A speechwriter’s tips for authors on the speaking circuit

by Cynthia J. Starks on March 3, 2013

One fall night, I drove more than 30 miles through heavy rain to a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Clifton, New Jersey, to wait in line to meet televangelist Joel Osteen,  buy his book, Everyday a Friday, and have it autographed as a present for my cousin Karen’s 50th birthday. Karen is a big Osteen fan and I knew she’d be delighted to have a personally autographed copy of his book.

Osteen sat at a desk, smiled and was polite as he signed books for exactly an hour, then left, accompanied by a few large gentlemen I assumed were bodyguards. Many people remained in line, not having made it to the desk in time.

One day I hope all good and worthy authors will be as successful as Joel Osteen, J.K. Rowling, James Patterson or Janet Evanovich. In the meantime, however, I suspect most authors are more likely to book speaking engagements, readings and book signings at libraries, community colleges, adult learning centers, churches, senior centers, before civic groups and women’s organizations. And I doubt they leave anyone in line wanting to buy their book.

How might authors approach these events to both entertain audiences and sell books?

As a professional speechwriter, I’d like to share a few tips I use in my work that might be relevant to you.

First, research your audience. I can’t say enough about the importance of this step – it sets you up for success because speaking isn’t about what you want to say so much as it is about what your audience wants to hear.

Ask the program chairman of the library, bookstore or organization to share all he or she knows about the types of people who might be in the audience. Ask what they think audience members would like to know about your writing career and book. If people have registered to attend your session, ask if you can have the names and numbers of a few; then call to ask what they’d like you to cover.

Another approach is “on-the-spot” audience research. I recently attended a women’s professional group luncheon at which an author spoke about her first published book. Before she began, she went around the room and asked each of us what we might like to know. She got some great questions, including where her inspiration came from, when she found time to write, how long it took to complete her novel and what obstacles she faced along the way. She wrote each one down and then wove the answers into her remarks.

Second, get personal. As authors, you know better than most the importance of “story.” When I write speeches for executives, I encourage them to illustrate their remarks with stories that demonstrate their knowledge of the subject, their understanding of the human condition, or their sense of humor.

Ask yourselves what stories you want to tell in your remarks. What is the impression you want to leave? What do you want your audiences to think, feel or do following your presentation? Do you want them to think you’re an interesting, knowledgeable person? One whose book they just have to read because the plot sounds fascinating or because the topic is relevant to their lives? Think of how you will lead them to that conclusion through your remarks.

Third, if you can, visit the meeting site before you’re scheduled to present there. Check out how the room will be set up, where the podium or lectern will be, or simply where you’ll be standing. Will the audience be able to see you clearly and easily? Will you need a microphone to be heard, or can you simply sit or stand and be heard by everyone who will be in the room?

I recently attended a poetry reading at my local library given by an older woman who just had a book of poetry published. I was seated only about two rows away from her, but she spoke so softly – without a microphone – that I could hardly hear her. I couldn’t tell if her poems were great or awful, and I wasn’t inclined to buy her book to find out.

Is there a table where you can place your books for sale, other literature, business cards? Do you want to bring a sign-in sheet on which to capture email addresses for follow-up marketing? Can someone make an audio or video recording of your presentation to place on YouTube or your website to further engage your audience and drive sales?

Lastly, a piece of advice I give to others and take for myself. If you want help in speaking confidently and comfortably before diverse audiences, check out Toastmasters International. Belonging to Toastmasters has helped me appreciate the art and science of speaking and has made me a better speechwriter. On a personal level, it boosts self-confidence, presents a great networking opportunity and its program meetings are just plain fun.

To sum up, then, the speaking tips I give to authors and to corporate executives are the same: know your audience, use story to add relevance and humanity to your remarks, check out the speaking venue before the event, and join an organization that will help you learn how to present with confidence and flair.

Then, one day, people will line up to get your autograph and hear what you have to say. You might even need a bodyguard or two.


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