you’re flying?
    No good. Walking can have the same affect, as well as lightly jumping in place so the large joints are receiving input.
    I don’t have trouble focusing myself, but I struggle immensely with publicly reading my work, even feeling mildly uncomfortable in a critique group (though I force myself). I know it’s psychological and probably leftovers from my days when I used to be withdrawn and shy. Now I’m outgoing, thanks to years of training and competing in martial arts, sometimes before more than a thousand people. Even so, something about doing an author reading scares the bejeezus out of me and while performig a kata wasn’t a problem, the idea of performing a reading makes me shrivel upinside and become trembling bucket of nerves.
    Jamie – it’s like you’re a freakin’ mindreader, because last week I shot off an email to a voice coach asking for info but they only with people who do voiceovers. I thought some training might come in handy, to get myself in the mindset of being comfortable putting my author-self out there. We can’t get away with NOT engaging with an audience at some point but I lack confidence. My voice gets all shaky, my knees knock, I feel like a giant knot inside.
    Why is peforming as yourself so difficult? I still haven’t figured that out when I’m so good with people one-on-one or in small groups.

  2. A very interesting article, after yesterdays and now today this week is really good.
    I learnt to speak before I wrote, did a lot of public speaking and only started to write at the beginning of this year. Not professional writing, but for fun and with a 195 articles published, I am having fun.
    One thing I’ve never seen raised in any article about public speaking, is the scare of hearing one’s own voice, specially if using a microphone. I taught myself to get over that dreary sounding voice by rehearsing my talks in a bathroom, where the echo is almost unappealing. One does however get used to your own sounds, and that is one less worry.

    • I AGREE! Can’t stand the sound, the tone of my own voice and the Boston accent that comes through! Good way to practice, will have to try that one!

  3. Jamie, I was fortunate enough to have a mandated public speaking class in high school.
    Now years later; it is a useful tool to have in my bag.
    I really have no problem speaking in front of people, and cannot wait until I am doing it as a published author.
    We need to realize the people we are speaking to, are there because they want to hear what we have to say.

  4. Speaking doesn’t bother me — I always have opinions on things and I am a sometime-performing musician. Where I am uncomfortable is in social situations: cocktail parties and the question “What do you do?” make me want to bolt or hug the wall (My favorite answer is “As little as possible,” seconded by “Whatever I please.”).

    • LOL. The trick is to have an answer to that question that opens up a conversation you would *like* to have. I think most of us writers feel a bit defensive, either because we deeply do NOT want to talk about a work in progress (that’s me) or because we don’t want to admit to working in our pajamas (okay, that’s also me).

      So the question is, what conversation would you like to have? I’ve been reading up on body snatching in Victorian London, and I am bursting at the seams to talk about it. So when asked, “What do you do?” I might answer, “I’m a writer. Just now I’m working on a mystery set in Victorian London. Did you know that digging up a body from a grave was only a minor crime? But if you took the shroud as well, now *that* was considered stealing.” While many will flee, those who stay are bound to be fun to talk to!

      • I agree with your approach, Laura.
        Although many writers hate to face that question and go into a sort of denial about it, it’s best to really think about it. What IS the conversation you would like to have?

        Thanks for stopping by and for your addition! 🙂

  5. Toastmasters is a great place to go for coaching with public speaking. As an extra bonus for the writer, you get to hear and share many people’s stories!

  6. I took public speaking in college, and I have used the techniques I’ve learned numerous times. I’d add that the more you speak in public, the more comfortable you get – at least that’s the way it is for me!

  7. Public speaking is an essential skill for a writer for so many reasons – most of them to do with marketing. I’ve found public radio a crucial tool to help sell my own books, though it’s sometimes hard to get on it; and having a proper speaking voice is vital in such circumstance.

  8. Thank you, everyone, for sharing all your experiences and resources. Glad to hear that so many of you have found ways to make public speaking part of your toolkit. If anyone has video, love to see it! 🙂

  9. Thank you Jamie for the shout out here! A couple of quick tips: I always get a ball from the hotel gym when traveling. My client, who just flew to London for a high level interview, discovered ahead of time that her hotel din’t have a gym. Her experience with the ball is powerful enough that she deflated hers, packed it and blew it up when she got there. The interview went really well! Also most people don’t like the sound of their voices – we hear our own voice through the bones in our head, we hear everyone else’s through air conduction. I can’t recommend enough the power of recording yourself (audio and video). After @3 views you start to see the real person “show up” and see what’s working and what you want to do more of. Everyone else is seeing and hearing you so you might as well see what they are looking at and listening to! Unless you are alone, you are always public speaking!

    • Super advice. Self-observation is a critical tool in music…why not writing? I really like the comment regarding repetition: first impressions can be just as bad as no impression at all. After a few views or listens, those self-imposed walls start to crumble, and the true picture emerges…for better or worse. At least at that point you have actual access to the information…what is done with it is different for everyone. I am my own worst critic…but I’m also my own biggest fan, so…

  10. Thank YOU, Cheryl for sharing all your knowledge and passion for this topic. Great additional tips here … I wouldn’t have thought to ask a hotel’s gym for a ball!

    I agree with what you and others have said – you need to practice and give yourself multiple times to “hear” yourself when speaking. It’s not something we like naturally, but it doesn’t take long to get used to it. 🙂

    “Unless you are alone, you are always public speaking!” <— SO true! The "presence points" you teach are useful in all interactions. For a writer that might be everything from interviewing with a potential agent to talking with a bookstore about an event to having a one-on-one chat with a fan. Our presence isn't something we should have to think too hard about turning on and off … it should just be part of who we are – naturally and comfortably.

  11. The phrase, “most successful writers also develop a more literal voice” is the most telling. I, however, would put the emphasis on MOST. There’s nothing like telling a brilliant but shy author or one who is simply unwilling to speak in public that their writing alone won’t get them anywhere, thus causing the world to lose their brilliance. Of course, for all of those mediocre writers in the world (including at least two-thirds of those in the world of blogging), success is more important than excellence. I would rather search for the good writers than read only 50 Shades of Grey or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or latest vampire trilogy whose author is not Anne Rice. Besides, what happened to the work agents were supposed to do for the money they make representing authors? Sorry, but I’m really tired of the commonplace notion that popular means successful, or even good.

    • I would never want to dissuade a “brilliant but shy” writer from pursuing his or her dreams. It is irrefutable, however, that developing a strong presence will take any writer’s game to the next level when it comes to promotion, networking, and reader engagement. Whether the situation is a reading, an agent meeting, or a press interview, a writer with a confident and grounded presence will make an impression.

      Also, I think it’s important to note that “presence” does not translate to “popular.” The two are certainly related, in that people with strong presence tend to attract a following; but developing a strong presence is not as much about seeking popularity as it is about gaining the clarity and confidence that give a writer the courage to share her message in an entertaining and persuasive manner.

      Thanks for coming by and sharing your thoughts.
      FWIW, I’m not a fan of 50 Shades or the Girl series either. LOVE discovering lesser known writers – like Tayari Jones who I saw speak at the recent Muse conference sponsored by Grub Street Writers.

  12. Great responses! Thanks for the tip about getting a ball from the hotel Cheryl!
    And about practicing by recording your own voice. Good advice all around!

  13. Great article…I, fortunately, am a musician: I crave public attention and have no fear of public performance. My one piece of advice for anyone struggling with this aspect of the commercial literary world would be the following: take a voice class that includes in it’s curriculum performing in front of the class. In college I took 3 semesters from a voice teacher who made us get up in front of everyone and sing a new song each week. Not only did it encourage constructive criticism, but I saw it break down a lot of fellow student’s stage fright. It really works, even if you can’t really sing. Of course, my guess is that this advice is best suited for those of you closet singers out there: in the car, the shower and anywhere you can do it unobserved. I took the course to improve my vocal skills, but a distinct side effect was a greater comfort in public stage settings. Hope this helps. -BBW

    • I agree that voice lessons can have a big impact on confidence. I took voice for my singing, and it was an eye-opening experience to learn about the mechanics of how our voice works. My analytical mind went to work trying to improve my performance and technical approach to speaking, and – somehow – that took my nerves down a few notches. Maybe it’s just me, but having some knowledge about how my voice works, gave me more confidence in general. Also, as you say, the part of the class that required me to perform in front of others was excellent practice in wearing down my nervousness.

  14. Pingback: Friday Fun – Anxiety and Comfort Levels with Promotion | Live to Write - Write to Live

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