A Shy Person’s Guide to Public Speaking

I have always been what you would call “shy.” I feel nervous meeting new people (even online!) and a little awkward in most social situations. But I’ve always tried not to let that stand in my way, especially when it comes to my writing. Whenever I’m offered an opportunity to talk with people about writing and books, I take it, even if it makes me nervous. Over the years, starting back with the mandatory presentations in high school and university, I’ve found ways not to work around the shyness so it’s not so problematic.

Since shyness seems to be a pretty common trait among authors, and among readers too, it occurred to me that some of my blog readers might find it helpful if I shared what works for me. πŸ™‚

Know what you’re talking about.

The more confident I am in my understanding of a topic, the easier it is for me to talk about it. I know I’m not very likely to say something totally off about, say, how I got published, given that I know that subject inside and out. If I’m going to be talking about something I don’t feel I understand thoroughly, I do some research ahead of time until I do. And I try to stick to topics I already know quite well, when I have a choice. (Thankfully, there hasn’t been much call for me to speak on nuclear physics or gourmet cooking.)

Rehearse, but don’t memorize.

If I’m doing a talk, I practice giving it to an imaginary audience (in some cases, my cats) beforehand. Once I’ve gone through the points I’m going to cover a few times, the material starts to feel familiar, and less daunting. I catch any phrases or ideas that I tend to stumble over, and find ways to rework them. I notice sections that seem ramble-y or disconnected and take them out or fix them. So when it’s time for me to talk to actual people, I can go in comfortable with everything I’m going to say. And I’m able to actually look at the audience while I’m presenting, because I have the main points memorized.

That said, I don’t believe in memorizing an entire speech. I find that trying to remember the exact wording of every sentence in which order puts me under more pressure, not less. I also think that allowing for some variation and spontaneity allows the talk to sound fresh even though I may have practiced it five times before. I’ll have an outline ready so I don’t have to worry about forgetting where to go next, and for specific names or quotes I need to remember exactly, but because I make sure I know the general topic well (see tip one), and because I’ve practiced phrasing the most important parts, I can often get through a 10-20 minute talk only glancing at that outline a few times.

Bring props.

When I visit with a school or library group, I almost always have a PowerPoint slideshow to supplement the presentation, with slides for each of the key topics including a few important points and a picture illustrating what I’m talking about. If I’m doing a talk that doesn’t allow for PowerPoint, I make sure to bring more concrete props: books, samples of my writing process materials (outline index cards, notebooks, red-inked manuscript pages), that sort of thing.

Props are helpful in a few ways. In general, they make your presentation more interesting by giving your audience visuals as well as words. But they have an extra benefit for the shy person: they give you something to direct people’s attention to other than you. I’m most nervous when I know that the audience is focused solely on me. Being able to point them to a photograph, or hold up a book so they can check out the cover, means that I’m not carrying the full weight of their attention anymore. They have other things to look at too! Having props on hand can also be reassuring — you know they’ll remind you of the things you wanted to talk about if you have a brain freeze, and they give you something to do with your hands other than fidget (if you’re inclined to do so otherwise).

Take your time.

When we’re nervous, our tendency is to talk quickly — to try and get it over with, I think! But barreling through a presentation not only makes it less pleasant to listen to, it also tends to make you feel more anxious, because you’re keyed up. So I try to remember, both when I’m practicing and when I’m doing the actual talk, to speak at a calm even pace and to allow pauses for emphasis (and to breathe!). Talking calmly helps keep me calm. And it generally pays off in a better response from the audience, which is also confidence-building. πŸ™‚

Related to this, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard relating to public speaking is to always pause when you feel the urge to say “um” or “ah.” Little verbal tics like that can make it sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about. But if you pause silently while you reach for that word that’s on the tip of your tongue (and, again, breathe!), it just sounds as if you’re being thoughtful in your speech. And then you don’t start having embarrassed thoughts like ack, how many times have I said “um” in the last minute? which can throw you off.

Accept your limitations.

By doing all of the above, I think I usually come off as a competent public speaker. But the nervousness is still there, even if muted, and sometimes I still stumble. I also find improvised talks — like answering questions, or being part of a panel discussion — incredibly difficult. I’m a writer, I’m used to being able to revise my thoughts a dozen times before anyone’s exposed to them, I don’t string words together all that well in the moment. I sometimes realize after I’ve spoken (or while I’m speaking) that I’ve rambled on too long or pronounced someone’s name wrong or not entirely made sense.

There are two ways you can respond when you realize something like that. You can dwell on it, berate yourself for looking foolish, and make yourself even more tongue-tied. Or you can remind yourself that it’s no big deal. No one’s perfect, and most of the time the people listening won’t even have noticed what seems so horribly off to you.

I go into any unscripted speaking situation knowing that I’ll probably trip over my tongue at least once or twice. I know I can do that and still say useful, interesting things as well. I know that I’m doing my best, and my best isn’t perfect, and that’s okay. Which takes some of the pressure off, and means I probably fumble less than if I went in trying to be a perfect speaker.

Those are my tips — how about you?

I’d love to hear how my shy blog readers deal with their scary speaking situations!


A Shy Person’s Guide to Public Speaking — 14 Comments

  1. Great tips! I’m really shy, too, so what helps me is thinking about different personas for different situations: a teacher persona, an author persona, etc. When I do events, I leave the shy me at home. πŸ™‚

  2. First off, Megan, I’ve seen you speak twice now, once at CANSCAIP and once at DarkLit Fest. (Enjoyed both very much.) You don’t look nervous when you speak. I guess you’re really good at faking it!

    I’m nervous in front of crowds, too, so I will be trying out your great advice and strategies. I especially liked the point about pausing before saying ‘um’ or ‘uh.’ I’ve never thought about trying that when I’m stuck for words.

    I use props when I can, too, especially when standing up in front of 100-odd writers at WCDR monthly breakfast meetings. (In case you didn’t know, that’s the Writers’ Community of Durham Region, a huge group of writers based in Durham Region, just east of Toronto.)

    I often turn the promotional announcements I’m responsible for into humorous little skits that I prepare and rehearse in advance. The schtick makes it easier to keep my mind off the sea of faces.

    Before I do readings, I read the piece(s) aloud over and over and mark up places I want to give emphasis. It helps me remember both WHAT I want to read and HOW. I also try to read publicly whenever I can.

    I’ve been told I look relaxed and confident, so I guess I’m an expert at faking it, too. I may never learn to enjoy standing up in front of people, but practice sure makes it easier.

    • I think we always feel much more nervous and tense than we look, which is a good thing to remember too! And practice certainly does help a lot. πŸ™‚

  3. One tip: Toastmasters.

    I used to be terrified and just plain godawful at any kind of public speaking. After that failing tanked me in a job I used to have, I joined Toastmasters and did it for about 3 years. Now, I speak publicly quite often for my new job, I’m not terrified of it, I’m pretty good at it, and I even kind of enjoy it.

    The thing about public speaking that I didn’t know before was that it is a _learnable skill_, just like bike riding or cake baking, that anybody can master. What it took for me was both the structure and the environment that Toastmasters provides, to lead me in baby-steps from where I started to where I am now.

    If you had asked me five years ago if I’d ever go so far as to seek out public speaking opportunities, I’d have asked what you were smoking. But now I do.

    • I’ve heard a lot of good things about Toastmasters. I think I’ve been hesitant to try it out because (other than not having a huge amount of free time) the idea of going somewhere specifically to do public speaking for no purpose other than to speak publicly makes me even more nervous than public speaking for the sake of sharing my books and thoughts on writing. But I do have it on my mind–may try it out someday! It’s good to hear it worked so well for you.

  4. I, too, have seen you speak twice in the past month and am amazed to learn that you consider yourself shy. It doesn’t come across at all, which is very heartening to me, actually. Great tips!

  5. I’m an attorney but a book signing with public speaking terrifies me. Thanks for the tips. I have to learn power point. I think having props will really help when I have to face my fear someday.

  6. Even thinking about public speaking makes the blood drain from my head. Yet I’ve been told I don’t appear shy. I agree most writers are introverts and many are shy. We are not natural-born marketers.
    Great post and good tips.

    • Yes, it’s too bad that public appearances are becoming so expected of writers now, given our (in most cases) natural personalities. Though I have to admit even though I get nervous about public speaking, I do still enjoy talking about writing. It’s just more fun with less pressure. πŸ™‚

  7. Hi Megan: These are great tips. The public speaking thing is such a big hurdle for people, including me. The only thing that I’m weirdly more comfortable with is panels and off-the-cuff questions and answers. When I’ve had to do the five minute presentations before the actual Q and A’s I was sweating that part of it much more than the more relaxed (in my mind anyway) after speech talk.

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