Tuesday, July 12, 2016

So You've Been Asked to Make a Presentation on Writing

NEWS ALERT: We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to give a big shout out to Eugene M. Gagliano, the newest Poet Laureate for Wyoming. You can go read about it on Governor Matt Mead's website. We've had Gene on the blog before and hope to bring him back for another post to learn more from him. He's a talented writer and a sweet soul. Congratulations, Gene!

We now return you to your regularly scheduled program:

by Susan

Writers regularly share knowledge with each other, and it's entirely possible you might end up standing in front of a crowd sharing yours. Perhaps you are asked to sit on a panel at a conference. Maybe you volunteer to do a free workshop at your local library.

If you're not used to public speaking, have your panic attack, and then get to work preparing. I'll blog about readings another day, but for now, let's talk about what to do when you are a featured expert.

Iron-clad rule: Deliver what's promised
Ever trotted into a writing workshop, excited because the description sounded like exactly what you wanted to learn, only to have the session veer off-track? Maybe the presenter was more interested in telling stories and making people laugh than imparting knowledge. Maybe the panel bogged down in lengthy self-introductions that took up a huge chunk of the time. Maybe you walked into a point of view workshop where the panelists inexplicably started talking about sex scenes for half of it. When someone makes the time or pays the money to see you speak, you have an obligation to them to give them value for their investment. Keep the focus on the topic at hand.

Limit the introduction
Your audience needs to know why you are standing up there with the microphone, but they do not need a blow by blow description of your entire writing career. Save the extended story for if you ever are asked to do a “meet the author” type of event.

Don't rely on the moderator
If you're on a panel, you may have a moderator to guide discussion. Hopefully, they will steer things back on track if they go off course, but not all moderators will do this. Be prepared to gently nudge the session back on topic.

A little humility* goes a long way
You bring a piece of knowledge to the table, which is why they handed you the microphone, but beware of thinking of yourself as THE expert.** Every other person in the audience brings their own piece of knowledge. This can stem from insecurity: when uncertain, it's easy to either puff yourself up or deflate. Remember that when you are asked to speak to fellow writers, you are speaking to colleagues.

Two or three main points
Your audience will not likely remember more than two or three concepts. Decide what are the two or three most important nuggets of knowledge you want them to walk away with and build your entire presentation around them.

Focus on the writing, not the writer
Yes, your writing life informs your knowledge, but it should not take center stage. Be brief when talking about how you learned something and lengthier when you share what you've learned. Someone attending a workshop wants solid knowledge they can use in their own work. If you're spending more than a third of your time talking about yourself, reel it in.

Make them laugh... maybe
No matter what you might have been taught about public speaking, you are not required to be funny. You don't need to open with a joke, especially if it's an old or inappropriate one. If you are good at making an audience laugh, by all means go for it only if you can keep on-topic. The temptation is to tell funny stories instead of imparting knowledge.

Technology can be friend or foe
Google “bad PowerPoint” and you get 25 million results. If you are going to use a visual presentation, do some research on how to do it right. (Short version: don't read straight from slides with microscopic bullet point lists.) Only use it if it truly enhances your presentation. Be aware, too, that technology will betray you. Be prepared to go without it if the computer craters.

Handouts are awesome
Even the fastest note-takers won't catch everything. Handouts allow your audience to go back over what they learned at home and apply it to their writing.

Your audience might not want to interact
Icebreakers and group work are increasingly popular in training, but they can make some people (ahem: INTROVERTS) uncomfortable. If you use icebreakers or group projects, make sure they are relevant. Your audience will be more willing to interact if you give them good reason to. Don't include these items just for the sake of doing so.

Your audience wants you to succeed***
They don't want to sit through a bad presentation any more than you want to give one. They're on your side. Remember that if you're feeling intimidated. Deep breaths. You can do this!

*But beware the “humblebrag” – ostensible complaints that aren't. Example: “I couldn't believe how stupid I was. When I got my book contract, I spilled coffee all over it. Good thing they still gave me my five-figure advance!” Don't pretend your writing successes were some kind of trial you endured.

**As my late father Orville Vittitow used to say about “experts,” an “ex” is a has-been, and a “spurt” is a drip under pressure.

***I've heard the advice to visualize your audience naked. Sadly, I did that once, and I've never been able to unsee it. Try imagining that they're all big, friendly dogs instead.


  1. I took an eight-week class at a respected writing institution here in Denver, and the teacher did everything you say not to do. each week. Very unsatisfactory. Delivering what' promised is the most important of all those dos and don'ts to me. Even if the delivery is bad, getting the good info is better than no information delivered by a polished speaker.

    1. My feeling, too, Art. I feel pretty cheated if I sign up for one thing and get another. Even if the other thing I get is entertaining, I made the time to attend based on what I was promised.

    2. I totally agree!

  2. I so agree with you, Art. There are good writers, and there are good teachers, and sometimes there's a rare individual who can do both. John Calderazzo is one of those, IMHO. But we all have some insight into the writing process to share with our fellow writers. I think Susan has set some good parameters for us to use, should we get roped into--oops, I mean invited to do a presentation.

    1. Let's agree to call it invited. ;) Thanks, Lynn!

    2. But why do I have rope burns on my ankles and wrists? ;-)

  3. All fabulous points, as a frequent attender of these presentations!

  4. Thanks, Chere!


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