Writers: It takes skill to hold an audience

Posted 03.27.09

Writers are, by nature, independent, and solitary. Some are sociable and meet friends frequently to exchange ideas and banter. But speaking in front of an audience is not usually something we relish.

Speaking in public is at the top of most human fears, and many writers dread an invitation to give a reading or presentation.

Others are eager to accept, but they probably shouldn't. How many of us have squirmed in embarrassment as we watched a respected author mumble, stumble, shift and sway in front of a microphone?

Even celebrities often appear uncomfortable in these situations, and are poorly prepared. Actor Matthew Broderick, for example, an award-winner for both stage and screen appearances and the husband of Sarah Jessica Parker, appeared recently on a TV talk show wearing white socks with a dark suit.

Did nobody tell him the lower half of his body would be visible during the interview? I don't know about other viewers, but I was so distracted by the white socks that I didn't hear a thing he said.

Yes, how you dress is crucial. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to look like the professional you are.

That means no t-shirts and jeans. Women have to be careful about skirts that are too short to sit comfortably, men need to check the bottoms of their shoes (which are much more visible when you're sitting above the audience) and wear dark socks that stay up.

The ridiculous height of women's heels is a new hazard to avoid. You need to wear shoes that are comfortable so you can mount stairs or walk across the platform without stumbling and stand without shifting from one aching foot to the other.

Posture is important because it affects not only your appearance but also your voice. Practice standing and sitting up straight. When you lift your chest away from your waist and square your shoulders, it gives your lungs room to take deep breaths and produce a strong voice.

When your chin sinks into your chest, your throat collapses. For this reason, you need to keep anything you're reading up high enough so that you can look up, not down to your lap.

There are four tips I give to anyone who comes to me for coaching before a speech or other presentation.

1. PREPARE. Try on the clothing you plan to wear, walk around the house and up stairs in those shoes, check your appearance in a three-way mirror, both standing and sitting. Select what you plan to read or say, then print everything in a large font and paste onto 4x6 cards.

2. REVISE. Writing for print and writing for the ear are different. You may have to amend your printed material to shorten sentences, eliminate extra words and even entire paragraphs so that you end up with an engaging excerpt that is clear and pleasing to the listener. Revise speeches or other presentations the same way.

3. FORMAT. Broadcasters print their scripts with one short phrase per line. Remove all the commas, then use the end of the line to show you where to pause, inserting parentheses instead of commas when you want to lower your voice to indicate an "aside." Keep paragraphs together, even if it means one card contains just a few sentences. Break other paragraphs logically on two cards.

Before you tape your script on cards, read it aloud so you can discover any problems. These may include overly long sentences or difficult words. Don't hesitate to change these words to simpler ones. It's a wise idea to rewrite anything that is hard to pronounce. Don't give yourself tongue-twisters!

Also mark up your script to remind you how to pronounce key words or names you don't want to change. Underline phrases you want to emphasize with your voice. And use an old actors' trick and flag important words or phrases by inserting a dash on either side. This will remind you to pause slightly before saying that word or phrase, a sure way to draw audience attention.

4. REHEARSE. Your first rehearsal needs to be with a tape recorder. Listen to the tape not for content, but for voice level and diction. Two mistakes non-professionals make are to drop your voice at the end of a sentence and to drop final consonants. These can be corrected with practice.

Be careful about poor diction. Make sure you don't pronounce "picture" as "pitcher," or "probably" as "probally." Dropping final consonants is very common. Listen for how frequently you hear someone say "ply" for "plight," "blah" for "blob," "ray" for "rake." Practice over-emphasizing consonants at first, to get in the habit of putting your tongue in the proper position.

If you can enlist a friend to videotape a rehearsal, that will show you exactly what needs to be corrected. Watch the tape once with the sound off, paying attention just to body language and any distracting habits. One advantage of having cards in your hands is that you're less likely to fiddle with your hair or your clothing. If you'll be speaking without a podium, you need to tape yourself sitting in front of the camera.

Ask your friend to give you an honest critique, so you can correct any problems. You can't rehearse too much. Go over those cards so many times you have pretty much memorized every phrase.

This is your big chance to make a great impression. Don't blow it.

*** Barbara Florio Graham is the author of Five Fast Steps to Better Writing, Five Fast Steps to Low-Cost Publicity, and Mewsings/Musings, co-authored with her celebrity cat, Simon Teakettle. Their popular website is www.SimonTeakettle.com

Bobbi Graham's website has free pages and many resources for writers, publishers, and cat-lovers. Go to www.SimonTeakettle.com, and make sure you read Terzo's blog.

Copyright © 2009 Barbara Florio Graham/Log Cabin Chronicles/03.09